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Republicans flock to court to show they stand with Trump

When Donald Trump’s criminal trial began, his courtroom entourage consisted of a gaggle of lawyers and campaign aides. This week, it’s started to look more like a preview of July’s Republican National Convention.

With Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s former lawyer and pivotal witness for the prosecution, on the stand, the number of prominent Republican officeholders in attendance has expanded dramatically.

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On Tuesday, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson – the top Republican in the US – met the former president at the courthouse in Manhattan, greeting him with a smile and a nod. Then, while the hush-money trial was still ongoing, he gave a brief statement to the press outside.

“I am disgusted by what is happening here,” he said, “what is being done to our entire system of justice.”

Mr Trump denies 34 counts of falsifying business records related to a hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. New York prosecutors are using a novel legal theory to argue that the alleged cover-up amounts to election interference.

Mr Johnson called the trial a “sham” and a “disgrace,” said Cohen was a proven liar, and claimed that Mr Trump was being targeted by his political opponents to keep him off the presidential campaign trail as he tries to win back the White House. He even boasted about the size of the crowd at Mr Trump’s Saturday campaign rally in New Jersey.

It was a dramatic show of support by the man second in line to the US presidency, and it came just a week after Mr Johnson survived a challenge to his congressional leadership from within his own party – a challenge that fizzled, in part, because Mr Trump repeatedly spoke out in his favour.

If the mutually beneficial relationship between Mr Trump and Mr Johnson was on full display on Tuesday, it was emblematic of how intertwined Mr Trump’s legal fate has become with the fate of the Republican Party during this election year.

A parade of US senators and congressmen, top Republican officials, and campaign aides trail in behind the former president each morning as a physical show of political unity.
Many have sat behind the former president in the courtroom or stood nodding while he has given his impromptu press statements before and after the day’s trial.

They have given their own press conferences, as well, directly challenging the veracity of the prosecution’s witnesses and questioning the political motivations of the presiding judge’s family. Those are topics Mr Trump is prohibited from addressing because of a court-issued gag order for which the former president has been fined 10 times for violating. Further transgressions could land him in jail for contempt of court.

Some Republicans, like Senators Tommy Tuberville of Alabama and Rick Scott of Florida, as well as multiple state-level officials, seem content to use their attendance to gain favour with their party’s leader and share a portion of the spotlight that the trial has generated.

Others may have more immediate interests.

This week several rumoured vice-presidential contenders have joined Mr Trump in the courtroom. The VIPs have included Senator JD Vance of Ohio, Congressman Byron Donalds of Florida and former Republican presidential candidates Vivek Ramaswamy and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.

On Tuesday, the latter three filled the first row of benches behind Mr Trump in the courtroom, as if waiting their turn to audition for the party’s presidential ticket. (They were gone by mid-morning, perhaps more interested in the cameras outside the courtroom than the testimony inside it.)

Mr Trump’s criminal trial is uncharted territory, and there is no playbook for how members of a political party should handle their former president – and their current presumptive presidential nominee – sitting in the criminal dock.

In the early days of the trial, few Republicans showed up. But after Senator Scott attended last week, a trickle has turned into a flood, only further blurring the lines between the political and the legal in the New York courthouse.

If there was ever any doubt that Mr Trump’s trial would turn into a political spectacle, that question has now been firmly answered – and the proceedings are far from over.

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