Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Florida, Nov. 8, 2023 (OSV News photo/Octavio Jones, Reuters).

Early on the morning of November 6, Donald Trump took the stand during his civil fraud trial in a downtown Manhattan courtroom. Almost immediately, the former president——who has already been found guilty of inflating the value of his assets—dismissed the case against him as a witch hunt and derided Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, as a “political hack.”

When Judge Arthur F. Engoron reminded the former president that he was in a court of law, not at a political rally, Trump berated Engoron for deciding before the trial that he had, in fact, committed fraud. “He called me a fraud and he doesn’t know anything about me,” Trump complained. “The fraud is on the court, not on me.”

Unlike the four criminal cases Trump currently faces, his civil trial is proceeding without the threat of imprisonment. Instead, the court is considering how much Trump and the Trump Organization owe in fines following Engoron’s pre-trial ruling. James, who said Trump would face penalties for what she described as his “repeated and consistent fraud against the citizens of New York,” is seeking a fine of up to $250 million and a permanent ban on Trump and his adult sons running businesses in New York.

“This is a very unfair trial,” Trump said, finally. “Very, very unfair, and I hope the public is watching.”

Less than twenty-four hours after Trump stepped down from the witness stand, the public seemed ready to move on to election-day results. Like other New Yorkers, I was monitoring an uncontested race in District 9 in central Harlem, where Yusef Salaam, a member of the Exonerated Five—formerly known as the Central Park Five—was poised to win a seat on the City Council more than two decades after his conviction in the rape and beating of a white jogger was overturned.

Salaam and Trump will forever be linked, just as they were on election night.

In 1989, Salaam and four other Black and Latino teenagers—Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—were arrested and held, without food or sleep, and mostly without legal representation. After detectives promised they could go home if they implicated the others in the group, the five teens eventually confessed. Despite a lack of evidence and what Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau later acknowledged as the “troubling discrepancies” in their confessions, all five were convicted. Salaam served almost seven years before Morgenthau agreed to let the convictions be vacated. In 2002, after a man confessed to the crime and DNA evidence subsequently confirmed his involvement, Salaam and the others were exonerated.

The now-notorious case, which occurred amidst rising crime rates in U.S. cities, drew national attention. It introduced “wilding” into the American lexicon, a racist term that cast young men of color as out-of-control predators, and over the following decades, brought to the public’s attention systemic issues of racially biased police practices and unfair judicial precedents that overwhelmingly punish people of color.

[Like what you’re reading? Support our work today!]

It also introduced many Americans to Donald Trump, then just a scion of a New York real-estate empire, who already recognized in the case an opportunity to advance his brand by stirring up racial animus. Before the trial started, he took out full-page ads in local papers calling for the execution of Salaam and the other four teenagers. Under the headline “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police,” Trump asked, “What has happened to the respect for authority, the fear of retribution by the courts, society and the police for those who break the law who wantonly trespass on the rights of others?”

Salaam and Trump will forever be linked, just as they were on election night. And it was hard not to see in Salaam’s improbable political ascension a satisfying kind of poetic justice. Though his campaign coincided with Trump’s mounting legal troubles, Salaam had largely ignored the former president. “Karma is real,” he said in one interview, “and we have to remember that.”More recently, he said, “I hope [Trump] gets treated the way we did not. They judged us guilty before we had a fair trial.”

What counts as “fair,” however, has become maddeningly difficult to determine. As Salaam addressed his soon-to-be constituents Tuesday night, a new CNN poll of registered voters showed Trump four percentage points ahead of President Biden, 49 percent to 45 percent, in a hypothetical rematch. The poetry of election night gave way to a stark political reality, one Salaam knows all too well and the average American can’t afford to ignore: Donald Trump remains a grave threat, and he is hardly ready to exit the stage.

Miles Doyle is Commonweal’s special projects editor.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.