Trump’s Trial Challenge: Being Stripped of Control

Trump’s Trial Challenge: Being Stripped of Control

“Sir, can you please take a seat?”

Donald J. Trump stood to leave the Manhattan criminal courtroom as Judge Juan M. Merchan concluded a scheduling briefing on Tuesday.

But the judge had not yet adjourned the hearing or left the bench. Mr. Trump, the 45th president of the United States and the owner of his own business, is used to setting his own pace. But when Judge Merchan warned him to sit down again, the former president did so without saying a word.

The moment highlighted a key reality for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Over the next six weeks, a man who values ​​control and seeks to shape environments and outcomes to his will has very little control.

Everything about the circumstances under which the former president appears in court every day to sit at 100 Center Street as a defendant in People v. Donald J. Trump is repugnant to him. The amber-encased environment is a reminder of New York City’s more crime-ridden past. The lack of control. The details of a case in which he is accused of falsifying business records to conceal a payout to a porn star to prevent her claims of an affair with him from surfacing in the 2016 election.

Of the four criminal cases Mr. Trump faces, this is the most personal. And people close to him are blunt when speaking privately about his reaction: He looks around every day and can’t believe he has to be there.

Asked about the former president’s distaste for the case, a campaign spokeswoman, Karoline Leavitt, said Mr. Trump “has proven he will remain defiant” and called the case “political litigation.”

He sits in a run-down courtroom that was so cold in the second half of last week that his lead attorney respectfully complained about it to the judge. Mr. Trump hugged his arms to his chest and told an aide: “It’s freezing.”

For the first few minutes of each day during jury selection, a small group of still photographers were led into Section 59 on the 15th floor of the courthouse. Mr. Trump, obsessed with being seen as strong and universal, prepared for them to storm in front of him by adjusting his jacket and contorting his face into a scowl. But at the end of the day on Friday, Mr. Trump appeared emaciated and rumpled, his gait off-center, his gaze expressionless.

Often, Mr. Trump seemed to fade into the background in a bright, wood-paneled room with bright fluorescent lights and a constant smell of sour, coffee-soaked breath.

His face was visible to dozens of reporters watching on a large monitor in an overflow room while a surveillance camera trained on the defense table. He whispered and badgered his lawyer to get his attention, leafed through stacks of papers and appeared to doze off at least twice during the morning session. (His aides have publicly denied that he was dozing off.) Dozing off is something that happens from time to time to various people in court proceedings, including jurors, but for Mr. Trump it conveys the kind of public vulnerability that he rigorously attempts has avoid.

Exams are mundane in nature, with strict routines and long periods of inactivity. From his time in his 20s to his time in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump has always steered clear of this kind of officialdom, whether by avoiding strict schedules or the practices or structures of others.

The mundanity of the courtroom has all but swallowed up Mr. Trump, who has spent decades trying to project an image of greatness that he drove from a reality TV studio to the White House.

As the first group of 96 prospective jurors were brought into the room last Monday afternoon, Mr. Trump appeared to disappear among them as they sat in the jury box and in the rows in the courthouse shaft. The judge has made it clear that the jury’s time is his top priority, even if it comes at the expense of the former president.

Mr. Trump’s communications advisers or aides, who give him a morale boost, sit on the sidelines. There is Natalie Harp, a former anchor at the right-wing news channel OAN, who has carried a portable printer for years to provide Mr. Trump with a steady stream of encouraging articles or social media posts about him. But she and others sat in the second row behind the defense table or several rows further back in the courtroom and were unable to speak to Mr. Trump during the proceedings.

It’s hard to remember another time when Mr. Trump had to sit and listen to insults without turning to social media or a press conference to hit back. And it’s just as hard to remember another time when he had to be bored for so long.

People close to him are worried about how he will cope with having so little to do for weeks and only a few days of testimony likely to matter. It’s been decades since he’s had to spend so much time in close proximity to people who aren’t his family, his staff, or his crowd of admirers.

Over the next six weeks or so, Mr. Trump will have to endure even more, including listening to prosecutors ask witnesses uncomfortable questions about his personal life in open court. He faces a hearing on Tuesday over whether the judge agrees with prosecutors that he has repeatedly violated the order banning him from publicly criticizing witnesses and others.

Most of the time, Mr. Trump had to sit at the table, unable to use his cellphone, and listen as prosecutors called him a criminal and jurors were asked their opinion of him. Some of those opinions were negative, and one potential juror had to read out her old social media posts in which she called him a sociopath and egomaniac. He only smiled when potential jurors pointed out work of his that they liked.

The widespread plan was for Mr. Trump to behave like a candidate despite the trial and use the entire incident as a set piece for his claims of an armed justice system.

But last week, Trump’s only political event in New York was a visit to a bodega in Upper Manhattan to raise awareness of the borough’s crime rate. The appearance seemed to breathe life into him, but it also felt more like a stop a mayoral candidate would make than a presumptive presidential candidate. Aware that Mr. Trump appears weakened, some aides are pushing for more — and larger — events in the New York area.

Many in Mr. Trump’s circle are pessimistic that the case will end in a jury verdict or a mistrial, and they believe outright acquittal is virtually impossible. They expect him to be convicted, not because they are abandoning the legal basis, but because they believe the jury in overwhelmingly Democratic Manhattan will be against the polarizing former president.

But many of his advisers agree that the trial could be as damaging to him as a guilty verdict. They believe the trial is its own punishment.

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2024-04-21 20:45:55