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What it's like in court at Donald Trump's "hush money" trial

Timeline of Trump's "hush money" case as it unfolded in the courtroom
Timeline of Trump's "hush money" case as it unfolded in the courtroom 05:50

NEW YORK - We're entering a pivotal time in the "hush money" trial of former President Donald Trump

Closing arguments in the case are expected to start Tuesday. The jury is expected to get the case as soon as Wednesday. 

So what has it been like inside the courtroom covering the trial? CBS New York's Alice Gainer gives us a behind-the-scenes look with a reporter's notebook.  

The days start early

The day starts early with my alarm blaring at 5:45am.

I feel anxious to get to court, which is enough to will me out of bed immediately without hitting snooze.

Reporters must line up outside of 100 Centre Street well before the courthouse opens at 8 a.m.

Alice Gainer, CBS2

Those on the list for the main courtroom wait right outside one of the front entrances, partially under some scaffolding. More than a month in now, and many of us bond over a lack of sleep, long days, the amount of mints consumed while in the courtroom all day as well as stiff necks and sore backs from leaning to type over our laptops. At times, we recount highlights of witness testimony from the day before.

Other people trying to get into the overflow room to watch the proceeding on monitors wait next to the park across the street in three separate lines: One for press with secure passes, one for regular press passes and another for the public.

Don't come hungry, and be prepared to sit still

I'm not normally hungry so early in the morning, but before I leave I force myself to eat some oatmeal, fruit, water and coffee. We're not performing manual labor here, but sitting still (and I mean no moving) on a wood bench all day can be really draining. Plus, the courtroom is pretty silent and you do not want your stomach growling, hence all of the mint consumption. 

I check in with a court officer and give my name and number on the list — which happens to be #45. That number struck me immediately when it was assigned, since the former 45th president of the United States is on trial.

Even though the mornings start early due to security screenings, I'm grateful for all of the planning efforts pre-trial between journalists, attorneys and court representatives. Each news outlet having a guaranteed seat in the main courtroom means not having to either hire someone, or take shifts waiting in a line 24 hours in advance hoping to get a seat, which are things we did for the arraignment and civil fraud trial. 

Once I'm given my color-coded ticket for the day and reminded to bring it with me everywhere, we head inside for two security screenings.

Where you're seated in the morning and afternoon are always different. It really depends on which security line you opt to go through. One can be faster than another and you can watch as people who were behind you waiting in line outside the courthouse that morning now get in a hallway line ahead of you for a seat closer to the front. 

Once inside the courtroom on the 15th floor you'd better set up your wi-fi hotspot quick and put your cell phone away. There is public wi-fi but it can be spotty at times, which isn't great when you've got a newsroom full of people to update in real-time.

Court officers are not messing around and they have berated numerous people. They're doing a great job of keeping it safe and orderly, but at times I feel transported back to grade school.

Hurry up and wait 

We are usually seated inside for a full hour before the trial even begins. You cannot get up and stretch. You must sit, and if you need to use the restroom, wait until they say you can — and do not forget your color-coded ticket.

There are times we are frozen in place as we await the entrance of the former president and his defense team.

We always know when he's about to enter because we can hear the shouting of reporter questions to him in the hallway, and a Secret Service agent walks in first.

Former President Trump in court

When former President Trump enters he scans the gallery of reporters. While he usually has a scowl on his face, I've also seen him gesture at someone he knows, smile, wink, and just stare for a few seconds.

APTOPIX Trump Hush Money
Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom for his trial at the Manhattan criminal court, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in New York.  Michael M. Santiago / AP

When court is in session, depending on where you're sitting in the courtroom, a court officer might be blocking your view of the witness stand or the defendant.

There are several large monitors which, if you have excellent vision or a pair of binoculars like I do, you can see close-ups of faces.

During other trials, I had seen courtroom artists and another producer for a different network using binoculars, and by the second day of the trial I started bringing a pair so I would not miss anything. Court officers will tell you to put your binoculars down during sidebars and if the parties are looking at something on the screens in front of them that hasn't been entered into evidence.

Trump has talked about the temperature of the courtroom quite a bit. While it has been cold at times, it has also been very warm. The shades are drawn in the courtroom, and I don't think the windows are allowed to be open for security reasons.

Court is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. and it sometimes starts a couple of minutes early, which is great since we've all been sitting ready to go for at least an hour any way.

Come prepared

An external battery charger is a must. As a reporter, I'm taking notes on my laptop all day long. A few of my fellow journalists have noted, in conversation, it has been nonstop. There really haven't been any lulls in the day where you get a break from taking detailed notes. 

When Stormy Daniels took the stand, she started off speaking rather quickly — so quickly that she was asked to slow down a few times, making it hard to keep up at times.

When someone says something notable or quotable, the decibel level of fingers pounding keys goes up a few notches. I've purposefully kept my fingernails short in order to reduce sound and increase speed when typing. 

In addition to notes, I've been trying to live tweet important moments during the trial while also emailing the station updates.

What's for lunch

During the lunch break, I opt to stay inside the courthouse to save time. One less security screening to go through. Some other journalists have the same idea.

I'm also not usually a big lunch person at work but, once again, the early hours have thrown my body off completely, and so I usually eat a granola bar, banana, PB&J or carrots just to ward off any stomach grumbling in the courtroom once we return.

I try to start writing my scripts for the newscasts during lunch, though sometimes witness testimony in the afternoon will render anything previously written old news.

Jurors paying close attention

The jury has been paying close attention. At times it can look like a tennis match as they move their heads from the attorney asking the questions to the witness stand.

I've seen many taking notes throughout. 

The jurors are anonymous to the public, so we refrain from physical descriptions of them.

Getting ready for the broadcast

I usually need to leave the courtroom by 3:30 during the afternoon break so I can get outside to track my piece for the 5 p.m. newscast. If I wait any later than 3:30, there's a chance I could get stuck in the courtroom and be unable to leave until after Trump does, which would put my piece and live shot in jeopardy at 5. Because again, there are times we are frozen in place when he's on the move, and he likes to talk to the cameras in the hallway for long stretches at the end of the day. 

If anything happens between 3:30 and 4:30, I rely on notes from our network colleagues also in the courthouse.

Trump Hush Money
Former President Donald Trump speaks alongside his attorney Todd Blanche following the day's proceedings in his trial Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York.  Justin Lane / AP

I've covered the former president in civil court before, the difference here is this is criminal court. He's quieter in this courtroom, though the judge did have to say something to Trump's attorneys after he said Trump was audibly cursing during Daniels' testimony. In previous trials, I watched Trump get up and walk out of the courtroom when he wanted, and he can't do that here. There's something about a criminal courtroom that just makes a person... so human.

What it's like seeing Trump in court

I've often been asked what it's like seeing him in court, and I think taking someone out of their element and seeing them in the courtroom, in many ways, makes it feel like a lot of the other trials I've covered in this courthouse. I said as much last year after his arraignment, much to the surprise of our anchors. 

After one prospective juror was dismissed during the selection process, I noticed she said pretty much the same thing in an interview, that it was like looking at just "another guy." It's hard to describe unless you see it for yourself.

Much has been written about the courtroom itself where the trial is taking place. I suppose it is dingy. It's certainly not as ornate as the other courthouses around the corner. I'm so used to covering cases here I don't even notice it anymore, and I'm too laser-focused trying to make sure I'm not missing a moment reporting to the public the details of the first former president facing trial on criminal charges. Only so many of us can be inside bearing witness, and the responsibility of that is not lost on me.

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