Inside the Courtroom With Donald Trump
It's not easy to arraign a former president.
8:12 PM EDT on April 4, 2023
The paint is peeling on the ceiling of Part 59 on the 15th floor of 100 Centre Street, a humid and beaten-down courtroom that on Tuesday had New York City court officers stationed on almost every square inch of available real estate. The intense glare of the officer assigned to each row of journalists was on top of the two rounds of scanners and metal detectors that reporters had to submit to just to gain entrance. Once inside, we were under strict instruction not to even think about touching our cell phones, or even, in the words of a court officer, "move around." Secret Service officers lined the wall.
It's hard to arraign a former president, it turns out.
The reporters themselves are not the story (we would never), but the high level of security underlined the absolute weirdness of what we in the courtroom were about to witness—Donald Trump, the former president, getting charged with 34 felonies. The crimes, which are definitely crimes, but not, y'know, serious crimes, would, under any other circumstances for any other defendant, almost certainly be spirited away by a plea that would turn them to misdemeanors, along with a monetary slap on the wrist.
But because this is another chapter in the unending grudge match between Trump and his haters, Trump had already promised that he would fight the charges. After a heavy thirty minutes of silence, only intermittently broken faintly by the roar of the crowds fifteen floors below, there he was, walking through the door and lumbering down the aisle to his seat, a cartoon come to life, blond hair verging on green, face more red than orange.
As the prosecution launched into an extended statement of facts about Trump's alleged criminal dealings (hush money payments to a porn star with the intent to hide his extramarital affairs during the 2016 presidential campaign, yada yada, we all know these details by now), Trump appeared restful, but resentful. He closed his eyes for long periods of time, an interminable blink, like an iguana under a heat lamp. He answered a few questions, the most important one being, how do you plead? "Not guilty." He told the judge he understood he was allowed to waive his appearance for some future court dates. He was warned he could no longer portend "potential death and destruction," and he was advised to stop sharing illustrations of him menacing the current Manhattan district attorney with a baseball bat. And he thanked the judge, gruffly. He was mostly stone-faced, a man who has perfected the art of conveying, through minimal expression, that he would very much like to be elsewhere. His one twitch of emotion, which he couldn't help, came when one of the lawyers in the courtroom referred to those seated in the seats behind him as "professional journalists." He smirked, of course.
After an hour during which prosecutors from the Manhattan DA's office made it very clear they intend to go forward with this case, and that the trial is very much going to play out in the heat of the 2024 election cycle, Trump was allowed to go—and he won't be back in court before December, if then.
The security, the lines, the lists regarding the lines, the anticlimactic spectacle in Collect Pond Park outside, they'd all go on hiatus for at least another nine months. Was he sad? Was he mad? Was he…at times bored to the point of near-unconsciousness? The media would have to find another piece of Trump gristle to chew on, and gladly, we will.
Again, he lumbered, unamused, down the aisle, beseeching with his hands held up like pushing open an invisible door, for a courtroom officer to get out of his way. It was time to head back to Mar-a-Lago.
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Max Rivlin-Nadler is a co-publisher of Hell Gate. He's reported for Gothamist, The New York Times, Village Voice and NPR. You can find him walking his dog, Stiva, or surfing in the Rockaways.
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