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Friday, February 23, 2024

The 12 Days of Trump Court: A year of appearances, from unprecedented to almost routine

‘Tis the season to look back on a truly unprecedented year in America’s courts, when the sight of a former president sitting before a judge went from unheard of to almost commonplace, and his ongoing campaign fused courtroom appearances into stump stops.

As Donald Trump’s lawyers pointed out in a filing Saturday night, “During the 234 years from 1789 to 2023, no current or former President had ever been criminally prosecuted.” That streak ended on March 30, when a New York grand jury indicted Trump, making him the first former president to be charged with crimes.

He was soon indicted in three more cases, appearing for arraignments in two (and waiving his appearance once). Then Trump attended nine days of a civil fraud trial, testifying twice. His first couple of days in court drew crowds of demonstrators, both supporting and opposing the former president. Courthouses were nearly shut down as regular business gave way to prioritizing one heavily guarded defendant.

By his final day of attending court in 2023, the scene had changed dramatically. Trump sat among a smattering of onlookers in a nearly empty room, as the courthouse around it hummed with the daily legal dramas of everyday New Yorkers, finalizing divorces, battling landlords and litigating slip-and-falls.

These were the 12 days of Trump court appearances:

April 4: On the first day of Trump court, the former president was whisked into a Manhattan criminal courthouse fortified by a massive security apparatus. Those in the packed courtroom — many of whom had waited overnight for the chance to see the proceedings — watched as Trump became the first former or sitting president to come before a judge and utter the words “not guilty.” He denied all allegations after being charged with 34 felony counts of falsification of business records in connection with an alleged “hush money” payment before the 2016 election.

June 13: On the second day of Trump court, a Miami courthouse was largely shuttered and a crowd of protesters loomed outside as law enforcement prepared for another American first: a former president arraigned on federal charges. Seven members of the general public and a couple dozen reporters won a lottery of sorts to be in the courtroom as a judge barred Trump from discussing the case with potential witnesses, including his aide and co-defendant Walt Nauta. Trump entered a not guilty plea to 37 felony charges that day — and later to three additional charges filed in August — related to willful retention of national security information after his exit from the White House. Nauta also entered a not guilty plea in the case.

Aug. 3: On the third day of Trump court, different city, same setup. This time, as Trump waited in the Washington, D.C., courtroom, he sat before an unusual audience. Several federal judges sat in the back row of the gallery, watching as Trump entered not guilty pleas to four felony counts related to his efforts to overturn his loss in the 2020 election.

Oct. 2: On the fourth day of Trump court, Trump watched opening statements in a civil fraud trial that itself was unprecedented — pitting Trump, a former president accused of fraud, against New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is seeking sanctions that would severely hamper Trump’s business in the state and $250 million she says he and his company gained from a scheme tied to distortions of his wealth.

Days before the trial began, the judge in the case found the defendants liable for fraud. The pretrial ruling caused Trump to erupt with rage on social media, a precursor to more than two months of clashes between Trump and the judge, Arthur Engoron, as the trial proceeded on allegations related to falsification of business records, conspiracy and insurance fraud. The case stems from a lawsuit in which James accused him, two of his sons and their company of a decade of fraud tied to exaggerations of Trump’s wealth. The defendants have all denied the allegations, blaming their accountants, among others, while accusing James of pursuing the case for political gain.

On numerous occasions during the trial, he stood just outside the courtroom doors — trapping those inside as his Secret Service entourage and court officers guarded the exit — and expounded to reporters about politics, the case and other things on his mind. The appearances took on a new dynamic, with campaign staff in attendance recording Trump’s hallway comments, and often trumpeting them out soon after in fundraising emails and social media.

Oct. 3: On the fifth day of Trump court, that dynamic got Trump in trouble. Trump published a derogatory social media post about Engoron’s law clerk, enraging the judge, who subjected Trump to a gag order barring him from talking about court personnel.

Oct. 4: On the sixth day of Trump court, Trump left in the middle of the afternoon. James later declared to the press, “the Donald Trump Show is over.” It was not.

Oct. 17: On the seventh day of Trump court, Trump had planned to confront his archnemesis, former lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen — a key witness in Trump’s New York criminal and civil cases — who had been scheduled to testify. But instead of coming face-to-face with Cohen, who was under the weather, Trump was confronted with hours of testimony on mundane details about the evidence — brief emails, notes in a spreadsheet a thousand lines deep — that James says were the building blocks for widespread fraud.

Oct. 18: On the eighth day of Trump court, Trump’s frustration with the case, the judge and the witnesses was visible from the gallery. Inside the courtroom, Trump shook his head, threw his hands in the air and complained to his attorneys. In the hallway outside, Trump railed against the case to the media while expressing admiration for his defense attorneys, saying, “This is like Perry Mason.”

Oct. 25: On the ninth day of Trump court, Trump and Cohen finally came face-to-face. Cohen testified that Trump directed him to adjust financial statements to arrive at predetermined valuations, prompting Trump to shake his head and fold his arms across his chest. Prosecutors and defense attorneys from Trump’s New York criminal case were on hand to watch Cohen’s often combative testimony. During cross-examination, the disbarred attorney replied “asked and answered” to multiple questions, referring to an objection lawyers sometimes raise, but witnesses cannot. Trump attorney Christopher Kise protested Cohen’s responses, saying, “This witness is out of control, your honor.”

Oct. 26: On the 10th day of Trump court, Cohen remained on the stand, but the judge also called Trump himself to testify briefly. During one of Trump’s hallway tirades, he referenced “a person who is very partisan sitting alongside” Engoron. The judge’s clerk, who Trump was barred from talking about, typically sits right next to the judge. Engoron questioned Trump under oath about the comment, and was unswayed when Trump insisted he was talking about Cohen. Trump, who was previously fined $5,000 after his campaign failed to immediately remove his original offending post from its website, was fined another $10,000.

Nov. 6: On the 11th dayof Trump court, Trump was called to the stand. During often lengthy answers that strayed from the questions he was asked, Trump lashed out against the legal forces that put him there. Trump’s failure in some instances to directly answer questions earned reprimands from the judge. Trump ultimately stood by asset valuations that other co-defendants had sought to distance themselves from. He returned to the trial just once more, over a month later.

Dec. 7: On the 12th day of Trump court, the room had far more seats empty than filled, and civilians ambled in and out. Still, Trump sat with rapt attention as his defense team’s final expert witness clashed with lawyers for the state, calling their case “absurd.” The New York University accounting professor reinforced Trump’s testimony, saying the financial statements at the center of the case warned banks to use them at their own risk. Trump had been expected to testify once more, but changed his mind, citing the testimony of the expert, Eli Bartov, who called Trump’s financial statements “transparent” and “awesome” in their scope. Trump may have been impressed with Bartov, but Engoron evidently was not. The judge later wrote in a filing, “all that his testimony proves is that for a million or so dollars, some experts will say whatever you want them.”

That was Trump’s last court appearance in 2023, but 2024 is shaping up to have many more, as his four criminal cases move forward.

Closing arguments in the civil fraud trial are scheduled for Jan. 11, 2024. Trump’s Washington, D.C. criminal trial related to alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election is scheduled to begin March 4. Trump’s New York criminal trial in the “hush money” case is scheduled for March 25. His Florida criminal trial over the handling of national security documents is scheduled for May 20. Prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia, where he is accused of racketeering in connection with his efforts to thwart the 2020 election, have requested an Aug. 5 start date. The trial calendar in all these cases is far from set in stone, as Trump’s team has indicated in each that he believes they should be held after the 2024 election, and has appealed various pretrial decisions as part of that effort.

Trump has strenuously denied allegations in all cases, and has entered not guilty pleas to 91 felony charges.

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