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A ‘freak show’ on the outside and solemn on the inside


Inside a courthouse nestled between Tribeca and Chinatown on Monday morning, former President Donald Trump’s lawyers argued with the district attorney’s office over procedures for a hush-money case that could send an ex-commander in chief to prison for the first time in American history.

Judge Juan Merchan advised lawyers that he was getting a little annoyed by the “minutia.” With a pool of 500 prospective jurors waiting, he wanted to get started with the process of picking 12.

The judge also delivered Trump his “Parker warnings,” including that he could be jailed for contempt if he is absent without leave at any point during the trial. Trump, betraying little emotion, said he understood.

Outside, in a sun-filled park across the street, peculiarity reigned over pedantry.

A smattering of pro-Trump demonstrators — some wearing costumes, others carrying signs, one temporarily lowering the top of her dinosaur-themed one-piece before writhing on the ground in performative ecstasy — lent their support to the former president and presumptive Republican nominee.

The presence of high-profile gawkers accentuated the carnival-like nature of the gathering: The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Andrew Giuliani and filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, a daughter of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“I never miss a freak show,” the younger Pelosi, a longtime resident of nearby Greenwich Village, said.

The unlikely tandem of Klepper and Giuliani provided a clear window into a series of truths about this trial: the charges are at once the least consequential of the set pending against Trump and as fundamental to democracy as the question of whether special treatment — either targeting or protection — can be avoided in the case of such a powerful figure.

Sensing an opportunity, Giuliani, the son of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, agreed to talk on camera with Klepper, a master of man-on-the-street interviews that leave the subjects looking foolish. After all, the coin of the realm in Trump’s domain is defending the big guy in tough, televised interviews.

But the younger Giuliani, a former Trump White House official in his own right, was worried enough about the outcome — and aware enough of the art of video editing — that he asked an associate to make his own recording of the full interview.

Additional cameras seldom provide additional protection, and this case was no exception. Pelosi couldn’t help but watch the scene unfold.

Klepper wasn’t interested in the high-stakes trial inside. Many Democrats are more exercised about the other charges Trump faces — he’s been indicted in federal and Georgia courts for efforts to overturn the 2020 election and in another federal court over allegations that he illegally retained classified documents.

What Klepper wanted to know — with Andrew Giuliani amounting to a stand-in for his father — was whether Trump’s rhetoric would lead to violence. The former president recently said in a fundraising email that “all hell” would break loose at his trial. Before the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, Trump told supporters “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Andrew Giuliani noted that the crowd outside the courthouse was definitively peaceful. Then, he went further.

“I was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, as well,” Andrew Giuliani said. “I was with President Trump. I remember him talking about peacefully protesting.”

That was the gotcha moment Klepper was waiting for.

“Some people were talking about peaceful protest,” Klepper said. “Some people also on Jan. 6 were talking about ‘trial by combat.’ Do you know anybody who was talking about that?”

It was Rudy Giuliani who had called for “trial by combat” at the Trump rally preceding the sacking of the Capitol. His son declined to identify him. The interview turned more, well, combative after that.

“Oh, funny guy,” Andrew Giuliani said with disdain, “let’s get a brain in there.”

Almost lost in the exchange was the message Andrew Giuliani wanted to deliver: that Democrats are trying to take Trump “off the campaign trail,” which amounts to “the death of our Constitutional republic.”

Like most satire, Klepper’s interview was revealing.

It served as a reminder that the hush-money trial has much less to do with whether Trump is fit to serve as president than the election-interference and classified-documents cases — even though it carries with it the grave potential consequence of a major-party nominee being convicted of a crime during the stretch run of a presidential campaign.

Trump’s critics argue that his push to silence porn actress Stormy Daniels amounts to an illegal benefit to his own 2016 campaign. He should not be above the law, they contend, just as his allies argue he has been unjustly targeted for political purposes.

The spur-of-the-moment on-camera exchange between Andrew Giuliani and Klepper, two figures deeply engaged with American politics, also reflected and underscored the degree to which the right and left talk past each other.

Neither suggested that the trial is important because it will determine whether Trump committed crimes.

Klepper tried to sidestep that question. Andrew Giuliani used the trial as a foil for the argument that Trump is being persecuted.

It could be easy to forget, amid the onlookers, that the jurors will render a decision as simple and prosaic as whether one man broke the law by falsifying documents and as consequential as whether a former president, and current candidate, should be held accountable.

Republican strategist Matthew Bartlett, who was not at the trial, said the political landscape may not change based on the outcome.

“At the end of the day, I’m not sure this trial about a transaction from 2016 will have a superseding effect on what voters want for policy and a vision for the future of the country,” he said.

Outside the first day of the trial smacked of a Ringling Brothers production. Inside the courtroom, just across Centre Street, the solemn nature of the work ahead was evident.

When the first group of 96 prospective jurors passed through metal detectors and into the courtroom around 2:30 p.m., filling every available seat, Trump twisted his neck to take a look. He later stood and turned to acknowledge them when he was named as the defendant.

At times during the lengthy proceedings, the former president suggested disinterest or exhaustion by closing his eyes.

Most of the jurors sat quietly and expressionless. Merchan emphasized his desire to shield their identities from the public, going so far as to warn the rival legal teams not to reproduce lists of their names. More than half of them were dismissed when they raised their hands to say they could not be impartial in this trial.

One dismissed prospective juror was overheard in a hallway saying, “I just couldn’t do it.”

Finding 12 adults with no particular feelings about Donald J. Trump, and the will to sit through a multi-week trial, is no easy feat. That process will continue inside Merchan’s court. For the rest of the world, the “freak show” rolls along on the outside.


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