It was a familiar scene of American white-collar justice: a stern-faced defendant seated between high-priced lawyers in a Manhattan courtroom.
But in this case, it was extraordinary. The defendant was Donald Trump. When he pleaded not guilty just before 3pm in New York on Tuesday, the 45th US president became the first holder of that office to answer criminal charges.
Trump’s journey to the lower Manhattan courtroom of judge Juan Merchan, on an otherwise idyllic spring day, was the culmination of a four-year investigation that began with tawdry allegations involving a former Playboy model and a porn star and have now become, as one Trump supporter, Paul Ingrassia, put it, “a rubric moment for the nation”.
Outside the courtroom, a divided country’s madness raged in the confines of a small city park where those who loved and loathed Trump barked at one another across a metal barricade and occasionally skirmished. Many had come armed with cameras and social media feeds that allowed them to play starring roles in their own spectacles.
Like the city itself, the former president’s side contained multitudes: Blacks for Trump, Latinos for Trump, second amendment enthusiasts, Long Island housewives, a grown woman in a diaper, a gentleman who wanted to restore the Glass-Steagall banking regulations, Chinese Communist party opponents calling for the release of Miles Guo, Hasidic Trumpists, and someone parading a mannequin’s leg with a chastity belt.
There was talk of paedophiles and children’s blood. There was also the stench of marijuana and blaring air horns and claims untethered from fact or reason. Above all, there was a conviction that the other side was capable of evil and that this was existential.
“It’s either this or die,” said a woman wearing a shirt advertising her adherence to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Nearby, a trio of men were waving a Trump flag and chanting: “Two genders!” To which their equally ill-tempered opponents shouted: “Fuck you!” And: “Fascists!”
Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican Senator whose own presidential ambitions were surgically destroyed by Trump eight years ago with a single moniker — “Little Marco” — appeared to speak for much of the country beyond that square when he despaired: “Today is a bad day for all of us, and we are all going to regret it for a very long time.”
Trump’s date with justice began in the same place where his political career began: Trump Tower. The former president jetted in to New York late on Monday afternoon from Palm Beach, Florida aboard his plane, Trump Force One. The sidewalks around the iconic Fifth Avenue skyscraper were thronged with many of the same characters who would turn up in the park a day later.
Just beyond the frame of cable television, however, the city went on much as usual. The occasional bemused tourist would pass by, asking: what’s this about? Hardened Manhattanites tended to roll their eyes — one more nuisance to be endured in a city full of them.
Dressed in his customary battle outfit, a white shirt and red tie, Trump looked defiant to the point of scowling. In that brief glimpse, his temperament was reminiscent of the domineering candidate who stalked Hillary Clinton on the presidential debate stage.
But something seemed to shift by the time his motorcade set off the next day on the fateful drive to the downtown court complex, where he would submit to a fingerprinting but was spared the indignity of a mugshot or “perp” walk.
“Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse. Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME,” Trump posted to his social media site.
Inside the courtroom, Trump — like so many defendants before him — appeared reduced by the weight of US justice. Hours earlier, he had derided judge Merchan on social media as “HIGHLY PARTISAN” and accused him of presiding over a “KANGAROO COURT!!!”
Now he was restrained, occasionally scribbling on a notepad while his lawyers did the talking. “I do, your Honour,” a deferential Trump replied at one point, when asked by the judge if he understood that he could be removed from the courtroom in the future if he were disruptive.
Outside, helicopters buzzed overhead and the crowd stirred. They had been riled up by a chaotic appearance from Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia representative who is a conspiracy theorist and ardent Trump supporter, and her Republican colleague, the serial fabulist George Santos. (“Jew-ish, Jew-ish!” someone taunted, referring to Santos’ bogus claims about his heritage.)
A Trump supporter who had travelled from Massachusetts and was, at first, delighted, appeared to wither as the day went on. A protest, she said, had turned into a circus and then a freak show.
In Washington, president Joe Biden was far from the drama, huddling with a group of science advisers discussing the topic of artificial intelligence and dodging questions about Trump’s predicament.
If Trump appeared vulnerable, so too did Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney who, little more than a year after a stumbling start to the job, brought the weightiest case in the history of an illustrious office. Bragg was not accompanied by the customary phalanx of prosecutors and FBI agents when he faced the press. He said little and appeared nervous.
Several legal experts expressed misgivings when a grand jury handed up the indictment last week. When it was at last unsealed on Tuesday, revealing 34 felony charges, those sentiments remained.
One former prosecutor who served under the legendary Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau called it “a triable case” — meaning it could go either way.
By 3.30pm, Trump was out of court and rushing to LaGuardia Airport, and eventually, the gilded safety of his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. That evening, the defiance returned as he addressed adoring supporters.
“The only crime I’ve committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it,” he said, launching into a 25-minute speech in which he restated familiar falsehoods about electoral fraud and hit out at separate criminal investigations against him in Georgia and Washington, DC that are still in the works.
He called Bragg “a criminal” and, in a flash of darkness that recalled his 2016 inauguration, warned: “Our country is going to hell.”
In lower Manhattan, Diane Lewis, a 58-year-old IT worker, was preparing for the trip back to Long Island. Lewis works nights, and so got little rest before rushing into the city that morning. “I wanted to show support for president Trump, and also just show how unlawful all this is,” she explained.
Before she left the park, Lewis took care to remove her Trump hat and conceal her MAGA shirt with a neutral hoodie. She did not trust New York City, she explained, but was certain about the larger outcome of it all. “This is going to secure the election for him,” Lewis said. “If they can do this to Donald Trump, they can do this to anyone.”