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Manhattan court braces for a Trump trial like no other

GREGG VIGLIOTTI / NEW YORK TIMES / APRIL 4, 2023
                                Onlookers lined Fifth Avenue outside Trump Tower during former President Donald Trump’s arraignment in Manhattan in 2023. Strict security measures — and plenty of headaches — are expected as the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president gets underway in Manhattan.
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GREGG VIGLIOTTI / NEW YORK TIMES / APRIL 4, 2023

Onlookers lined Fifth Avenue outside Trump Tower during former President Donald Trump’s arraignment in Manhattan in 2023. Strict security measures — and plenty of headaches — are expected as the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president gets underway in Manhattan.

NEW YORK >> Manhattan’s Criminal Courts Building, at 100 Centre St., is short on charm: circled in scaffolding, lit like an aging cafeteria and, in recent months, neighbor to a colossal pile of rubble, the remains of the Manhattan Detention Complex, which is being demolished.

Yet come Monday, it will be the pulsing center of a swirling mass of security measures, and likely headaches, as the first criminal trial of Donald Trump kicks off on its 15th floor.

Court and law enforcement personnel have been tight-lipped about the exact steps they are taking, but a court lawyer said at a hearing this past week that preparations had been underway for months.

They will have plenty to contend with. Right-wing supporters of the former president have announced plans to protest near the courthouse Monday as jury selection begins, and cable news networks have promised wall-to-wall coverage of the case.

Security for Trump, who is being tried on charges that he falsified business records to cover up a hush-money payment to an adult film actor before the 2016 election, will undoubtedly be high. Strict protective measures will also be in place for Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney who brought the case, and Juan M. Merchan, the judge who is trying it.

Although Trump is required to be in court every day it is in session, he can ask the judge and prosecutors to excuse him if he wishes to be absent.

On the other hand, the former president also suggested Friday that he would testify in the case, telling reporters that he would “tell the truth” and that prosecutors “have no case.” (Then again, Trump has promised to testify in previous cases only to waver and back out.)

But when Trump is at 100 Centre, his presence — and the media frenzy that surrounds it — could snarl traffic throughout lower Manhattan, as well as anywhere his motorcade travels, including his route to court from his midtown home at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.

Protesters and counter-protesters could fill the streets and clog public plazas around 100 Centre, as police officers look to prevent clashes. Long lines for security and lunchtime curiosity-seekers outside the building will likely test the patience of the most sanguine court workers.

And Trump, who is again the presumptive Republican nominee for president, is also likely to spend time in campaign mode at 40 Wall St., his office tower south of the courthouse, potentially adding more challenges to keeping things moving in Manhattan.

On Friday, Trump signaled his desire for demonstrations in a fundraising email titled “72 hours until all hell breaks loose!”

“If we fail to have a MASSIVE outpouring of peaceful patriotic support — right here, right now — all Hell will break loose,” the email read, additionally claiming, in highlighted yellow, that “Rabid Democrats are poised to raise MILLIONS while I’m stuck defending myself in court.”

The calls for protests are being heeded by the former president’s allies. Right-wing activist Laura Loomer said Friday that she planned to head to the courthouse with a camera crew.

Loomer has been highly critical of Merchan’s daughter, a political consultant who has served as an executive at a company that has worked for prominent Democrats, including President Joe Biden.

Trump’s lawyers have argued that Merchan has a conflict of interest because of his daughter’s activities and should recuse himself from the case. Ethics experts have said that the judge does not need to step aside, and he has declined to do so once, noting that a judicial ethics panel concluded that he had no real conflict.

“I think it’s important that there’s actual conservative media there as opposed to just left-wing media because they’re not going to talk about Judge Merchan and the fact that his daughter’s compromised,” Loomer said in an interview, adding, “So I want to be there early to share my perspective.”

Known for her incendiary tactics, Loomer, who is close to Trump and has flown on his plane to a campaign event even though she is not on his official staff, said she planned to conduct street interviews and appear on Steve Bannon’s podcast, as well as do her own online show.

“There’s all types of political operatives who show up to these events,” she said. “They’re instigators, and sometimes you have to confront these people and expose them.”

On Friday, Vish Burra, executive secretary of the New York Young Republican Club, said his group was planning rallies at Collect Pond Park, immediately opposite the courthouse, which was also the site of protests during Trump’s arraignment last year.

“We’re expecting something similar to that,” he said. “And I know the NYPD is.”

He said that his group would not coordinate the rallies with the Trump campaign. And he said that while jury selection begins Monday, the organization was expecting a long process.

“This is a not a sprint; this is a marathon,” he said. “It will be the center of the universe. We do want to take advantage and show that Trump has support and Trump has defenders, regardless of what the New York prosecutors are saying.”

If the most recent court hearing Trump attended in New York, held March 25, is any indication, just getting inside Merchan’s courtroom will require passage through at least two sets of metal detectors: one on the ground floor and a second upstairs, where court officers will search bags, coats and anything else they deem necessary before allowing reporters and spectators into the cordoned-off hallway.

As Trump prepares to enter and leave the courtroom, Secret Service agents and court officers will shut down the room to traffic.

If he does not attend the trial on certain days, the pressure on security — and traffic — will likely be lessened.

Still, Diane Peress, a former white-collar criminal prosecutor who is an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said trying a case without a defendant in the courtroom could present challenges.

“The lawyer is doing everything that a lawyer would do, but there’s an empty chair next to him,” she said. “Everything proceeds as if that chair is not empty. But it is a very weird thing to do.”

In a joint statement released Friday, the Secret Service, the New York Police Department and the New York State Unified Court System said they were “working together to ensure the highest level of safety and security” for the trial.

Police Commissioner Edward Caban said his department would “help secure the courthouse and everyone inside, facilitate peaceful assembly outside the building and maintain the safe flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic in the surrounding areas for the duration of the proceedings.”

And while it will be the first time a former president has faced a criminal trial, Caban said his department was prepared to handle it.

“Planning for high-profile security events is very familiar ground for the New York City Police Department,” he said.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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