Inside the Manhattan Courtroom at the Center of American Politics

NEW YORK — It was about 2:30 on Monday afternoon when the first 96 potential jurors filed into a drab courtroom in lower Manhattan to encounter the world’s most famous defendant: Donald Trump.

Some craned their necks to catch a glimpse, an indication of the undeniable power of Trump’s celebrity.

But not long after, more than 50 of those same prospective jurors — drawn from one of the nation’s most liberal counties — were dismissed because they said they could not be impartial about the 45th president.

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The beginning of the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president drew intense security, loud demonstrations and smothering media coverage to a dingy New York courthouse that will be the unlikely center of American politics for the next six weeks.

And if the first day is any indication, the trial may well be a surreal experience, juxtaposing the case’s mundane-sounding criminal charges — falsifying business records — against the potentially seismic effect it could have on the presidential race.

On Monday, both the dramatic and the mundane were on full display, as supporters of the former president were making their voices heard, shouting through a bullhorn that Trump “did nothing wrong” and attacking the family of the case’s judge, Juan M. Merchan.

Despite the highly charged atmosphere, Trump, seated in the 15th-floor courtroom, at one point appeared to nod off.

The day’s jury selection did not actually begin until midafternoon, but cable news was on the air before dawn. Anti-Trump protesters were also up early, carrying an array of hand-painted signs, some of which taunted the former president as a “loser,” repurposing one of Trump’s favorite insults.

Others stressed the frustration of liberals and Democrats who have wondered at Trump’s ability to escape a trial up to now, despite facing four criminal indictments.

“Convict Trump Already,” one sign read.

Onlookers descended from other cities and states, including Tim Smith, from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who displayed his five-panel work “The Kraken,” about the Trump era following the 2020 election. Another played the flute atop a park bench.

A truck festooned with Trump flags drove past, as protesters and counterprotesters were locked in a call-and-response in Collect Pond Park, opposite the courthouse, with one side shouting “No one is above the law,” and the other shouting back “Trump is innocent!”

TV crews, which had arrived from around the world and across the city, took it all in. Right-wing activist Laura Loomer, known for her provocative tactics, derided “fake-news media freaks.” Andrew Giuliani, the son of Rudy Giuliani, the former Trump lawyer and New York City mayor, then took the horn, criticizing the case as weak and politically motivated.

“Joe Biden would not even take this case,” Andrew Giuliani said.

For his part, Trump seemed confident when he left Trump Tower on Monday morning, waving to a group of fans and leaving in a motorcade that would snarl traffic throughout lower Manhattan. (And snarl it again, of course, when he left for the day.)

Before entering the courtroom, Trump delivered a condemnation of what he termed a “political persecution,” calling it “an assault on America.” Once inside, Trump glowered at prosecutors and appeared to chuckle when one of his own social media posts was read aloud. In a dark blue suit and red tie, he looked oddly out of place in a drab courtroom that, with its wood paneling and fluorescent lights, is more “Fargo” than Mar-a-Lago.

Still, he was engaged at first, chatting with lawyers, passing notes with his lead attorney, Todd Blanche, and looking intently at Merchan.

Then, he closed his eyes, and appeared to briefly fall asleep, his chin toward his chest. He did not react to notes from his lawyer before seeming to jolt awake.

Many of Merchan’s decisions Monday displeased the former president, including the judge’s delay in deciding whether Trump could miss a day in court to go to his son Barron’s graduation in May.

Merchan also shot down a request that Trump be allowed to miss court to attend next week’s Supreme Court arguments over his assertions of almost complete immunity — a ruling that earned the former president’s ire.

“I can’t go to my son’s graduation, or that I can’t go to the United States Supreme Court,” Trump said, adding that he wouldn’t be able to campaign as regularly as he would like because he would be in court. “This is about election interference.”

Jury selection, which finally began after the judge and lawyers dealt with hours of other issues, could last a week or more: Only 11 potential jurors were heard Monday, with the process scheduled to begin again Tuesday morning.

Robert Gerhorsan, 69, a West Village resident, was dismissed by Merchan because Gerhorsan’s child’s wedding in Seattle in June could conflict with the trial. But he said the fact that Trump was facing a jury, for better or worse, was evidence that the system works.

“No one’s being treated special,” he said, adding that he loved “that no one is above the law.”

For his part, Trump sat through all seven hours Monday — minus a lunch break and however many seconds he might have slept through — with none of the outbursts that have occurred during other trials he’s been involved in. And he stayed until Merchan adjourned for the day.

But as the day ended, Trump blasted out a fundraising pitch by email.

“I JUST STORMED OUT OF BIDEN’S KANGAROO COURT!” it read, though Trump had not in fact stormed out. “What I’ve been FORCED to endure would make any patriotic American SICK.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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