Inside the Courtroom, Trump’s Fame is Balanced by Judge Merchan


Everywhere in our universe, a basic physical law applies: the greater the mass of an object, the stronger its gravitational field.

The accumulated mass of fame and political status places Donald J. Trump at the center of most rooms he finds himself in. In the dimly lit New York courtroom where he is standing trial, his gravitational field remains strong.

Secret Service agents are glued to his every move and gesture, as are many reporters. Jurors glance and gawk. If he were to storm out of court suddenly, as he has in other proceedings, it would be the biggest news of the day.

But in court, unlike almost everywhere else, Mr. Trump has competition: The judge, Juan M. Merchan, exudes his own gravity and has power Mr. Trump does not. And on Thursday, after a new pool of 96 prospective jurors walked into the high-ceilinged room, their attention slid from the former president seated at the defense table to the judge. Justice Merchan spoke to them for a half-hour about the case and their roles.

“The defendant in this case is Donald Trump,” the judge said, “and he is seated to my right.” Several of the Manhattanites — normally so good at pretending to be unfazed by encounters with the famous — took the opportunity to stare.

“My role,” the judge added, “is to help assure a fair and orderly trial.”

The contest for attention between the judge and the former president — the rule of law and the spectacle that butts up against it — is likely to be one of the defining characteristics of the trial, in which the former president is charged with 34 felonies, accused of covering up a sex scandal that could have hurt his presidential campaign.

In most courtrooms, the judge is an unquestionable authority, and often wins the devotion of jurors as a benevolent parental figure. Judges are often protective of jurors, preparing them for their crucial role of deciding a defendant’s future.

“We are both judges in the case,” Justice Merchan said to the 96 prospective jurors on Thursday. “It is important to recognize that we judge different things. You, the jury, judge the facts of the case in order to reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty, and I judge the law, meaning I decide questions of the law and I instruct the jury on the law.”

Many defendants, often on the advice of their lawyers, offer a subdued presence at the defense table. They do not want to get into the habit of reacting to events. The actor Jonathan Majors, who went on trial late last year in Manhattan for misdemeanor assault, often tilted his head away from jurors at a slight angle, the better to disguise his expressions and reactions.

That’s not Mr. Trump. He did not speak to prospective jurors on Thursday, but he certainly did look at them, following them with his eyes as they walked to the jury box to answer questions.

Earlier in the week, Justice Merchan scolded Mr. Trump for trying to influence a prospective juror even more directly. The woman had been called into the courtroom individually so that lawyers and the judge could ask her about old social media posts. When she left, the judge turned, not toward the former president, but toward his lawyer Todd Blanche.

“While the juror was at the podium, maybe 12 feet from your client, your client was audibly muttering something,” the judge said, his tone sharp. “He was audibly gesturing, speaking in the direction of the juror. I won’t tolerate that. I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom. I want to make that crystal clear.”

“Yes, your honor,” Mr. Blanche said.

“Take a minute. Speak to your client about it,” the judge directed.

Mr. Blanche did.

Two days later, another juror was brought into the courtroom alone for questioning, one who had already been seated, but about whom prosecutors had become concerned, saying that he might have lied when responding to questions during the selection process.

It seemed like a discussion that might have interested the former president: He has expressed concern about the makeup of the jury and whether it can be fair.

But as the lawyers questioned the juror, and continued to discuss him after he had left the room, Mr. Trump sat silently at the defense table, looking very much like any other defendant.

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