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No longer running the show, Trump left scowling for small crowd inside hermetically secured courtroom

Trump arraignment

Former President Donald Trump appears in court for his arraignment on charges related to falsifying business records in a hush money investigation, Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in New York. (Andrew Kelly/Pool Photo via AP)

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For what felt like the first time in Donald Trump’s lengthy history with the court system, the former president let his lawyers do the talking. He clearly didn’t like it.

The site of Trump’s first brush as a defendant in the criminal justice system, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan’s 15th-floor courtroom was a cavernous, yet claustrophobic setting, for the proceedings. The room itself had a towering Art Deco design, with angular lights jutting down from the high ceiling, shining institutional fluorescent lighting over the wooden pews. Like many New York criminal courtrooms, the phrase “IN GOD WE TRUST” loomed over the bench casting judgment.

Though tall, the main room had only a few dozen reporters watching the most closely scrutinized arraignment in U.S. history. Due to the judge’s 11th-hour order, reporters jotted down notes on pads rather than their computers. The massive security presence heightened the feeling of constraint. Officers directed journalists’ movements at every turn. Credential checks were compulsory. There were two security screenings. Once inside, reporters sat in wooden pews surrounded by court officers on either side. Their commanders and Secret Service members shared updates with each other about the movements of the hearing’s central players.

Once the gallery had filled, the prosecution entered, followed by the defense.

When Trump finally entered the courtroom, he seemed to lose all of his instincts as a showman, reality TV star and president of the stump speech. As his lawyers promised, he wasn’t wearing handcuffs, in what some legal experts regard as a striking departure from usual procedures. But Trump didn’t look free. His footsteps plopped on the ground heavily until he reached his seat, between his celebrity attorney Joe Tacopina and his company’s longtime lawyer Susan Necheles. Court officers guarded him from behind, and photographers aimed their telephoto lenses from the jury box for a fleeting moment. Trump didn’t move or say much after that, except to give one-to-four-word answers when prompted.

“Not guilty,” Trump said after the clerk formally revealed the charges.

He replied “Yes” and “Okay, thank you” when informed by Merchan about his right to be present. Yet Trump’s presence felt smaller than it had in years, transforming into what he had become: a defendant in a criminal case.

Due to intense security, only 60 spectators could see this making low of the former president of the United States, in person, in real-time, for the better part of an hour. Some 210 more had simulated access through closed-circuit TV. The only words court-watchers heard the defendant speak inside were subdued, staccato replies to prompts by Justice Merchan.

This was the same judge Trump claimed “HATES ME.” Trump went right back to attacking Merchan, his wife and his daughter hours after the hearing. It was an even more brazen provocation in light of what Merchan had warned Trump earlier that day.

“Please refrain from making comments or engaging in conduct that has the potential to incite violence, create civil unrest, or jeopardize the safety or well-being of any individuals,” Merchan said, adding that Trump also shouldn’t do anything that “jeopardizes the rule of law.”

If Trump felt any defiance about the remark, he didn’t show it then. He politely answered the judge’s queries curtly, quietly and respectfully, and then, that evening, noisily unloaded on His Honor before a crowd at Mar-a-Lago.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."