From stare-downs to shut-eye: Trump’s every move in criminal trial under the microscope

Donald Trump has spent most of his adult life seeking the limelight. Inside a frigid New York City courtroom this week, a closed-circuit camera provided arguably the brightest light he’s stood before.

Not even during his jaw-dropping presidency nor at his raucous rallies has Trump’s every move been so meticulously tracked as during his initial appearances in Manhattan for the start of his hush money trial. Every smirk, turn, stare and scoff he made in the courtroom was chronicled by reporters and blasted out to the world to offer even a glimpse or small insight into how he was handling developments in the case — the first criminal trial ever involving a former president.

But behind every scowl, whisper or, yes, even yawn, Trump’s team sees a clear message the presumptive GOP nominee has the opportunity to get across: Defiance. The aim? Convince the American people that the 34 counts of falsifying business records he faces are a sham to harm his electoral odds this fall.

“President Trump proved he will remain defiant in the face of this unprecedented political lawfare, and it is clear that his support from the American people will only grow as they watch Joe Biden, [Manhattan District Attorney] Alvin Bragg, and the Democrats putting on this bogus show trial six months before the election,” said Karoline Leavitt, a Trump spokesperson.

The central thesis of the charges, as Bragg alleges, is that Trump falsified records to conceal that he reimbursed his former lawyer Michael Cohen for the $130,000 paid to adult film actor Stormy Daniels just prior to the 2016 presidential election — a move made to preemptively silence her from alleging that she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. (Trump denies sleeping with Daniels but has acknowledged repaying Cohen, who pled guilty in 2018 to federal campaign finance charges related to the payment).

Trump has pleaded not guilty to the charges and, if convicted, could face up to four years in prison.

Most of the week’s court proceedings featured jury selection, with Trump listening as prospective jurors were questioned about their media diet, opinions on Trump’s presidency and ability to judge him fairly. Some were even pushed on past social media posts, such as one possible alternate juror who was questioned about a 2020 social media post where he called Trump “the devil and a sociopath.” (He was dismissed.)

In Manhattan, a New York City borough he lost by 70 points in 2020, Trump didn’t find many of the jurors’ answers satisfactory, and at multiple points stared down individuals. Nevertheless, a full jury and alternate jurors were selected, with Trump’s ears perking up when candidates referenced watching Fox News or otherwise making comments he viewed favorably.

He crossed his arms Friday, muttering to an attorney seated beside him when one prospective juror described him as seemingly “very selfish and self-serving.” But Trump smiled when the prosecution noted to jurors that some witnesses they will call “have what you might consider to be some baggage.”

Trump was admonished by Judge Juan Merchan in court Tuesday for his behavior toward the prospective jurors, with Merchan telling Trump and his lawyer Todd Blanche: “I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom. I want to make this crystal clear.”

Merchan said he heard Trump say something in the direction of a juror and that he had been “muttering” and “gesturing” toward her.

But nothing from the week garnered more attention than Trump looking as if he was dozing off, closing his eyes for extended periods, prompting speculation he had fallen asleep. This was not a single occurrence, he sat with his eyes closed at least once every day he was in court.

Trump ignored a hallway questions about whether he was napping, but did post to his Truth Social platform on Friday that the trial, which could go on for weeks, “is a Long, Rigged, Endurance Contest, dealing with Nasty, Crooked People, who want to DESTROY OUR COUNTRY.”

Biden’s campaign seized on the possible snooze, poking fun at Trump. The campaign seemed to take particular pleasure in calling him “Sleepy Don,” after years of Trump, 77, jabbing Biden, 81, as “Sleepy Joe.”

In a statement, Biden campaign spokesperson James Singer took a dig at Trump for appearing to get some shut-eye but otherwise did not address the former president’s actions in court, instead touting the sitting president’s tour of Pennsylvania this week — pointing to his rally with steelworkers and stops at popular Keystone State convenience chains Sheetz and WaWa.

“Our campaign and the president are focused on the American people — not Donald Trump’s trials and tribulations,” Singer said. “We’re also not sleeping on the fact that campaigns are won by the candidate who remains focused on fighting for the American people — not distracted by their own grievances or pursuit of revenge and retribution.”

“We are proud of the week we had,” Singer continued, “you’ll have to ask the Trump campaign if they are proud of theirs.”

But Trump’s campaign sees the spotlight on his court appearances as a boon, expressing optimism that the difficult jury selection process will wake up voters to the overarching points Trump and allies have made about the case against him: That it’s illegitimate. What’s more, the endless media coverage Trump received this week eclipsed Biden’s much-heralded trip across a key battleground state this week, another win in team Trump’s eyes.

Trump has been able to be more voiceful outside of court, posting to his Truth Social platform his belief that he is being “railroaded” or lamenting the case as “ridiculous” when addressing the press this week. (He also echoed concerns from others of how “freezing” the courtroom was.)

“Donald Trump has made clear that the Bragg indictment is politically motivated,” Garrett Ventry, a Trump-aligned GOP strategist, said. “His stone coldness in court shows his defiance to the case, and his creative press gaggles outside of court enforce that strategy. Never before have a presidential candidate successfully turned indictments into bumps in the polls, until Trump.”

There have been reminders that Trump is not able to act the same inside court as out. At one point on Thursday, Trump pulled out his phone while seated at the defense table and appeared grumpy after his attorney told him to put it away.

Ultimately, much of the proceedings have been mundane. That same day, Trump yawned as Merchan read through jury instructions. For the most part, Trump appears resigned to his new reality: Court appearance after court appearance for weeks to come.

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