Trump on trial: A hellscape for former president of having no control over what’s happening

Donald Trump is a born communicator, but the gag order placed on him by judge Juan Merchan during this first criminal trial facing a former US president requires him to do, well, nothing

The New York Criminal Court, at 100 Centre Street, will never feature on any list of Manhattan’s dazzling architecture. It’s a brutally functional pile of floors and if Donald Trump does not hate it already, he will do by the time his criminal trial has concluded in mid-June.

It has not been a happy homecoming for the former president. This week, he became the first former holder of that office to face a criminal trial.

Trump lives such a multifaceted life that it is possible the gravity of this case only fully dawned in him when he entered the building on Monday morning. Outside, bedlam reigned: a 100-metre dash of camera crews and assistants, supporters, protesters, sirens and police choppers. But inside, on top of that, was like a coalition of Trump’s worst nightmares. He had to sit, in silent sufferance, through eight hours of proceedings that were boring and worrying at the same time.

And he has eight more weeks of this to go: day after day of having no control or influence.


He has had to listen to prospective jurors offer unflattering opinions on him. Trump is a born communicator – whatever you think of his style – and the gag order placed on him by judge Juan Merchan requires him to do nothing. It was reported on Monday that he had nodded off in the afternoon. Later in the week, with the air conditioning blasting, he complained about the court being “freezing”.

Finding 12 New Yorkers to sit in the jury box was the first significant challenge for those conducting the trial. Hundreds of potential jurors were whittled down to dozens, and judge Merchan had to warn reporters and media outlets to refrain from the vivid pen-pics of jurors whose anonymity has to be preserved. It’s already known that the foreman of the jury, which comprises seven men and five women, works in sales and originally came from Ireland.

“He looked less orange, like more yellow,” one potential juror said in an interview after being excused when asked of her impression of the former president.

It is safe to say that of all the rounds of golf he has played, Donald Trump most deeply regrets a round in Lake Tahoe some 17 years ago

“He doesn’t look angry. I think he looks bored. I think he wants to this to finish and go and do his stuff.”

Prosecutors have claimed that Trump has already violated the judge’s gag order seven times, including his reposting of a clip of conservative presenter Jesse Watters claiming: “They are trying to rig this jury. They are catching undercover liberal activists lying to the judge! And thank God they are doing their research on these people.”

On Friday, the business of establishing alternate or reserve jurors began. But the actual trial is around the corner, and with it the competing legal arguments of the likelihood of the jury finding the former president guilty. And if that happens, intrigue over whether or not judge Merchan is likely to impose a custodial sentence. And if that happens, then what?

It is safe to say that of all the rounds of golf he has played, Donald Trump most deeply regrets a round in Lake Tahoe some 17 years ago. This was when he was still being lionised as The Donald, the outré New York billionaire playing out what appeared to be his life course: being mega-wealthy and playing in celebrity golf tournaments. It was there that he met adult entertainment star Stormy Daniels.

They apparently became intimate, and a decade later, when he was pushing for the Republican candidacy and she decided to go public with the details, his lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen arranged for a pay-off to silence Daniels.

Cohen paid the agreed sum of $130,000 himself and was then reimbursed by the Trump Organisation, which has shown up on company records as part of a “retainer” for services rendered.

Of all the four criminal trial obstacles facing Trump at the beginning of the year, the “hush money” case was regarded as the least problematic. His legal teams secured significant mini-victories in the repeatedly delayed cases in Georgia, Washington DC and Florida.

But Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, has managed to press ahead with a prosecution derided as flimsy by many commentators. His charge contends that the presidential candidate made a payment to suppress information that might have influenced the opinion of voters prior to going to the polls in 2016. The timing is important: the Stormy Daniels revelations would have become public immediately after the infamous Access Hollywood tape, which scandalised a significant number of Republican grandees and left Trump’s candidacy teetering. So, the prosecutorial arguments and line of questioning are likely to push more into the weightier and heavily consequential subject of election interference.

The dramatic potential of the courtroom has been diminished by the closed-off nature of the proceedings, which cuts Donald Trump off from his supporters

In New York, falsifying documents is classed as a misdemeanour. But if it is carried out to conceal an underlying crime, it can be elevated to felony status. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to federal election law violations in 2018 and the prosecution will seek to link the former president to that plea. Cohen’s relationship with his former client has turned bitter, and his testimony promises to be explosive.

But Cohen is a key witness who has served jail time and is frequently portrayed as a proven liar. How much credence will the jury give to his testimony?

Long before this trial began, Trump repeatedly claimed it was another example of a witch hunt against him. Several legal experts with no loyalty to the former president have opined that the charges were essentially manipulated to change what was at best a misdemeanour into what would be category E felony sentences, carrying a maximum four-year prison sentence. But now, there is a growing sense that this trial could end with a guilty verdict.

The dramatic potential of the courtroom has been diminished by the closed-off nature of the proceedings, which cuts Donald Trump off from his supporters. But public perception of how this trial is being conducted will come under fierce scrutiny. Stephen A Smith, who made his name as a sports commentator, is broadly Democratic in his views but is among those sceptical of the entire procedure.

“I gotta tell ya something,” Smith said this week. “Much as people may have been abhorred [sic] by Donald Trump’s statement weeks ago, talking about how he’s hearing that black folks find him relatable because its similar to what black Americans go through, he wasn’t lying. He was telling the truth. When you see the law, law enforcement, the court system and everything else being exercised against him, it is something that blacks folks throughout this nation can relate to with some of our historic, iconic figures. So, no matter what ethnicity you may emanate from, we relate to you.”

After a cold week in New York, those words of lukewarm comfort might coax a grave nod of acknowledgment and a thumbs-up from the embattled 45th president.

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