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The challenge of the Trump trial: being deprived of control

NEW YORK — “Sir, can you please be seated. »

Donald Trump had stood up to leave the Manhattan criminal courtroom as Judge Juan M. Merchan finished a scheduling discussion Tuesday.

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

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

Everything about the circumstances under which the former president shows up in court every day to sit as a defendant in the People v. Donald J. Trump at 100 Center St. is repugnant to him. The environment trapped in amber that evokes New York City’s most criminal past. Lack of control. Details of a case in which he is accused of falsifying business records to conceal a payment to a pornographic actor to prevent her allegations of an affair with him from emerging during the 2016 election.

Of the four criminal cases Trump is facing, this one is the most personal. And those close to him speak candidly about his reaction in private: He looks around every day and can’t believe he has to be there.

Asked about the former president’s aversion to the affair, a campaign spokeswoman, Karoline Leavitt, said Trump “has proven he will remain provocative” and called the affair a “political war.”

He sits in a decrepit courtroom that, for the second half of last week, was so cold that his lead lawyer respectfully complained to the judge. Trump hugged his arms to his chest and told an aide, “It’s freezing.”

During the first minutes of each jury selection day, a small group of photographers was ushered into Room 59, on the 15th floor of the courthouse. Trump, obsessed with being seen as strong and being seen in general, prepared for them to rush past him by adjusting his suit jacket and contorting his face into a scowl. But late Friday, Trump appeared haggard and rumpled, his gait off-center and his eyes vacant.

Trump often seemed to disappear into the background in a light wood-paneled room with harsh neon lighting and a perpetual smell of sour, coffee-filled breath wafting everywhere.

His face was visible to dozens of reporters watching in an overflow room on a large monitor with a closed-circuit camera pointed at the defense table. He whispered to his lawyer and nudged him to get his attention, flipped through sheaves of paper and, on at least two occasions, appeared to fall asleep during the morning hearing. (His aides have publicly denied that he was dozing.) Falling asleep is something that happens from time to time to various people during legal proceedings, including jurors, but it reflects, for Trump, the kind of vulnerability public which he rigorously tried to avoid.

Trials are inherently mundane, with strict routines and long periods of inactivity. Trump has always stayed away from this type of formality, whether by avoiding strict schedules or anyone else’s practices or structures, from the time he was 20 until his time in office. in the Oval Office.

The ordinariness of the courtroom has all but swallowed up Trump, who has sought for decades to project an image of grandeur, one he has ridden from a reality TV studio to the White House.

When the first panel of 96 potential jurors were brought into the room Monday afternoon, Trump seemed to disappear among them, as they sat in the jury box and in rows in the courtroom. The judge made it clear that jurors’ time was his top priority, even at the expense of the former president.

Trump’s communications advisors or aides who boost his morale have stayed away. Natalie Harp, former host of the right-wing news network OAN, who for years has carried around a portable printer to provide Trump with a constant stream of edifying articles or social media posts about him, is there. But she and others were in the second row behind the defense table, or several rows further back in the courtroom, unable to speak to Trump during the proceedings.

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

Those close to him worry about how he will cope with having so little to do while he sits there for weeks, with only a few days of testimony that should be meaningful. It’s been decades since he’s had to spend this much time in close proximity to anyone outside of his family, team, or crowd of fans.

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

Most of the time, Trump was forced to sit at the table, unable to use his cell phone, and listen to prosecutors portraying him as a criminal and jurors being asked for their opinions on him. Some of those opinions have been negative, with one potential juror being forced to read aloud his old social media posts calling him a sociopath and egomaniac. The only times he smiled was when potential jurors referred to his work that they had appreciated.

The highly telegraphed plan was for Trump to behave like a candidate despite the trial, using the entire event as a centerpiece in his claims of a militarized justice system.

But last week in New York, Trump’s only political event was a stop at an Upper Manhattan bodega to highlight the neighborhood’s crime rate. The appearance seemed to breathe life into him, but it also seemed more like a stop a mayoral candidate would make than a presumptive presidential candidate. Some advisers are aware that Trump appears diminished and are pushing for more – and larger – events to be held in the New York area.

Many in Trump’s broader orbit are pessimistic that the case will end in a hung jury or a mistrial, and they consider an outright acquittal virtually impossible. They are preparing for him to be convicted, not because they are giving in to the legal grounds, but because they believe jurors in predominantly Democratic Manhattan will be against the polarizing former president.

But the feeling shared by many of his advisers is that the process could harm him as much as a guilty verdict. The process, they believe, constitutes its own punishment.

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