Former President Donald Trump arrived at a Manhattan courthouse on Tuesday to be arraigned for his role in allegedly falsifying business records as part of a coverup of hush money payments made to former adult film star Stormy Daniels. His appearance — the first-ever instance of a former president facing criminal charges — follows a series of bombastic statements made by Trump against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, presiding Judge Juan Merchan, and a host of other perceived antagonists and political irritants.
In keeping with the same sense of bombast modeled by Trump in his social media preamble to Tuesday's arraignment, protesters and revelers alike spent the day celebrating and denouncing the former president outside the courthouse. The scrum helped return the former president to the spot where he's most comfortable operating: at the center of everyone's attention. Serious legal jeopardy notwithstanding, Trump has managed to leverage his pre-and-post arraignment appearance into a pseudo-campaign rally to energize his base, replete with fodder for a new round of lucrative fundraising. And although Trump was uncharacteristically demure during the arraignment itself, where he pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, the overall atmosphere of the day — which Trump himself helped stoke — was hyperbolic and electric.
Even before Trump arrived at the Manhattan courthouse on Tuesday afternoon, the mood was set by a series of appearances from two high-profile congressional Republicans: Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), and George Santos (N.Y.), each of whom briefly lent their support to the indicted former president before quickly leaving the scene to choruses of boos.
Greene also bookended her reportedly un-permitted rally with an interview with the pro-Trump Right Side Broadcasting Network, presenting the former president as having joined "some of the most incredible people in history" who had been arrested, including South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, and Jesus Christ.
Massing on either side of barricades set to keep the dueling pro-and-anti-Trump rallies separate, supporters and detractors of the former president argued and cheered, while an enormous media presence swarmed the proceedings, adding to the free-wheeling circuslike atmosphere.
Writing in The New Yorker, Clare Malone highlighted the challenge that came with framing Tuesday's historic proceedings, given the pre-existing dynamics of Trump fatigue and hyperbolic sentiment, pointing out that "The Manhattan grand jury's indictment is a complex story, and an early test of whether the media has learned any lessons about how to healthily metabolize a Trump news cycle."
Trump as ringmaster
"In the short term," longtime Trump campaign pollster John McLaughlin told Real Clear Politics ahead of Tuesday's arraignment, "this is really helping us in the primary."
Indeed, Trump has been reportedly been working behind the scenes in the days leading up to Tuesday's court appearance to maximize the impact of his arraignment on his political future. He was reportedly joined on his flight from Florida to New York by a private videographer — and no independent press — and had allegedly worked to stymie plans for a video conference arraignment in lieu of an in-person appearance. According to a law enforcement source who spoke with Rolling Stone ahead of Trump's arrest, "he wanted a perp walk; he wanted daylight hours."
"It's kind of a Jesus Christ thing," the official added. "He is saying, 'I'm absorbing all this pain from all around from everywhere so you don't have to.'"
Trump has even considered marketing his arrest optics, with Rolling Stone reporting that his team has pushed for any mugshot taken of the former president to be printed on shirts and mugs for sale as "fuel for a fundraising drive, or as a potent new symbol on 2024 campaign merchandise." Perhaps impatient, Trump's campaign team sent an email on Tuesday, selling a doctored Trump "not guilty" mugshot t-shirt for $47 before the candidate had even left the Manhattan courthouse.
While Trump has worked to maximize his public exposure around his court appearance, his legal team has studiously endeavored to keep the actual legal proceedings under wraps. In a letter to the presiding judge, Trump's attorneys argued against cameras in the courtroom, for fear they would "create a circus-like atmosphere at the arraignment," and would be "inconsistent with President Trump's presumption of innocence."
The split between crafting a narrative outside the courtroom, and demanding secrecy therein is deliberate, argued Sky News' James Matthews, writing, "he wants the circus, believing it will cast him as the victim in an act of political aggression before an audience that's sufficiently sympathetic."
"It's already worked for him," Matthews continued. "When he announced, prematurely, news of his arrest on his social media platform, his fundraising surged to more than $1.5m."
In a separate analysis, Matthews noted that "the more he is portrayed as a victim of injustice, the more his core support rally round him. Politically, presidentially, the question for the grievance candidate, beyond the base, will be: how much grief is too much?"
"But," he cautioned, "there is the small matter of a court action, or four, before all that."
Seemingly aware of Trump's penchant for capitalizing on his sizeable megaphone, Judge Merchan cautioned Trump against making any statements that could incite violence against any of the officials working on the case, although he did not impose a full gag order. Shortly after Trump entered his not guilty pleas, his son Donald Trump Jr. nevertheless reportedly posted a photo of Merchan's daughter to his Truth Social account.