The Trump trial is not televised. Come to the courtroom anyway


When former President Donald Trump is in New York City for his criminal hush-money trial, he stays in Trump Tower, where his penthouse features glittering chandeliers, luxurious furnishings and gold everywhere. But he spends his days in a very different environment: the dull hallways and an outdated courtroom in the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse.

The historic first criminal trial of an ex-president — Trump faces 34 felony charges for falsifying corporate records to cover up a campaign finance law violation — may seem incongruous with the bleak surroundings.

No video cameras are allowed in the courtroom, and there are no still photographs except those typically taken from the defense table during a one-minute photo opportunity, so the millions of Americans watching the trial cannot see what it actually looks like looks.

But USA TODAY has a seat in the courtroom. If you were there, you would feel and see the following:

The courthouse

The 17-story 1941 courthouse in New York City’s civic center features an Art Deco granite and limestone facade. Inside, the walls are unadorned. In addition to the usual security check upon entering the courthouse, there is an additional checkpoint on the 15th floor especially for the Trump trial.

It looks and feels as old as it is, and not all the bathroom stall locks work.

The “cafeteria” is a chairless, windowless space with the kind of packaged, processed snacks you’d find in a supermarket and made-to-order sandwiches that may be nothing more than bread, mayonnaise and some cold, sliced ​​cheese.

The courtroom

Some courtrooms you see on TV have colorful carpeting and elaborate lighting fixtures.

Not this one.

The austere room is lined by wooden panels from the floor to about the middle of the high walls and then plain white walls above. There are four windows on one side, but they are covered with awnings. The paneling behind the jury box bears the metal words ‘IN GOD WE TRUST’.

In other ways, it resembles a set from “Law & Order,” with a wooden witness stand and jury box. The Public Prosecution Service and the defense each have a long table. Trump is often seen sitting with his eyes closed among his lawyers — sometimes even as if he were falling asleep — in a chair that appears to be upholstered in leather.

The audience, on the other hand, sits on wooden benches. The first two rows are reserved for more members of the two test teams or security personnel such as the Secret Service, and a back row is also typically reserved or closed off. About 65 reporters and a handful of members of the public — usually fewer than 10 — fill the rest of the large courtroom.

Seats next to the center aisle have been cordoned off, possibly for Trump’s safety as he enters and leaves.

The rules

Reporters and the public must put their phones away in the courtroom, a policy enforced by security guards patrolling the aisles. Like other defendants in the Manhattan courthouse, Trump — who reportedly likes to use his phone all day to catch up on news, talk to friends and post to social media — must go phone-free.

‘Everyone was freezing there’

Because of an apparently outdated heating and cooling system that Judge Juan Merchan says he can’t tune, the courtroom can range from warm to quite cold.

Trump has made it clear that this does not meet his standards.

“I’ve been sitting here for days now, from morning to night, in that freezing cold room. It’s freezing. Everyone was freezing in there,” he told reporters in the hallway on April 18.

It can be very cold in the room, sometimes causing reporters to keep their winter coats on, but Trump has complained even on days when it has been relatively mild.

Famous faces in the courtroom

Trump has called himself a “star,” and his trial has brought a few other famous people to the courtroom.

George Conway, ex-husband of Trump 2016 campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and a thorn in his side Trump’s side on Twitter, was a regular during the trial; he writes about it for The Atlantic.

MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow got in line early for opening statements on Monday, April 22. Maddow’s colleague, MSNBC television host Joy Reid, was present the next day when the prosecution’s first witness, former tabloid publisher David Pecker, testified.

The characters

Merchan quietly checks the courtroom. He hasn’t raised his voice, but he has adopted a stern tone that could help him keep lawyers and defendants in check.

But like many judges, Merchan is friendly toward jurors. When a prospective juror admitted to having a criminal past, he explained that she might serve in the future. After she left, he asked reporters to “be kind” in our reporting.

After a potential juror was questioned and then left the courtroom during jury selection, Merchan said he heard Trump make comments in front of her, although he could not make out the content.

“I don’t want jurors to be intimidated in this courtroom,” the judge told Trump attorney Todd Blanche. “Talk to your client,” Merchan instructed sternly.

Although lawyers for both sides seemed adept at offering legal arguments to Merchan, Trump’s team was reprimanded by the judge when it made arguments that Merchan found farcical.

“You lose all credibility with the court,” Merchan told Blanche on April 23, after Blanche said his client was working hard to comply with the judge’s gag order. On Tuesday, Merchan found Trump in criminal contempt after finding that Trump had violated the gag order nine times through social media posts and other online statements in which he attacked potential witnesses and commented on the jury. Merchan scheduled a hearing Thursday morning to address four more possible violations.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has been in the courtroom at times to support his trial staff, even though he has not directly participated in the proceedings since opening statements. Bragg sits on the first rows of benches.

Why binoculars come in handy

Several television screens in the front half of the courtroom show video of the two trial teams, the judge and the witness stand, but not the jury. Small monitors on the trial team tables also show those feeds, and Trump appears to be looking at the monitor in front of him at times.

With binoculars pointed at the screen, you can see if Trump’s eyes are closed.

Sketch artists also seem to use visual aids to get a closer look at the people they depict.

Trump-centric photos

Courts in New York typically do not allow cameras to broadcast the proceedings from the courtroom, and the Trump trial is no exception.

But the judge has allowed about five photographers each morning to come in briefly and take pictures of Trump sitting at the defense table. They don’t seem to take photos of prosecutors, and the judge usually comes in after they leave.

Many may feel uncomfortable with this kind of rapid attack from photographers. But the celebrity-turned-president seems comfortable and posed, as if he instinctively knows the unhappy facial expression and rigid body language he wants to convey.

Notable absences

Melania Trump has not been in court at all while her husband faces his criminal trial, which involves allegations – denied by Trump – that he had multiple affairs around the time of her pregnancy with Barron Trump. In the third week of the trial, one of Trump’s children appeared for the first time: Eric Trump joined his father in the courtroom on Tuesday, sitting on the first bench behind the defense table.

The former president said Friday that his wife was in Florida, which is now Trump’s primary residence when not on trial.

Outside the courtroom

Down the hall from the main courtroom, more reporters and members of the public sit in a courtroom that has been converted into an overflow room with video screens livestreaming the proceedings. Unlike the main courtroom, cell phone use is allowed there, although no audio or visual recordings are allowed. Normally, everyone who showed up in the morning was given at least a spot in the overflow room, according to court spokesman Al Baker.

A metal pen has been set up for reporters between the overflow room and the main courtroom. Trump often approaches a separate metal barrier facing the pen to express his feelings before and after the court hearing, or during breaks in the day.

“The judge has to end the case because they don’t have a case,” Trump said Tuesday morning before entering the courtroom. “I’m going into the cooler now,” he added. It was quite warm in the courtroom on Tuesday.