Donald Trump suddenly looks rather small—and exceedingly ordinary

The tawdriness of the Manhattan case against the former president makes it a fitting beginning of the end

April 05, 2023
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Former U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on education as he holds a campaign rally with supporters, in Davenport, Iowa, U.S. March 13, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Donald Trump pleaded not guilty on Tuesday 4th April to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, in a case brought by Manhattan district attorney (DA) Alvin Bragg. It is the first criminal indictment of a former president of the United States in history, and—whether you believe the prosecution is a malevolent political witch-hunt timed to coincide with the 2024 presidential election, or a long-overdue reckoning for a man who seemed untouchable until he wasn’t—the object lesson of the events inside the courthouse is that the made-for-TV presidency has run afoul of the made-for-business justice system.

It was one of the only public appearances by Trump in which he neither wrote, nor directed, nor staged, nor controlled the narrative. That privilege went to the judge, Juan Merchan, who had closed the proceeding to cameras, allowed a few still photographs and a limited press pool, and who presided over a handful of procedural matters while the lawyers spoke and the former president sat silently. Trump then flew off to his resort in Florida to address the public, having been cautioned by Merchan to refrain from making statements with “the potential to incite violence and civil unrest.” Trump had already posted a photo of himself holding a baseball bat to Bragg’s head, threatened “death and destruction”, and ranted on social media that Merchan “HATES” him, had “railroaded” the Trump Organization’s former CFO Allen Weisselberg and had treated his companies “VICIOUSLY.” 

Still, for those who had feared that Trump’s threats had the capacity to summon the kind of mob that showed up to support him on 6th January, 2021, the entire arraignment press felt less like that televised insurrection than an immense anti-climax. And while the anticlimax was surely part of the point—pains were taken to have no “perp walk”, no mug shot and no drama—the Trump campaign managed to manufacture in-house mugshots in order to sell them on $36 T-shirts bearing a pretend booking photo. If there is a more Trumpist move than mocking up a booking photo to sell T-shirts in the absence of an authentic image, it’s hard to imagine it. But that may have been the lone Trumpist moment in a long slog of a legal day.

The DA’s office charged 34 felony counts, tagged to allegedly false statements made around hush money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels prior to the 2016 election; a so-called “catch and kill”arrangement with a media company that prevented potentially damaging stories being sold to the tabloids; and a scheme that amounted, according to the indictment, to multiple episodes of falsifying the books to Trump’s advantage—the “bread and butter”, said Bragg, in a press conference following the arraignment, of a white collar criminal prosecution in New York.

Legal observers, who have been warning for weeks now that “when you come for the king, you’d best not miss,” are fretting that the charges look to be jumped-up misdemeanour charges, unconnected to any stated major crime, and that the indictment feels too muddy, complicated and difficult to prove. They worry that if Trump evades accountability for this first criminal prosecution, it will only shore up his claims that it was a political witch-hunt all along and bolster his popularity in the Republican primaries, where he already leads the rest of the pack by huge margins.

But there was, in the end, something about the grainy footage from a courthouse security camera—the diminution of the television star, the tawdriness of the charges—that seemed a fitting beginning of the end, even if it only proves to be a stutter-step of a beginning. All eyes are on a series of other prosecutions across other jurisdictions that may bring accountability to Trump for far more urgent matters, from the 6th January storming of the capitol, to attempts to manipulate the electoral outcome of the 2020 election, to alleged lies about stolen classified documents the former president took to Mar-a-Lago. Those cases will also unspool in the fullness of time, but they will all play out against national backdrops of jaw-dropping, democracy-busting crimes.  

The very smallness of the Manhattan charges against Trump—the lying about affairs with adult film stars, the cooking of corporate books and the shell games to hide his activity—seems apposite. And the very New York-ness of the entire proceeding—amid traffic and sightseers and bored court security officers, none of whom seemed to clock that this was an important matter involving an historic figure—also seemed perfectly on point. Alvin Bragg’s case may not ultimately be the vehicle that brings the former president to heel, or to jail, or to a sober appreciation of his own inability to evade the rule of law. But on its first day, it made him rather small and exceedingly ordinary: a businessman who lied, in a city that doesn’t much care. And that may not be everything, but the fact that it felt like nothing is a lot.