Live from the Trump trial

(A slightly edited excerpt from the most recent newsletter, a thing you can subscribe to!)

I recently managed to qualify for official NYC press credentials, and on Monday, I got up at five a.m. and made my way downtown to wait in line for more than two hours in Collect Pond Park, across from the Manhattan criminal courthouse where the trial is being held. There were two lines, one for media and one for members of the public, and places toward the front of the media line were held by people with signs indicating that they were professional line sitters (yes, this is a thing), being paid hundreds of dollars to get there in the middle of the night and reserve a spot for presumably well-heeled media outlets (including the New York Times).  I wasn’t quite so committed to this excursion that I was going to literally spend the night standing in line, so by the time I got there at around six a.m. — still an ungodly hour, by my standards! — I was toward the end of a queue of maybe 75-100 people. Which meant that I wasn’t going to get into the main courtroom, but had a decent shot of getting into the overflow room where monitors show video of the trial, and since it’s not being broadcast, that was as close as I was going to get to seeing it unfold live.

As we got closer to 8 a.m., a police officer began walking down the media line, handing out white cardstock “hall passes” which would allow entrance to the courthouse. He ran out right before he got to me, but fortunately once they counted spaces in the courtroom there was still a little room to spare, and he came back around with a few more, and I was soon going through the metal detector and sending my bag through the x-ray machine on the ground floor of the courthouse. My hall pass got me through to the elevator bank and up to the shabby, dimly-lit fifteenth floor hallway, where there was a second metal detector, as well as a visual bag inspection. And then I was allowed into the overflow room, along with about a hundred other people (mostly media, with a reported two dozen reserved for members of the public), where I was directed to a bench at the very back of the room.

The overflow room is a second courtroom down the hall from the trial, with two large screens set up at the front. The New York Times described the main courtroom as having “the air of a grand structure gone to seed,” and this one felt the same way, a large room encircled with wainscoting, with ceilings I’d guess to be 25 feet tall, seemingly designed to make its occupants feel small, but all of it flaking and dingy, with courtroom rules taped haphazardly to the walls, and sloppy upgrades to the wiring and infrastructure. As for the hard wooden benches, well, let’s just say I was feeling my years by the end of the day.

Unfortunately the images on the monitors were difficult to see — this wasn’t a broadcast production, with someone cutting between the four video streams to provide a full-frame image of each of the various participants, but rather a constant split screen of the four feeds (judge, witness, defense and prosecution tables, as well as a notice that recordings are prohibited), which were reduced even further in size when documents were introduced into evidence and shown on the feed. From the back of the room, the figures on screen were minuscule, though you could pick Trump out by (no joke) the orange hue and the mop of yellow hair, and I could see him leaning back into his chair for much of the testimony. Seasoned reporters knew to bring opera glasses, which afforded them a much better view of the monitors. I briefly borrowed a pair from a woman next to me and I got a closer look at Trump reclining with eyes closed, taking a little catnap or maybe just retreating into whatever passes for a mind palace beneath the spun yellow fluff of his cotton candy hair.

It was Michael Cohen’s first day of testimony, and the prosecution mostly devoted the day to establishing a factual timeline, so there were not any fireworks, but I still found it all fascinating. Even just being able to listen to the live audio stream and (sort of) being able to see some of what was going on in the courtroom was a vast improvement over following the terse summaries of the NYT’s liveblog, which is like trying to keep up by fax machine, or maybe carrier pigeon. There were a lot of email and text exchanges and phone records being introduced into evidence, as the prosecution sought to establish Trump’s complicity in, and motivation for, the payoffs. It was a significant day of testimony but pretty dry, though at one point, discussing the moment when he learned that his bonus had been cut by two thirds after personally paying the hush money to Stormy Daniels, Cohen said matter-of-factly, “I was, even for myself, unusually angry,” which elicited the only audible laughter of the day in the overflow room.

Proceedings paused for morning and afternoon breaks, as well as for lunch. Each time, the overflow room went into security lockdown while Trump was out in the corridor. A small press pool waited in an enclosure of metal police barricades, which is where those post-game press conferences you might have seen on the news are being held. It didn’t seem likely that I was going to see one of those, nor would I see who was actually attending the trial — I only found out from the news the next day that vice presidential hopeful and generally terrible person J.D. Vance was there.

I’d brought a sketchbook with the slender hope of getting into the courtroom itself, and the lesser hope of at least having legible and discernible full frame images on the overflow room monitors, neither of which were meant to be. I did do a couple of sketches of my view in the overflow room itself. I acknowledge in advance that they are not particularly exciting, but I wanted a visual record of this small slice of history I was witnessing, and they would have thrown me out on my ear if I’d snapped a phone pic.

The view from the back of the room. The two monitors (positioned at left and center) showed the same image at all times, but I sketched the two variations (the standard feed and the image shown when documents were introduced) in this one.

The split screen view of the courtroom. Top row: the warning screen, the judge, and Cohen. Bottom row: prosecution and defense tables.

I ducked out before the day’s proceedings came to an official close, while the doors were still unlocked, and then lingered by the elevator bank, admiring the view of the Manhattan Bridge from the window and getting my personal items stashed away in my backpack. And then I heard that hatefully familiar voice echoing in the corridor, which was now under security lockdown with the press pool in their gated-off pen, cops stationed all down the hallway, and a secret service detail positioned around the former president. There was an officer assigned to the elevators, and this could have gone either way but he let me stand at the very edge of the demarcation line between the elevator bank and the corridor and peer around the corner and watch this day’s edition of Trump’s daily rant. After eight years of covering this guy, it was the first time I’ve ever seen him in the flesh. I was maybe 15 or 20 yards away and wishing I hadn’t put my glasses away, and that I’d kept a notebook out, but I also judged that this probably wasn’t a good environment in which to start digging around in my backpack to pull out an unknown object, so I stayed still and and made do. Flanked by his lead attorney, he read from a stack of papers (presumably supplied by the aide who follows him around with a wireless printer), quoting J.D. Vance, Mark Levine, Jonathan Turley and others as he recited a familiar litany of grievances — the trial is a plot to keep him off the campaign trail, the whole world is laughing at the New York weaponized court system, the judge is highly conflicted at a level nobody’s ever seen before, and every single legal analyst, why even CNN and “MSDNC” are saying there’s no case here (I’d be curious to see a citation for that last claim). After about five minutes of this disjointed monologue, he turned and walked away, as the press pool shouted questions he ignored.

My main takeaway was that it’s an absolute shame this trial isn’t being televised. Imagine if this had been a mass-viewing cultural event, like the O.J. trial, if the public could have watched Stormy Daniels’ testimony, or seen a live feed of the once-and-possibly-future president nodding off — perhaps, as this week’s cartoon would have it, dreaming of better days to come.

I made it inside again yesterday, and witnessed more substantial fireworks — Cohen sparring with the defense lawyers, and Robert Costello’s disrespect that caused the judge to clear the courtroom in order to yell at him. I’ll post more about that soon.