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Trump’s hush money case has an ‘all-seeing eye’ but no livestream

Experts say the media circus of the OJ Simpson trial has damaged the case in front of cameras in New York courtrooms.


Not long after the first day of Donald Trump’s historic hush-money trial, observers watched the former president’s chin fall to his chest as his mouth, eyes closed, fell limp in an impromptu nap at the defense table.

There were no cameras in the Manhattan courtroom to record Trump’s power nap on April 15. The public had to rely on the word of reporters who saw it happen. Nor were viewers — and voters — treated to a bracing 2016 recording, played in court Thursday, of Trump and his former fixer Michael Cohen chewing over the $150,000 price tag for the silence of a Playboy model .

That wouldn’t have been the case if Trump had gone on trial in camera-friendly Georgia, where he is accused of election racketeering. There, viewers were swept up in dramatic livestream hearings in February as Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis fought to save her case against Trump from tawdry conflict-of-interest charges.

A natural showman, Donald Trump thrived in front of the camera, especially during his fourteen seasons as the reality TV star of “The Apprentice.”

But the strict confines of an American courtroom – where a judge is in control and the suspect is usually a silent spectator – is a different story.

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What the public sees from the presumptive 2024 Republican nominee as he fights four criminal charges stretching from New York to Palm Beach could have a major impact on the November election, but whether a televised trial would hurt or help the former president is an open question.

At this point, many legal veterans say Trump is taking advantage of the absence of cameras during the trial in Lower Manhattan: Details about the famous businessman’s alleged affairs, his association with the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid and, yes, his afternoon nap have all escaped turning it into viral clips, GIFs and memes.

“Think of the difference it would make in New York,” said Court TV founder Steven Brill. “Trump goes out every day saying the case is baseless and the witnesses are all liars.”

Cameras in the courtroom allowed viewers to see the evidence for themselves, Brill said, downplaying “Trump’s spin on it.”

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Others don’t think cameras would hurt Trump’s election prospects — even the New York lawsuit, which hinges on his efforts to pay off adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal ahead of the 2016 election, after both alleged with to have put him to bed.

“It would help him enormously,” said New York political consultant George Arzt. “He dictated to his lawyers rhetoric that would be more flamboyant than ever. I think this would slow down the process.”

No cameras? ‘I would be shocked’

The clearest image of Trump on trial will come from an Atlanta courtroom — if District Attorney Fani Willis’ election fraud case survives ongoing challenges. “If the press is interested in a case in Georgia, they can have a camera there,” said Chris Timmons, a former prosecutor in Atlanta.

Trump is also fighting federal charges accusing him of election interference in Washington, D.C., and hoarding classified documents in Florida. Cameras are not allowed in federal trials – and transcripts of those trials are only available for a fee.

In Manhattan — where Trump faces 34 charges of falsifying company records to conceal a $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels — a small group of photographers are allowed into the courtroom to take pictures of the famous defendant for a minute every morning, before the jury arrives.

“New York has stuck with this very outdated tradition of not having cameras in the courtroom,” said former Manhattan prosecutor Diana Florence. “If I were a layman, I would be shocked if you couldn’t have cameras in every courtroom across the country.”

A patchwork of rules for state and federal courts provides varying levels of access to Trump’s numerous lawsuits. Last month, visitors to the Supreme Court’s website were able to hear live arguments on Trump’s claim that he is immune from federal charges of attempting to illegally overturn his 2020 election defeat.

But earlier this year, no images or audio were available when a federal jury found Trump civilly liable for defaming former magazine writer E. Jean Carroll. There were also no video cameras in the courtroom during Trump’s civil fraud trial in New York earlier this year, which ended in a brutal $435.5 million verdict.

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Trump transcripts are free to the public

In a nod to the historic nature of the hush money trial and the skyrocketing public interest, New York’s legal system has agreed to release daily transcripts of the first-ever prosecution of a former president. Previously, daily transcripts could only be obtained at great expense, usually through law firms and the press.

The move “changes the way we think about transparency,” attorney Ann Cortina Perry told USA TODAY. “A lot can be revealed from a transcript.”

But that is less transparent than in most of the country. More than 35 states routinely allow cameras in courtrooms. Georgia approved them in 2018. California has allowed cameras since 1984. New York has bucked the trend.

The PB example

That’s partly thanks to the 1995 murder trial of Hollywood and NFL star OJ Simpson in Los Angeles, some experts say. The Simpson trial, a divisive cultural touchstone, featured “a lot of theatrics that wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t cameras in the courtroom,” Florence said.

“Every day, on a daily basis, the defense threw out things that had no basis in fact,” said Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark. “It can be really harmful because it encourages lawyers to go on camera and say things that have no legal value.”

“It is possible that the presence of the cameras impacted the trial, the judge, the attorneys and the witnesses,” Carl Douglas, a member of Simpson’s defense team, told USA TODAY. “You know the old saying: the most dangerous place to be is between a trial lawyer and a camera. But the jurors were locked up. They were isolated from the maelstrom.”

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Clark said that after Simpson’s shocking acquittal, she learned that the incarcerated jurors, although they were not allowed to read about the case or watch TV reports during the eight-month trial, had learned details of the press coverage during weekly visits from family members.

Clark and Douglas, former opponents who both support the use of cameras, agreed that live broadcasts can nevertheless encourage some witnesses to inflate their testimony while discouraging others who don’t want the spotlight.

Certainly no one in the courtroom will be immune to the camera’s influence, both said. “Some of these judges need to run for office,” Clark said. “The consequences go on and on.”

“I always fall back on the idea that this is not entertainment, this is serious business,” he said Christine Cornell, a courtroom cartoonist who has reported on the largest criminal trials of the past forty years, including the hush money case. “When it really becomes public, the lawyers tend to talk to a much larger audience. It becomes a different animal.”

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Fani Willis burned by the camera

During livestream hearings in February about efforts by Trump and other defendants to dismiss the Georgia election conspiracy case over allegations that the district attorney hired her boyfriend as a special prosecutor, Willis surprised her team with an emotional, combative appearance in the witness stand which later received a reprimand from the judge.

“I’m a big fan of cameras in the courtroom,” Timmons, the former Atlanta prosecutor, told USA TODAY. “But that probably hurt her a little.”

Trump’s lawyers could face similar embarrassment if forced by their powerful client to appear before voters instead of the jury.

More: Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over the criminal trial against Donald Trump in New York, has already ruled against him

Cameras during Trump’s trial would ‘cut both ways’

While New York has never allowed a trial to be televised Are cameras in Judge Juan Merchan’s courtroom — one focused on the judge, the witness stand and the prosecution and defense tables, providing a live video feed to screens in the room and to a crowded room of reporters. But members of the press are not allowed to record or broadcast what they see and hear.

The closed-circuit power supply is “an all-seeing eye,” Cornell said. “It’s terrifying. The camera never leaves him, and I think that’s why he often sits with his eyes closed,” she said of Trump.

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But what if Trump’s morning nap on that first day of jury selection had been broadcast live? Would it have made a difference to voters to see Trump — who exults in his own vitality and derides President Joe Biden as “Sleepy Joe” — dozing during his own trial?

“In this day and age where we can manipulate images, some people would say it was a doctored video,” Florence said. “Ten or 20 years ago it would have been devastating.”

For Trump, a live trial would “work both ways,” said Richard Emery, a veteran trial attorney and former member of New York state’s Commission on Public Integrity. “You would have all these clips of him in the courtroom during a criminal trial, and different witnesses would say things about him, and the news media would seize on certain moments of the video. I think that would hurt him.”

On the other hand, courtroom cameras would give Trump his most prized possession: a megaphone. In January, Trump ignored the judge’s instructions during his civil fraud trial and instead railed against the attorney general and the judge.

Televised proceedings, if allowed in New York, could create viral moments of Trumpian outrage to inflame the Republican base — especially if Trump were to testify in his own defense, experts say. But those exciting scenes could alienate the most important audience of all.

“That’s a moment that would serve the interests of the campaign,” Emery said. “But it could backfire in the context of the trial and the jury’s decision.”

Contributing: Aysha Bagchi, USA TODAY