Six weeks of trial in a dreary Manhattan court has left Donald Trump diminished

May 7, 2024; New York, NY; Former US President Donald Trump sits in court at Manhattan criminal court
May 7, 2024; New York, NY; Former US President Donald Trump sits in court at Manhattan criminal court Photo: Curtis Means/Pool via USA TODAY NETWORK

For his entire life, Donald Trump has been used to having things his way. He hired lawyers to make problems go away, learning from one of the worst, Roy Cohn, the closeted villain of Angels in America. And now, after decades of dominating everyone through threats and intimidation, Trump has finally found himself in his worst nightmare: not just facing jail but having to listen to people’s insults without lashing out.

While much has been made of the magnitude of the moment – the first president ever to undergo a criminal trial – what emerged during the beginning of the trial was not how big the trial was but how small it made Trump look. The courtroom is tired and shabby, the antithesis of the garish surroundings that are so important to Trump. The room itself is cold, leaving Trump at the mercy of a malfunctioning HVAC system. For someone who insists on ostentatious displays of wealth and control, the setting itself is precisely the kind of place that Trump would never deign to set foot in, let alone spend weeks in.

Then there was the problem that Trump can’t rage at his enemies, real or perceived. He had to sit there and take it as would-be jurors variously described him as “selfish,” “negative,” and “self-serving.” Then there were the social media posts of jurors, which are sometimes read in court by Trump’s own lawyers. One particularly choice post said, “I wouldn’t believe Donald Trump if his tongue were notarized.”

That juror was not selected.

The one time that Trump did react, muttering something as a juror was excused, led to him being chastised by Judge Juan Merchan for trying to intimidate the jurors. Intimidation is one of Trump’s calling cards, so it must have been galling to be told to shut up. It also made it clear that Merchan is the one calling the shots, not Trump.

For Trump, all of this is a branding disaster. “He’s the object of derision. It’s his nightmare. He can’t control the script. He can’t control the cinematography. He can’t control what’s being said about him,” Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer and critic, told the AP.

No wonder that on the first day of the trial, Trump looked defeated and tired – so tired that he fell asleep during the proceedings. He fell asleep again throughout the trial, and then he had to battle rumors that he was inflicting flatulence upon the courtroom. (There is no evidence supporting the claim.)

And all of this was just week one.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has been out on the campaign trail in carefully choreographed appearances, looking presidential. Because Trump has had to be in the courtroom four weekdays every week (he got Wednesdays off, due to Merchan’s schedule), his appearances have been limited. To add insult to injury, his big campaign appearance for the weekend was scheduled for North Carolina, only to be canceled due to the weather.

The bulk of the coverage of Trump in May was from the courtroom, not the campaign trail. As each week went by, the indignities continued to pile up. The blustering bully had to sit by meekly like any other defendant. If he didn’t, he risked not only fines (Merchan will be considering those for Trump’s violation of a gag order, thanks to his social media posts) but even jail before he was convicted.

Of course, none of this changed the views of Trump’s hard-core followers, who described him as Jesus and the trial as a crucifixion. But for those voters who aren’t part of the MAGA cult, seeing the figure they know from The Apprentice in such reduced circumstances surely tarnished their image of him.

For someone for whom that image is everything, the trial really shake Trump’s very being. He could not escape the courtroom without appearing diminished, less than he wants people to believe he is. If he’s convicted, he will be in an even worse place, as the thought of jail by many accounts frightens him.

But even if he gets off, he will not be the invincible Trump he was before the trial. It only gets worse for him from here on it.

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