The shock of blond-grey hair was familiar. So was the blue suit, white shirt and red tie. So was the conspicuously assertive tug of the suit jacket.
But the Donald Trump who walked into courtroom 22 on Thursday was a Trump that the public never sees – meek, shrunken, stripped of bravado and any sense of control. And, quite possibly, scared.
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In the case United States v Donald J Trump, the former president was taken into custody by the government he sought to overthrow in a Washington courthouse perched between the scenes of the crime: the White House and US Capitol. It was the third time in four months that Trump has stood before a judge and pleaded “not guilty” (and each time no members of his family have been present).
On a day sure to be studied by future generations, Trump was arraigned on four criminal charges stemming from his efforts to remain in power after the 2020 election. This is a man who has always loved beating his chest, sticking his names on buildings, staging military parades and cosying up to dictators. But on Thursday, away from the TV cameras, this wannabe American strongman was cut down to size with exquisite symbolism.
For four years, Trump would enter rooms to the strains of “Hail to the Chief” and everyone would rise to their feet. Now the power dynamics were reversed: at the cry of “All rise!”, it was he who was forced to stand.
Long accused of sexism, racism and xenophobia, he had to defer to magistrate judge Moxila Upadhyaya, a woman born in Gujarat, India. His future trial will be overseen by Judge Tanya Chutkan, a woman born in Kingston, Jamaica, and appointed to the bench by Barack Obama.
Upadhyaya made Trump stew by arriving about 15min late. He occupied that time sitting at a long table that bore a black computer monitor, microphone and sheets of paper. He folded and unfolded his hands, picked up a document and discarded it, turned and whispered to his lawyers. He scratched his nose, scribbled on a document and puffed out his cheeks. Like a child, he could not sit still.
The days when he could push a red button in the Oval Office to order a Diet Coke on a silver platter were long gone. The mouth that summoned armies of supporters to the nearby Capitol on January 6, or that delivers bellicose speeches at campaign rallies, was silenced. When Upadhyaya, firm but courteous, took her seat, she called him “Mr Trump” rather than “President Trump” – a citizen, no more and no less.
It was a humbling worthy of Shakespeare’s Richard II handing his crown to Bolingbroke: “My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine. You may my glories and my state depose but not my griefs; still am I king of those.”
Dethroned, Trump was forced to undergo the same legal rituals as any other defendant. When a court deputy read aloud the name of the case – “United States of America v Donald J Trump” – he shook his head in disapproval.
Trump raised his right hand and was sworn in. There was a flicker of confusion as he stood up to give his name only to be told that sitting would do just fine. “Yes, Your Honour, Donald J Trump,” he said, adding: “John.” He gave his age as 77.
Asked if he had taken a medication or substance in the last 24 hours that would make it hard to answer, Trump replied: “No, I have not.”
Perhaps most sobering of all was Upadhyaya’s recitation of the charges and the “term of imprisonment” that Trump could face “if convicted”. He leaned forward in his chair, listening intently. Was he imagining himself behind bars, the cell door slamming shut? Could anything terrify him more?
Upadhyaya asked for Trump’s plea. “Not guilty,” he said, with an emphasis on “Not”.
The judge agreed to release Trump on conditions, including that he he not have contact about the case with any witnesses unless lawyers are present. In a cordial tone that belied the seriousness of her words, she said: “If you fail to comply with any conditions of your release, a warrant may be issued for your arrest.”
Legal experts suggested this is unusual – but maybe necessary for a man twice impeached and thrice indicted.
Every so often Jack Smith, the steely special counsel who investigated both this case and Trump’s mishandling of classified documents, stared at Trump from about 15ft away on the front row.
Trump has made a career from parlaying personal catastrophe into public spectacle. He used to motorcade to his hotel steakhouse on Pennsylvania Avenue or his golf club in Virginia. Now it has become a ritual to travel to court – in New York, Miami and Washington – with TV cameras in tow.
Outside the building, beyond a ring of steel, there were again TV crews and satellite vans, curious onlookers and a small group of Trump supporters. One, wearing a “Make America great again” cap, waved a giant flag that said: “Trump or death. 1776-2024.”
Trump, facing 78 criminal charges in three jurisdictions, seems determined to make these his true judge and jury. Winning the White House back in 2024 could be his last best hope of avoiding jail. Each round of criminal charges has delivered a boost in the Republican primary. On Thursday Trump wrote on his Truth Social media platform: “I need one more indictment to ensure my election!”
Indeed, his one great political insight – “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” – was an understatement. Recent events suggest that he would probably gain voters.
One solution is transparency. Except for a few dozen journalists and judges who attended Thursday’s hearing, the public was denied the chance to see Trump receive his comeuppance after decades of impunity. If they could see the smallness of Trump, some might feel differently.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss has argued that, given America’s fractured and distorting media lens, the trial of Donald Trump should be broadcast live on television so every voter can witness how no one, not even a president, is above the law. Then the man who promised to make America great again might finally make it great after all.