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Inside court: Listless Trump can only sit in silence while his hush money judge rejects his delays

An imposing neoclassical New York criminal courthouse overlooks a small park that used to be a public sewer. On the building’s 15th floor, Donald Trump was listless, finding himself once again seated between his attorneys with his oversized red tie pressed against the defence table in front of him.

Inside the criminal section of New York Supreme Court in Manhattan on Monday morning, he sat there quietly, leaning back in his chair or hunching his shoulders forward to listen to the lawyers in the room, rarely darting his eyes anywhere else, or fixing them towards nothing in particular.

Behind the courtroom’s doors, the former president can’t interrupt, can’t argue with the prosecutors across the room from him, and can’t argue with the judge in front of him. He can only sit and watch in a crowded room of reporters and other people he calls his enemies and whisper into his attorneys’ ears while a judge guts their arguments.

On the other side, however, Mr Trump lashed out at the “witch hunt,” “hoax,” “election interference,” “voter intimidation,” and “disgrace” against him. After a two-hour hearing, he immediately went to his 40 Wall Street property to give a rambling 21-minute press conference attacking New York Justice Juan Merchan and the Manhattan prosecutor who argued in court against him.

It’s been a familiar scene over the last several months, as the Republican Party’s likely nominee to face President Joe Biden in November uses courtrooms across the country as an extension of his campaign, leveraging media attention to rewrite the narrative of crime, corruption and fraud detailed in lawsuits, judgments and indictments against him.

He uses courthouse settings to cast himself as a victim of political persecution, while telling his supporters that what he claims is a conspiracy against him will come for them, too, unless he stops them.

A court sketch depicts Donald Trump   during a petrial hearing in his so-called hush money case in Manhattan on 25 March (REUTERS)
A court sketch depicts Donald Trump during a petrial hearing in his so-called hush money case in Manhattan on 25 March (REUTERS)

Mr Trump began exploiting that dynamic at his civil fraud trial only a few doors down from the criminal courthouse, where a months-long proceeding gave him ample access to a stable of photographers and video cameras assembled in a hallway on the days he planned to show up. Fundraising messages from his campaign recounted his days in court.

He lost that case. On Monday, a state appeals court granted him an extension to secure a bond that would block enforcement of the judgment against him, giving him 10 more days to find at least $175m to prevent New York Attorney General Letitia James from seizing his assets and freezing his accounts.

Mr Trump accepted that reprieve, which came in the middle of his separate hearing in Judge Merchan’s courtroom.

Mr Trump is accused of falsifying business records in connection a so-called hush money scheme to cover up a sex scandal that threatened his 2016 presidential campaign.

His attorneys asked for either a 90-day delay or to dismiss the case altogether, accusing the Manattan District Attorney’s Office of violating its obligations to the defence during the discovery process.

But Mr Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche often found himself stumbling over the judge’s questions about the serious allegations Mr Trump’s legal team lobbed against the district attorney, at one point asking to pause to look at his notes. At another low point, the judge invoked Mr Blanche’s own resume – including his decade of prior experience as a federal prosecutor – to suggest that he should know better.

Now, the former president faces the prospect of a criminal trial in 20 days, in his hometown, down the street from the courthouse that found him liable for fraud and put him on the hook for nearly half a billion dollars.

Mr Trump will be the first American president to face a criminal trial when jury selection in the hush money case begins on 15 April.

Judge Merchan dismissed attempts from the former president’s attorneys to further delay a trial that prosecutors have outlined as a kind of election interference case – one that predated the alleged criminal conspiracy to overturn 2020’s election results – and a scheme that pushed the boundaries of what he could get away with after successfully litigating himself out of trouble for decades.

Mr Trump is now staring at the start date for yet another trial, failing to avoid returning to the Manhattan courthouse as a criminal defendant after pushing for delays, appeals, and motions to dismiss the cases against him to no avail, on top of lawsuits that could see him forfeit tens of millions of dollars.

“I shouldn’t have a trial,” Mr Trump told reporters from the lobby of 40 Wall Street on Monday.

“I don’t know if we’re having one. I’m going to be appealing, right now. I can tell you that,” he said. “We did nothing wrong, just like I did nothing wrong in the other case.”