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Opinion | What Kind of Husband Behaves Like Donald Trump?

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Donald Trump, in a red baseball cap, kissing the cheek of Melania Trump, who is in sunglasses.

Credit…Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Donald Trump sat silent, stone-faced and staring straight ahead as he listened to the intimate details in Stormy Daniels’s testimony on Tuesday, closing his eyes at times in an apparent attempt to maintain his composure.

But there was one moment when he lost it — when Ms. Daniels recounted asking Mr. Trump about his wife, Melania Trump, and recalled that he told her they didn’t “even sleep in the same room.” From the defense table Mr. Trump shook his head in disgust and muttered “bullshit” loud enough that he drew a rebuke from the judge, who called his actions “contemptuous.”

Mr. Trump has a great deal of experience sending a specific message to his intended audience — whether on television, at rallies, through social media or in the Oval Office. His intended audience, on Tuesday and throughout the trial, is the jury. And whether his emotion in that moment was authentic or strategic, the message to the jury seemed pretty clear: How dare she talk about my family?

Family. It’s a word that has come up repeatedly among Mr. Trump’s defenders, as they try to convince jurors that any action by Mr. Trump was not to break the law or influence an election but to protect his family. Throughout the trial, which is expected to resume on Thursday with Ms. Daniels’s continued cross-examination, Mr. Trump’s team has tried to paint the former president as a loving husband and father. In doing so, they are trying to convince jurors that Mr. Trump cares about his wife and children more than anything else — including his money or his reputation. The idea of “Donald Trump, family man” is one that jurors have to buy, or not.

His team sure is trying. “He’s not just our former president,” his lawyer argued during the trial’s opening statements. “He’s a husband. He’s a father. And he’s a person — just like you and just like me.” (Mr. Trump has denied the charges and says he did not have sex with Ms. Daniels.)

But consider me, um, skeptical.

Mr. Trump’s ability to have any relationship beyond the transactional is one of the great mysteries about him, and the current evidence on the matter is mixed. There have been moments in the trial that have emphasized that Mr. Trump thinks and acts like a family man — or, at least, that it’s all in the family and he’s the head of it. Hope Hicks, his former communications director, detailed last week how the Trump Organization was run “like a small family business,” and how, after a 2016 article in The Wall Street Journal detailed an alleged affair with a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, Mr. Trump was most concerned about his wife — and asked Ms. Hicks to hide the newspapers from her. (What’s more honorable than a husband going to great lengths to conceal his affair?)

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump has made attending the high school graduation in Florida of his youngest son, Barron, a particular sticking point, railing on Truth Social: “Who will explain for me, to my wonderful son, Barron, who is a GREAT student at a fantastic School, that his Dad will likely not be allowed to attend his Graduation Ceremony?” (The judge has since given him the day off. Of course, he will also reportedly be squeezing in a fund-raiser that day — in Minnesota.)

And yet: Mr. Trump’s actual family has been largely absent from court, despite his wishing Melania Trump a “very happy birthday” from the hallway where he speaks to the press. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump’s son Eric did attend the trial, sitting in the front row while fiddling with his tie and peering at the exhibits on the courtroom screens as Ms. Daniels testified.

And as Ms. Daniels explained how Mr. Trump would call her “honeybunch” when he phoned her, and tell her he missed her, I found myself wondering: Is this a man who is capable of missing anyone? Do we have evidence of that, evidence that this man who doesn’t seem to have lasting close friends, or a family who stands by his side at his lowest moments, is credible as someone who puts loved ones (let alone the country) before his own interests?

What we have learned in this case is that Mr. Trump hung around with Stormy Daniels and Ms. McDougal in 2006 and 2007, which was not long after he and Melania Trump were married, and while she was at home with their newborn son. We also learned that sometimes this emphasis on being “fatherly” had a creepy vibe, as when Ms. Daniels testified that Mr. Trump said she reminded him of his elder daughter, Ivanka — blond, beautiful and smart, and often underestimated — all before stripping down to his underwear while she was in the bathroom.

How does a family man behave? It’s a little jarring to reconcile the testimonials about Mr. Trump’s love for his wife with the way he treats women who are not her. Ms. Daniels’s testimony about the sexual encounter with Mr. Trump — using descriptions including “The room spun in slow motion”; “I was staring up at the ceiling”; “I was ashamed” — will remind a lot of women not of family men, but of stories about unwanted but perhaps not entirely nonconsensual encounters that many of us harbor. I noticed that at certain points, the language echoed that of E. Jean Carroll, whose accusation of sexual abuse at the hands of Mr. Trump he was found liable for in civil court.

Still, playing up the family thing is a common tactic that male politicians use to justify lies and coverups or excuse bad behavior. We had one president, Bill Clinton, who was impeached after a sex scandal. We’ve had untold numbers of politicians who cheated on their spouses and then tried to dance around it, including in public appearances that gave rise to the Good Wife trope. And now we have Mr. Trump, on trial on criminal charges, again using his family, and his wife, as a shield — or, worse, prop.

My concern here isn’t so much Mr. Trump himself, but rather how his actions and the trial are a familiar referendum on the depths of his misogyny, from name-calling (see: “horseface,” his nickname for Ms. Daniels) to more serious accusations of assault. Mr. Trump’s treatment of women is not on trial — and yet the jury’s decision may hinge in part on whether it is willing to be convinced of that family-man argument, or all the evidence to the contrary.

That includes whether it believes Ms. Daniels. During her testimony on Tuesday, for close to five hours, she was at times frenetic, but also confident and composed throughout. The only time her voice cracked was when she spoke about her daughter — and wanting to protect her from the circus she found herself in. She became emotional at that point, talking about her family. It was impossible not to wonder: Is there any chance that Donald Trump would do the same?

Jessica Bennett is a contributing editor in the Opinion section of The Times. She teaches journalism at New York University and is the author of “Feminist Fight Club” and “This Is 18.” @jessicabennett Facebook

A version of this article appears in print on  , Section A, Page 22 of the New York edition with the headline: What Kind of Husband Behaves Like Trump?. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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