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Can a courtroom bring Trump’s larger-than-life personality down to size?

Jury has a chance to make presumptive GOP nominee look ordinary

Former President Donald Trump sits in a Manhattan courtroom during his criminal hush money trial on Tuesday.
Former President Donald Trump sits in a Manhattan courtroom during his criminal hush money trial on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

“The Incredible Shrinking Man” is once again in the public eye. No, not the 1957 film that played on America’s fear of a radioactive unknown, as a hazy cloud turned its unwitting protagonist into a science experiment. Instead, the star of the 2024 show is a man many still fear — how else to explain his sometimes-hostile takeover of a major political party — who is becoming smaller and smaller as he sits behind a defendant’s table in a Manhattan courtroom.

Unlike the star of that unsettling 1950s warning, what landed Donald Trump in his predicament is no mystery. The case is somewhat complex, since it’s not about the what, a supposed payoff to an adult film star, but rather the why, to keep voters from punishing the man with visions of the presidency, and the how, by falsifying business records.

The players who will have their chance in the spotlight — the former fixer Michael Cohen, former staffer Hope Hicks, former tabloid guru David Pecker and the adult film actress herself, Stormy Daniels, to name a few — are all familiar parts of the world Trump created. So, it should be no surprise that this past is coming back to haunt him.

But what is a bit surprising is how quickly the man known for his bold, brash persona has been shrinking when faced with the harsh reality of a dreary courtroom and the rituals of a criminal trial.

Trump is still getting a lot more leeway than any ordinary defendant. He’s not sitting in jail, for one thing, and is able to afford the best attorneys to plead his case. And his constant lashing out at the people he believes have it in for him would never be tolerated if someone not named Trump curated a similar stream of invective on social media.

Plus, he is running for president and has a pretty fair chance of winning, if polls are to be believed.

Still, the bluster and salesmanship that played beautifully on “The Apprentice” won’t cut it in a trial, with its own set of rules and a judge who is the one in charge.

To everyone not on his team, he’s just Mr. Trump, not “President” Trump. That alone must eat at someone who still insists that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. In courtrooms, many just like this one, those claims have, of course, been rejected.

I wonder how Trump felt when he witnessed regular citizens take their turn being questioned as possible jurors. Well, he might have felt smugly satisfied when the already seated “juror 2” changed her mind after becoming rightfully afraid after she was shamelessly targeted on Fox News, and friends and family easily figured out her identity.

Mission accomplished.

But how about when several others had no trouble, with him sitting a few feet away, sharing their not-so-nice judgment of the former president’s character? It’s revealing to examine courtroom reports from those lucky or unlucky enough to be admitted.

“He seems very selfish and self-serving,” one prospective juror, a woman, said. Another said, “Oops, that sounds bad,” when confronted with a social media post that called Trump a “racist, sexist and narcissist.”

Trump reportedly took comfort from any compliments about his personality, his actions or his “Art of the Deal.” Then, there was a reminder of Trump’s unapologetic past when one retired police photographer mentioned his full-page ad calling for New York to reinstate the death penalty to deal with the five Black and Latino teenagers accused, convicted and then exonerated in the rape of a jogger in Central Park.

While it’s true New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan is giving this particular defendant the benefit of the doubt — many times — he has scolded a sometimes animated Trump for perhaps trying to intimidate jurors, telling his lawyers to control their client, just like they do on “Law & Order.” On Friday, Merchan said, “Sir, can you please have a seat,” when Trump prematurely tried to leave.

Trump can’t yell out, “I object,” or tell a witness, “You’re fired.” Remember, this is someone who has the power to draw senators and members of Congress all the way to Mar-a-Lago for a photo op.

Trump can preside over lengthy press conferences — or one-sided rants, without taking reporters’ questions — after each day in court, and he has, treating them like campaign stops. But he’s limited in when he can campaign, with even the weather against him, or so it seemed when he had to cancel a planned weekend rally in Wilmington, N.C.

He is disappointed at the sparse group of supporters rallying for him outside the court, despite his call to action, according to The New York Times. Is he nostalgic for the crowds he drew before the Jan. 6, 2021 march to the Capitol?

With every report of him dozing off or closing his eyes in the courtroom, it becomes harder to call President Biden “Sleepy Joe.”

Maybe it doesn’t bother him. Or maybe he feels as cornered as the tiny little man in the movie, running from the family cat and eventually forced to fight it out with a spider, using a pin as a spear. Trump may like to paint himself as a victim, but not as someone who is not in total control.

In the film, more philosophical than many of that era’s science-fiction scarefests, the man makes peace with his place in the universe. He may be small, but he will not be insignificant, even as he disappears into infinity.

No matter what you think of him, Trump has made his mark on the country and the world; he will never really disappear. Expect endless books and articles about the Trump phenomenon and what it said about America and Americans.

But by the time his other trials roll around — if his team can’t run out the clock with lawsuits and motions — will Trump become something he has never been?

Smaller-than-life, or, maybe worse, merely ordinary?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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