Silenced in court: Trump curbed by trial rules but tries to wield power outside

<span>Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal in New York on Friday.</span><span>Photograph: Curtis Means/AP</span>
Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal in New York on Friday.Photograph: Curtis Means/AP

In the first week of his criminal trial – a historic first for a former US president – Donald Trump encountered a dynamic that’s become common for his appearances in court.

Related: Trump’s hush-money trial: here’s what’s happened so far

While Trump is bombastic in front of crowds of supporters – and still screams in all caps on social media – he is almost entirely reduced to silence in a courtroom. With the first week his trial now wrapped up, it marks a sea change for someone virtually certain to face Joe Biden in the race for the White House this November and who wants to be attending campaign rallies and speeches on front his fervent fans.

“I will not have any jurors intimidated in my courtroom,” Judge Juan Merchan warned Trump when he was heard muttering over a prospective juror, who had posted a video on Facebook of people cheering in New York when Biden was elected president in 2020 – an election Trump still falsely disputes.

Merchan sits on the elevated judge’s bench above the former president. Trump must stand up when he enters the courtroom, even if he has a scowl on his face. As his posts on Truth Social make clear, Trump would lash out at Merchan given the chance and he has many other targets to keep him busy there. But in Merchan’s courtroom, he must remain civil.

On the surface, it’s a similar scene to his New York fraud trial in the fall, where Trump was sometimes lectured by the judge for his behavior, like a teacher disciplining a student.

But this criminal trial is already different, showing more dramatically the limits Trump faces inside the courtroom, especially compared to the influence he tries to wield outside of it.

This time, Trump is required to attend the whole trial. While his attendance was optional at his fraud trial – he came and went whenever he pleased – Trump will have to be present every day this court is in session. The trial is expected to last about six weeks and will be in session every weekday except for Wednesday.

This trial also has a jury. Twelve average New Yorkers hold Trump’s fate in their hands. They were picked by lawyers out of a pool of nearly 200.

One follows both Michael Cohen and Kellyanne Conway on social media. Another watches Fox News and MSNBC, and reads New York Times. Two work in education, two are in healthcare, and another two are lawyers. Four of 12 live on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Many said they enjoy outdoor activities, like hiking. All said they could be impartial when deciding the fate of a former president.

As distracting as the spectacle around the trial will be, jurors must stay focused on the actual case being tried. Jurors will decide whether Donald Trump illegally covered up hush-money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels in 2017. The Manhattan district attorney’s office charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records, a charge often used when prosecuting white-collar crimes. If found guilty, Trump could face up to four years in prison.

Much of the trial’s focus will center around Trump’s 2016 campaign. Prosecutors allege that Trump paid Daniels $130,000 days before the 2016 presidential election, buying her silence over an affair in 2006. At the time, the infamous Access Hollywood tapes were leaked, making Trump’s campaign nervous about any other salacious stories that could sway voters.

Trump’s former fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen, once a staunchly loyal ally, paid Daniels in October 2016 and was reimbursed over the course of 2017. Prosecutors say Trump recorded the reimbursements on business records as payment for Cohen’s legal services to cover up what they say is election interference.

Though prosecutors said they will not release a list of the witnesses they will call, as a protective measure for the witnesses, they told jurors they will be hearing from “a tabloid publisher, an adult film star and a former lawyer for Trump, Michael Cohen, who has pleaded guilty to several federal crimes” – a hint at the high-profile witnesses that will be testifying over the coming weeks.

As much anger Trump will want to release over the witnesses, he is under a gag order that prevents him from speaking publicly about them.

Prosecutors in court said that Trump has already violated his gag 10 times, posting about witnesses Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels on social media. Merchan said he will hold a hearing on the alleged violations on 23 April – the day after opening arguments are expected to start.

Along with the gag order, jury selection showed just how constrained Trump is during his criminal trial. Over the course of the week, the former president was given a front-row seat to a side of the country he rarely sees.

During voir dire, or when lawyers question jurors about their backgrounds, Trump was forced to face the opinions of the randomly selected fellow New Yorkers, some of whom clearly were far from being fans.

“I don’t think this is what they meant by Orange is the New Black,” read a meme featuring pictures of Trump and Barack Obama a prospective juror posted on social media, which was shared to the courtroom.

Merchan read a joke posted by another prospective juror out loud, to put it into the trial’s record.

“Trump invited the Thai boys to the White House, and the boys request to return to their cave,” the post read, referencing the Thai youth soccer team that was trapped in a cave for two weeks in the summer of 2018.

One prospective juror shared that they thought Trump “seems very selfish and self-serving. I don’t really appreciate that from any public servant”.

This was all discussed in front of Trump, who as president, frequently blocked his critics on social media.

Lawyers weren’t allowed to ask jurors their political party affiliation or who they voted for in the election, but they could pull social media posts and ask jurors what their opinions of Trump are. Each side was given 10 peremptory strikes that could be used to excuse jurors without cause.

Those who expressed outright negative opinions of Trump were dismissed, but a few sitting on the jury suggested their opinions of Trump skew negative, though they affirmed their commitment to being impartial during the trial.

“I don’t like his persona,” one juror said. “I don’t like some of my co-workers, but I don’t try to sabotage their work.”

Merchan told Trump’s lawyers that jurors not liking Trump’s persona was not enough for dismissal if the jurors had affirmed their commitment to remaining impartial.

If there was any indication from the week that Trump needed a confidence boost after facing jury selection, the strongest came from a bizarre trip Trump made right after court ended on Tuesday.

After a long day of jury selection, Trump made a surprise appearance at a bodega in Harlem.

Related: The jurors: who is on the Trump trial jury?

The store was the center of a controversy in 2022 when a clerk stabbed and killed a customer, who was Black. Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney whose office is prosecuting Trump, charged the clerk with murder. After facing criticism from opponents who said the clerk was acting in self-defense, Bragg dropped the charges.

Unlike his silent entrances into the courthouse, Trump was greeted by a crowd of supporters, cheering behind police barricades.

“USA! USA! USA!” they chanted as Trump exited his motorcade. He waved to the crowd, shook hands with supporters with a smile on his face, a notable contrast to the frown he had when facing members against him in court just hours earlier.

“Four more years!” he chanted with the crowd, before he went inside the store.