The courtroom for Trump's trial becomes a test of power for an ex-president and a judge

A striking aspect of Donald Trump’s criminal trial is Judge Juan Merchan’s no-nonsense approach and the degree to which he — and he alone — controls the proceedings.

Inside the courtroom, it’s the sitting judge and not the ex-president who reigns. Merchan resumed the trial Monday by wishing Trump, “Good morning.” That was perhaps the only pleasantry uttered during hours of testimony from the Trump Organization’s former controller, Jeffrey McConney.

When the judge entered the courtroom, Trump stood with everyone else. When the judge sat, Trump sat. As the jurors file out during breaks, they conspicuously avoided eye contact with the famous defendant, who stood silently as they passed.

All that is normal protocol for a criminal trial. But when Trump is the defendant, protocol has been known to collapse.

In a defamation trial in January, the judge in the case, Lewis Kaplan, threatened to kick Trump out of the courtroom after the former president made audible comments during testimony from his accuser, E. Jean Carroll. The judge told Trump to “keep his voice” down at one point.

Merchan is keeping theatrics to a minimum. He set the tone at the start of Monday’s proceedings by ruling Trump had violated his gag order for the 10th time, resulting in another $1,000 fine.

The fines aren’t a workable deterrent, Merchan warned, so he upped the stakes. Further violations could well land Trump in jail, the judge said.

“The last thing I want to do is to put you in jail,” Merchan said. “You are the former president of the United States, and possibly the next president as well.”

Trump sat and listened, saying nothing.

But when the trial wrapped for the day, he struck a more combative tone in the hallway.

“Frankly, our Constitution is far more important than jail,” Trump told reporters in the hallway. “I’ll do that choice any day.”

There’s no telling whether Trump will lash out again and risk losing his freedom. But inside the courtroom, at least, Trump showed far more deference than defiance. For stretches of testimony, he appeared to sit at the defense table with eyes closed, unmoved as McConney and a later Trump Organization witness painstakingly walked through the mechanics of reimbursing Michael Cohen for the $130,000 paid to the porn actress, Stormy Daniels.

Courtroom sketch of former Trump organization employee Jeffrey McConney (Jane Rosenberg / Reuters)Courtroom sketch of former Trump organization employee Jeffrey McConney (Jane Rosenberg / Reuters)

Courtroom sketch of former Trump organization employee Jeffrey McConney (Jane Rosenberg / Reuters)

George Grasso, a retired New York City judge and former senior city police official, sat in the audience Monday to watch the trial unfold. He commended Merchan for blending patience and resolve in his dealings with Trump.

“Any other defendant with these repeated violations would already be put in jail for contempt,” Grasso said in an interview. “He [Trump] tries to say he is being treated differently. He is being treated differently: He’s being given more leeway than the average defendant.”

“What the judge was clearly doing today was letting the defendant know, while he will do it [jail Trump for more violations of the gag order], he doesn’t want to do it. ‘Here are the rules. Please comply!’”

Looking thinner than during his presidency, Trump left the room when court adjourned in the late afternoon. One of the prosecutors had just told Merchan that he expected the trial to take about two more weeks.

Trump walked passed rows of reporters, court security, sketch artists and even a few New Yorkers like Grasso who had come to the courtroom with its faded wood paneling and exposed wires simply for a look at the historic spectacle.

He scowled a bit as he glanced at the press section, but he kept silent.

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