Reporting from Inside the Trump Hush Money Trial

One reporter who was assigned to cover the Donald Trump hush money trial said journalists from a wide range of outlets found a sense of camaraderie amid the chaos in lower Manhattan.

| 06 Jun 2024 | 01:41

On the morning of May 30, in a serendipitous gesture, one of the reporters on the press line handed out fortune cookies as we waited to enter the courthouse in lower Manhattan.

No one knew when the jury would decide Donald Trump’s verdict. Deliberations had begun midday on May 29 after five weeks of testimony in the first criminal trial against a former president in the history of the United States. Few expected a verdict would come the following day.

I found the crushed cookie in my purse this weekend while I was looking for a pen. I fumbled the paper out of the broken cookie pieces. “Actions speak louder than words,” it read.

The press line, where I had received my verdict wisdom, was the line for the roughly 60 reporters, who had assigned seats in the courtroom. We waited in front of the courthouse, while the other reporters lined up across the street to get a seat in the overflow room, where the trial was being live streamed on several television screens. Some of them came as early as 3 o’clock in the morning, others hired line sitters to wait all night. We, the fortunate ones, could arrive between 7 and 8 a.m. Our names were on a list, which Al Baker, the former police reporter who now heads the New York State Unified Court System’s Communications Department, personally checked every morning.

Once he marked your name, a court officer would hand you a card with New York’s coat of arms printed on it, as it appears on the state’s flag: the sun symbol beaming over a mountain, two sailboats gliding on the Hudson River and two ladies guarding the image on each side. On the right stands Lady Liberty, her foot stepping on the fallen British crown and her hand holding a pole, which raises a phrygian cap, a conical felt hat with the top bent over like that of a smurf, also known as the liberty cap, originally worn by freed Roman slaves, and coincidentally also the name of a magic mushroom with psychedelic potencies. On the left a blindfolded Ms. Justice balances her scale, while the banner below reminds us of New York’s motto, Excelsior, ever upward.

The most important details, however, on that symbol-laden card, were the date and the color. Reporters, who had courtroom seats, received a different colored card than the ones in the overflow room. The cards were so important that one reporter, who snuck into the overflow without it, was banned from the floor for the rest of the trial.

For months, the press and the state court system negotiated the media access, from bathroom breaks to bringing lunch in your backpack, power strips in the overflow, laptop use in the courtroom, to the hallway pen, where Trump held his daily press conferences.

“We had to get them to loosen up on the bathroom breaks,” said Robert Balin, a media lawyer who was part of the negotiating team, told me. “And I asked myself, is this why I went to law school?”

But these seemingly mundane details, like bathroom breaks and being able to bring your own lunch, mattered, because we spent all day at the courthouse. When the prosecution held its 5 hour long closing argument, we were there 12 hours straight. We practically lived on the 15th floor.

“The reality was, we couldn’t get 333 million Americans into that courtroom,” Bail said. “So we wanted to make sure that the seating list was as inclusive as possible, whatever the particular editorial policy of the news organization was, didn’t matter.” He added that the level of cooperation was almost unprecedented, “and largely if not entirely due to Al Baker.”

The court transcripts, which usually cost between $1 and 70 cents per page, were made available for free and posted on the court’s press office’s website, as were the exhibits and decisions, which in criminal court are not digitized.

On May 29 and May 30, while the jury deliberated, the reporters were given access to a waiting area, a large room with a few cubicle desks and a lot of chairs. It felt as though the newsroom had been resurrected. Since the pandemic, newsrooms, where reporters, editors, photographers, writers, used to mingle in a daily frantic effort to get their news out, have mostly disappeared and been replaced by zoom calls.

Standing online for the Trump trial every day, sharing that waiting area with reporters from all corners of the opinion spectrum, brought the newsroom feeling back. Also inside the courtroom, where we were not allowed to speak and whispered anyway, comparing quotes, facts, observations.

When the judge announced that the jury had reached a verdict, the Wi-Fi inside the courtroom broke down. Even the hotspots reporters were using suddenly stopped working. The overflow had service, and reporters there were able to send the news of the guilty verdict out into the world. But inside the courtroom, most of us were trapped without internet.

In a strange way, as divided as the opinions on this indictment and the verdict may be, the trial brought the reporters together. At least momentarily. But we will meet again on July 11, when Trump will be sentenced.