Trump Becomes Just Another New York Criminal Defendant During First Day In Court

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 15: Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears ahead of the start of jury selection at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 15, 2024 in New York City. Former President Donald Trump faces 34 fe... NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 15: Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears ahead of the start of jury selection at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 15, 2024 in New York City. Former President Donald Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first of his criminal cases to go to trial. (Photo by Jabin Botsford-Pool/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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NEW YORK—As Donald Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan debuts on Monday, let me share with you how we at TPM are thinking we’ll be covering this.

There are three main themes that will shape our coverage. They all go far beyond the details of the Trump hush money case which, as entertainingly slimy as they are, will mostly be reminders of things that we learned many years ago.

It’s the enduring, broader takeaways which I have on my mind today, and which will inform our coverage in the coming weeks. They are:

  • This is the first time in American history that a former President has faced criminal prosecution. It’s such an obviously historic moment that you have to repeat it to see it.
  • Trump has faced so many scandals with so many allegations of criminal wrongdoing over the past several years, but this is the one for which he’s facing accountability. He’s on trial, with the same rights as any other defendant. It’s accountability, and its happening now.
  • Trump is countering all this in his usual fashion: exclamations about how unfair it all is and attempts to use his platform and devoted audience to try to intimidate anyone — or any system — with authority over him. In this case, it means corrosive attacks on the justice system and the rule of law. After all, that’s his true opponent in this case, as in the others.

The momentousness was palpable today, partly in the jitters from court security (and Secret Service agents, two of whom nearly knocked me over while getting coffee at a cafe near the courthouse) and among the press. It’s legitimately exciting to cover, an example of the cliché that journalists use to explain a key draw of the business: getting a front row seat to history.

This morning, getting that seat meant overcoming at least one hurdle.

After arriving at 6:00 a.m. to a beautiful spring morning at Collect Pond Park in Lower Manhattan, I waited for around three hours with other journalists as the court began to let some in. Around 9:00 a.m., a court security officer came out to tell those of us outside that we were now out of luck: the overflow courtroom with a live feed of the proceedings and with room for journalists was full. Sad!

I let my editors know, and they told me to remain and see whether the situation might change. Most of the rest of the press disappeared, or went to interview protestors who had assembled outside the courthouse. After another 30 minutes or so, we learned there were still two spots left for journalists. TPM snagged one.

I made my way to the overflow courtroom and took a seat alongside the dozens of other journalists typing away and stifling laughs now and then.

Judge Juan Merchan was trying to manage a few issues: scheduling elements of the trial amid the Passover holiday, how to conduct jury selection, and requests from each side to include or exclude certain evidence during the trial itself.

That last bit is critical, and featured a lot of what makes this case very special: bizarre and lurid details of how Trump operates. Like, for example, one moment which elicited laughter among journalists in the overflow room: a prosecutor read out National Enquirer headlines which Trump approved in summer 2016. Those included attacks on Ben Carson, a claim that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has family ties to JFK’s true assassin, and that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is a drug addict. At another moment, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass asked that he be allowed to remind jurors that Trump carried on an affair while Melania was pregnant; Merchan denied that request.

It’s all familiar Trumpworld terrain. What’s less familiar is seeing Trump in the position of any other criminal defendant, being read out warnings that he has to appear at each trial day, being told by the prosecutor that he’s just like “any other criminal defendant.”

Prosecutors raised that last point in arguments for sanctions, asking Judge Merchan to impose a $3,000 fine on Trump; $1,000 apiece for three posts which, prosecutors say, ran afoul of Merchan’s gag order. Merchan replied by setting a hearing on April 23 to discuss the matter.

It’s part of the collateral attack on the rule of law: making posts which go up to — and maybe over — the line set by Merchan’s gag order. There’s no longer any mystery here about what Trump is up to after eight years of him employing these tactics in national politics and in the courts.

But it’s of a piece with the theme of the day and of the trial: these prosecutors want to hold Trump accountable, even if it takes the form of a symbolically important $3,000 fine.

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