Commentary: Trump loses his showmanship, and the narrative, to the slow churn of justice
History was made on camera Tuesday when former President Trump’s motorcade made it from Midtown to Lower Manhattan in a matter of minutes, and then to LaGuardia Airport in a record-shattering half-hour. During rush hour. On the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
The stunning feat of traffic defiance was dramatic in comparison to the truly historic event that brought Trump to the Big Apple: It was the first time that a former U.S. president was arrested and arraigned on criminal charges. The charges stem from an investigation around an alleged payout by Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, to adult film star Stormy Daniels during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. It was an attempt to prevent her from disclosing an affair she had with Trump a decade earlier. The 34 charges, which were unsealed Tuesday, outlined efforts to conceal damaging information about Trump that, if exposed, might influence voters’ decisions at the polls.
The momentous nature of the case, and the powder-keg tensions of a divided electorate, guaranteed the day would go down in history, but that dynamic didn’t necessarily translate into scintillating live television.
From the wee morning hours and into the evening, legions of press and other media swarmed Mar-a-Lago, LaGuardia Airport, Trump Tower and the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, filming the motorcade and plane from the ground, the air and every vantage point in between. Despite the blanket coverage, there was little to see in the way of courtroom drama or even dry proceedings, and Trump’s highly anticipated perp walk was instead a few anticlimactic, lumbering steps from his vehicle to the courthouse doors. The showman president would have to wait until he returned to Mar-a-Lago to seize the narrative in a speech Tuesday night.
Viewers watched as media, acclimated to omnipresent, breakneck speed coverage, had to adjust its pace to the wheels of justice, which still turn slowly and off camera if ordered by a judge (as was the case in Trump’s arraignment).
Reporters on site and anchors in the studio found creative ways to fill all those hours as they waited for Trump to leave or arrive. Cameras stood focused on the legions of law enforcement vehicles and stationary New York Police Department officers who flanked Trump Tower, the route to the courthouse, the airport and so on. The old adage of “watching paint dry” came to mind. Multiple legal experts tried to fill the airtime on CNN, FOX, MSNBC with chatter and, depending on the network, they either explained the basics of an arraignment, decried it as a witch hunt or referred to the indictment as the beginning of an onslaught of cases against the former president.
Anchors reached to make the sluggish footage of a plane sitting on the tarmac more entertaining: “The plane is over 30 years old … and it belonged to a Mexican airline,” remarked a reporter on MSNBC. Fox pundits focused on how President Biden’s silence spoke volumes, meaning viewers were free to fill in that blank space with their favorite conspiracy theory.
Since live feeds from the courtroom were not allowed, the press reported on what happened behind the closed doors from the crowded steps and sidewalks outside. They shouted their reports above the noise, describing unremarkable “not guilty” pleas against shots of Trump grimacing before Judge Juan Manuel Merchan.
Protesters from both sides of the political spectrum argued outside the courtroom, punctuating the anticipation and tension leading up to the indictment. Would it be an explosive event on the scale of Jan. 6, or worse? Would a provocative appearance by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) outside the courthouse ignite more furor? But it appeared there were more press and curious bystanders than anything, including ogling sightseers on a double-decker tour bus that passed his motorcade and a woman nonchalantly walking her dog outside Trump Tower.
Hardly the high drama that makes for good television, but that’s OK. A boring, sober event feels novel and necessary after the chaos of the last seven years. The non-flashy process of accountability eclipsed showmanship, at least for half a day, before Trump’s post-indictment rally, where he funneled his fury into yet another fundraising opportunity.