Donald Trump has spent a lifetime employing his mastery of television to secure wealth and power.
But he may soon find himself making a TV appearance unlike those he has comfortably commanded, this one from inside a courtroom.
The prospect of a televised trial raises the possibility of yet another unlikely development in Mr. Trump’s political career: a presidential candidate securing air time from the defendant’s seat, in what is expected to be among the most-watched trials in U.S. history.
Advocates of live court broadcasts say they bring a level of transparency that can demystify legal proceedings, combat misinformation and foster greater public understanding of the merits of a case.
The planned trials against Mr. Trump have added urgency to those arguments, as advocates and news organizations prepare to petition legal authorities to allow broadcast equipment into federal courtrooms, which have generally banned the practice. Two of the cases against Mr. Trump are in federal court. A third is in New York, which generally bars cameras in court.
But televised trials are standard practice in Georgia, where the latest charges against the former president have been filed, and where a camera captured the moment earlier this week when a Fulton County judge received documents from a grand jury that voted to indict Mr. Trump.
“If you have cameras in court, citizens get a chance to see every argument, every witness, every piece of testimony,” said Scott Tufts, a former head of broadcaster Court TV.
And though each case is different and judges have broad discretion to restrict coverage, it is typical in Georgia for cameras to show a defendant – which in this case, would include Mr. Trump.
On Wednesday, the Fulton County prosecutors requested a March 4 trial date, one day before the important Super Tuesday primary voting.
“What I would advocate for would be full camera access, meaning the public would be able to see his reactions, would be able to see how he comports himself in the courtroom and, if he were by some chance to testify on his own behalf, it would capture that as well,” said Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA).
Such an arrangement would give Mr. Trump an extraordinary platform. His townhall on CNN earlier this year drew 3.3 million viewers. By comparison, the televised verdict against Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer convicted in the murder of George Floyd, was viewed by more than 23 million people. In 1995, an estimated 150 million Americans – more than half the country – watched the O.J. Simpson verdict.
Federal courts in Florida and Washington, D.C., where two of Mr. Trump’s trials are scheduled to take place, have already experimented with live audio broadcasts in certain civil cases, and the RTDNA is planning to petition U.S. judicial authorities for an exception to allow the broadcast of the federal court proceedings, citing their unique significance. Mr. Trump is the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination.
His trials are of “extreme historical importance, and I think there would be a significant amount of attention,” Mr. Shelley said.
There is precedent for major trials propelling change. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time allowed for same-day release of oral argument audio recordings in the Florida recount case that determined that year’s presidential election. Minnesota Judge Peter Cahill allowed cameras into the trial of Mr. Chauvin, and later said the experience persuaded him it was the right approach to promote judicial confidence while protecting the interests of a defendant and the public.
The divisiveness of Mr. Trump’s role in U.S. politics makes full transparency even more important, said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix The Court, which advocates for greater judicial openness.
“Will it stop the misinformation? No. Will it reduce it by 20 or 30 per cent? I’ll take that.”
Opponents of court broadcasts have said they can provide a venue for grandstanding.
But a courtroom is far different from the set of a reality TV show or even a presidential debate. Those with experience in broadcasting trials say one reason to televise the proceedings against Mr. Trump is because such an arrangement can create a more serious public airing of a case. In court, lawyers and witnesses are governed by evidentiary rules and the commands of a judge. Comments made on courthouse steps have no such constraints.
It is “ridiculous” to expect that Mr. Trump’s television savvy means “he’ll manipulate the TV audience just the way he’s going to manipulate the courtroom,” said Steven Brill, a lawyer and journalist who launched Court TV in 1991.
“Defendants aren’t allowed to do anything in a courtroom except sit there and whisper to their attorneys,” he said.
If Mr. Trump “makes some gestures or scowls or stands up and says, ‘that’s ridiculous’ the judge will make him sit down – or the judge could even bar him from being in the courtroom,” Mr. Brill said.
Legal scholars see little reason to expect that the former president will himself testify. “It would be almost malpractice to put Donald Trump on the stand knowing his history of lying,” said Eric Segall, who teaches constitutional law at Georgia State University. Lawyers for Mr. Trump may also seek to move the trial to federal court, he said.
Perhaps more importantly, there is reason to doubt even the full broadcast of a trial will establish new common ground in public assessments of the former president as he seeks to regain the White House.
Previous cases have made that clear, said Harvard scholar Pippa Norris, founding director of the Electoral Integrity Project and co-author of the 2019 book, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism.
“Those who love O.J. Simpson or Donald Trump believe he is innocent – the glove doesn’t fit,” she said. Critics will similarly look for reasons to believe guilt.
“Television is pretty neutral in its impact, other than reinforcing the divisions which already exist,” she said.