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Former President Donald Trump appears in court for his arraignment, on April 4, in New York. Trump surrendered to authorities ahead of his arraignment on criminal charges stemming from a hush money payment to a porn actor during his 2016 campaign.Seth Wenig/The Associated Press

There was Aug. 2, 1923 (Warren G. Harding dies and thus escapes the embarrassment of the Teapot Dome scandal, then the broadest modern presidential-administration scandal). There was Aug. 9, 1974 (Richard Nixon resigns the presidency and delivers a rambling, weepy speech before departing the White House). There was Aug. 17, 1998 (Bill Clinton, speaking about his relationship with a White House intern, becomes the first president to testify as a subject of a grand jury investigation).

Now there is also April 4, 2023, a date that will live in ignominy.

This remarkable Tuesday in American presidential history – with ancient precedents shattered, a former president arrested and booked, a divided nation looking on in a toxic mix of wonder and horror, its citizens sharing a noxious alchemy of disbelief and disgust – began with agitated conversations in Donald Trump’s gilded three-storey Manhattan penthouse overlooking Central Park.

Then came an 11-car motorcade through Manhattan. A fist pump when he left Trump Tower. A shy wave to the crowd as he moved into the Hogan Place back entrance toward his arrest in the massive Manhattan Criminal Courthouse. A solemn visage, a momentary angry glare and a slight swagger as he proceeded into the courtroom itself. A scowl as he sat at the polished wood defendant’s table, lips pursed, muscles tightened. A languid trudge up the mobile boarding stairs to his 757 jetliner with its bedroom, staterooms and gold-plated seatbelts. No signature Trump wave at the passenger entry door.

But what screamed from the still pictures released from the 15th-floor courtroom was the powerlessness of the man who, for four tumultuous years, exulted in being the most powerful person in the world.

A mere 27 months ago, his movements were determined by his will, his setting determined by his whim. On Tuesday, stripped of the power of his prerogatives, the rhythm of his life was set by others, his destiny was in the hands of others. His plane, moving along with Southwest and Delta jetliners, no longer shut down entire airport taxiways for immediate takeoff.

A man known to be a fighter clearly knew he was in the fight of his life, even if the fresh charges are the least damaging of those he is likely to face. Indeed, many Trump critics, including Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who has been an outspoken opponent of his successor as GOP presidential nominee, indicated they believed the charges were weak.

Even greater peril lurked elsewhere in New York, only 3.5 kilometres away. Later this month, Mr. Trump will face two separate trials in U.S. District Court, where he will be contesting claims that he raped the writer E. Jean Carroll and then defamed her. He has denied the charges and said that Ms. Carroll was “not my type,” dismissing her as a “nut job” and “sick, mentally sick.” The judge has ruled that the Access Hollywood tape, in which he bragged about his freedom to grab women’s genitals, could be introduced in the trial.

Other legal action against the former president also intensified, with new evidence emerging that Mr. Trump might face separate charges of obstruction of justice growing out of possible personal involvement in the effort to retrieve government documents from his Florida home.

But all that was far in the background on this astonishing Tuesday, which combined sobriety and spectacle, poignancy and pathos – all in a bracing public show that was a bold defiance of what Italian humanist scholars came to call the Aristotelian Unities.

Those ancient rules for theatrical productions called for confining the drama to one venue (violation: the court appearance in New York followed by a planned Trump statement in Palm Beach, some 1,960 kilometres away); limiting the production to one action (violations: the procession to the court, the actual hearing, the motorcade to LaGuardia Airport, the arrival in Florida and the proceedings at Mar-a-Lago); and restricting the amount of time that transpires (violation: the manoeuvrings for this day have been going on for a fevered fortnight, with no end in sight, suggesting that the coming days might in fact be but an entr’acte).

But there was poetic justice in the shattering of the great unities of the theatre. At the centre of the day’s dramatics was a reality-show performer who was the least likely American chief executive in history – and a president who, with intemperate remarks and an instinct for the incendiary, broke all the uncodified but unwavering rules for White House comportment.

Yet for all the bombast and ballyhoo that preceded and followed his court appearance to address what court officials identified as Indictment 71543-23, Mr. Trump bore a sombre countenance. His New York sojourn possessed an eerie resemblance to the circumstances of the vanquished Confederate general Robert E. Lee, who, in his 1865 surrender before the victorious Union general, managed, in the account of the New York Herald correspondent at the scene, a demeanour of a man “who had a very disagreeable duty to perform but was determined to get through it as well and as soon as he could.”

Mr. Trump, by virtue of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the mid 1960s, had the right to remain silent while under judicial confinement. Ordinarily the 45th president cannot bear remaining silent, and from his plane he described the charges against him as a “sham” and said he had “a great day today. Then, at Mar-a-Lago, he called the charges against him as “an insult to our country,” spoke of the Joe Biden family as “criminals, called special counsel Jack Smith a “lunatic” and said, “Our country is going to hell.”

Mr. Trump is a magnet for attention and airtime; he has attracted more than 266,636 minutes of cable attention, far more than any American, since Aug. 1, 2020, according to the Stanford University Cable TV News Analyzer website. The attention he received has soared in recent days. So have the merchandising and advertising possibilities. Mr. Trump already has distributed videos of his movement toward his rendezvous with the New York prosecutors but was denied the opportunity of releasing pictures of an arrest mug shot for monetary profit and for political advantage. Nor did he get the handcuffs that he apparently wanted.

“He didn’t get the cuffs, but he got an awful lot of what he wanted,” said Mary Angela Bock, a University of Texas scholar who studies media images in judicial procedures. “He could have done this on Zoom from Mar-a-Lago. But he wanted the show. There are lights and sirens in Manhattan. He got his show.”

Six out of 10 Americans approve of the Trump indictment, according to the latest CNN poll, conducted by the public-opinion research firm SSRS after the indictment was disclosed. Four out of five Republicans, however, disapprove. Over all, three out of four Americans believe politics played a part in the indictment. Shortly before departing for New York, Mr. Trump described himself as the victim of a “WITCH HUNT, as our once great Country is going to HELL!” While he was in the motorcade travelling toward his arraignment, he released a statement saying, “WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America.”

That was the theme his lawyer, Todd Blanche, expressed outside the courthouse. “You don’t expect this to happen to someone who was president of the United States,” he said as Mr. Trump was rushed to LaGuardia Airport. That was the only statement in the entire day that no one could contest.

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