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Column: Without cameras in the courtroom, Trump has already won a major victory in hush money trial

In World
April 23, 2024

If a former president nods off in a courtroom and no cameras are around to see it, did it really happen?

The case of the People of the State of New York vs. Donald J. Trump got underway Monday, and while the fate of the forthcoming election — and perhaps democracy itself — may teeter on the outcome, the public is locked out of witnessing a seismic moment in American history.

Video and audio feeds are banned from the courtroom, leaving folks to rely on the written and spoken word of reporters covering the trial. It’s up to them to tell us if the former president scowled and guffawed like a fearless strongman or fell asleep in his chair like a disaffected juvenile delinquent.

Any entertainment value aside, the lack of live or recorded feeds may mean that Trump won a huge victory before the first witness even took the stand.

The first criminal trial of a former U.S. president could have been the moment when the cameras didn’t embrace Trump the Showman, where his customary angry rhetoric and bluster were muted by the dictates of a controlled courtroom, allowing the public to see what happens when a bully is stripped of his power and platform.

But without the advantage of watching the proceedings on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube or live news outlets, the impact feels lost in translation. It’s one thing to witness the former president’s impetuous behavior firsthand; it’s another to read or hear about it in media accounts filed from the courtroom: His eyes were “closing for extended periods” during jury selection last week. He huffed and puffed during admonishments from the judge. He glared at the jurors who were chosen to serve.

Read more: Column: Trump’s hush-money criminal trial could be a cure for ‘Trump amnesia’

The lack of courtroom filming is a dream come true for misinformation agents. Bad actors thrive in the fertile playground of media mistrust, and millions are more than willing to embrace curated narratives — no matter how absurd — as long as it allows us to believe what we want to believe. And when so many still believe that the 2020 election was stolen, how do you get people to trust the court reporting from a trial without video and audio? It’s going to be a challenge.

The opposite could also be true: Without the advantage of playing directly to the cameras, Trump may fine his magic hold on his base diminished. Much of the appeal around the former president is that he’s a winner who never folds to systems he deems corrupt, be it the media, the courts, the election process, etc. He’s tried to grab the spotlight via cameras in the hallway outside the courtroom, using the space as a de facto podium to remark on the proceedings as he enters and leaves. But perhaps not hearing him rage in the courtroom will soften his appeal among followers.

It’s hard to say how this trial will play out in the court of public opinion because there’s been no test case. President Nixon, who resigned on the brink of impeachment, was never indicted for a crime, and the last “trial of the century” was a monolithic event largely because it was televised. The People of the State of California vs. Orenthal James Simpson, also known as the O.J. Simpson trial, certainly wouldn’t have been the premier spectacle of a generation if not for the blow-by-blow live broadcast from Los Angeles to the rest of the world.

What’s happening behind the closed doors of Justice Juan M. Merchan’s courtroom is arguably more important to the immediate future and health of the republic, but New York does not generally allow video in its courtrooms. It’s refreshing to know there are still standards that haven’t been pulverized under the Trump rule-wrecking machine. The Manhattan trial shows that sober lawmaking may still stand a chance against sordid spectacle. But the trial is just beginning.

Everything leading up to this moment in Trump’s wild, unprecedented domination of U.S. politics and news was made possible by his appearing on screen, no matter the medium. Trump the reality TV star convinced viewing audiences he was a successful business leader and decision-maker inside the scripted realm of “The Apprentice.” He played to the cameras leading up to the 2016 election, stealing the scene from candidates with actual experience in governing and lawmaking. He is a master at manipulating all news about him — good or bad — into fundraising and votes largely because he knows how to play to the spotlight.

Monday’s opening statements from the prosecution maintained “this case is about a criminal conspiracy and fraud,” in which “the defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 election.” Manhattan Dist. Atty. Alvin L. Bragg and his team will argue that Trump paid off adult film actor Stormy Daniels as part of a larger scheme to suppress negative stories about him leading up to the 2016 election. A $130,000 hush payment to Daniels was part of a conspiracy to silence her as she was shopping a story about her alleged sexual encounter with Trump. He is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

A Trump conviction still could be hugely damaging to his campaign for a second White House term, but that depends on how many choose to believe the outcome without seeing the evidence unfold before their own eyes. The same stands true if he’s found not guilty.

One thing is clear: No one should be sleeping through this historic trial … least of all the defendant.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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