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Trump's New York trial: Where Page Six meets '12 Angry Men'

Of every question asked during the trial of former President Donald Trump, few have so precisely reflected the proceeding’s universe as the one a defense lawyer asked a witness, Keith Davidson, in early May:

“Do you know who Tila Tequila is?”

Davidson, a Los Angeles lawyer with a niche specialty of extracting financial settlements from celebrities, certainly did: A men’s magazine model and reality television star who was fleetingly MTV famous in the early 2000s, Tila Tequila had once appeared in a sex tape that Davidson tried to profit from before he came to prominence representing Stormy Daniels, the porn actor at the center of the first prosecution of a former American president.

Tila Tequila, Daniels and Trump are all members of a cast of media-world operators, A-list celebrities and also-rans whose names have popped up in four weeks of testimony that has been equal parts Page Six and “12 Angry Men.”

The stakes in the case are momentous, but the backdrop has been pure pulp, complete with accusations of adultery and extortion, covert deals and surreptitiously recorded phone calls, meetings at the White House and sex in a Lake Tahoe, Nevada, hotel suite.

Hollywood — and “Access Hollywood” — have been discussed repeatedly, as has Trump’s onetime reality hit “The Apprentice.” Daniels has said he dangled a role on the show to entice her to have sex with him in 2006. (He denies the sex, which Daniels nonetheless described on the stand in PG-13 detail.) Movies as varied as the animated “Up” — which features an excitable dog, apparently not unlike Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer and current prosecution witness — and the Fox News drama “Bombshell” have been mentioned. Daniels, prosecutors said, cited that film as prompting her to remember new details of her night with Trump. A ban on cameras in the courtroom has hamstrung television coverage of the trial, but the proceedings have drawn a steady steam of cable stars who then fill up hours of airtime. They have included liberal hosts like Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, conservatives like Jeanine Pirro of Fox News and high-profile anchors like CNN’s Anderson Cooper. He attended court Thursday and rushed from the courtroom at lunch to announce that the defense had done an “incredible” job, delighting Trump’s conservative supporters.

Republican officials from Washington, which is sometimes jeeringly known as “Hollywood for the ugly,” have also been on parade, with a procession of potential vice presidential contenders appearing to show their support for Trump.

Those Republicans have sharply criticized the case, as well as witnesses, whom a gag order prevents Trump from attacking. Such appearances help to satiate the crush of hungry camera crews in front of the Manhattan courthouse, and create content for Trump’s social media feeds and campaign emails.

Actors and athletes like Charlie Sheen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger have all been mentioned in court, as have a roster of Friends of Donald, or FODs, who populated his contact list. Rosie O’Donnell, a comedian and former talk-show host who apparently has a firm friendship with Cohen, had her name besmirched in an insulting aside in a piece of evidence. Even Elvis Presley got a shout-out.

The result has been a mélange of pop culture and courtroom drama, seasoned with seamy details, boldface names and legal claims, a dash of politics and a presidential race, with Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee and, some polls show, running ahead in many battleground states.

That said, Tony Kushner, a screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who has been an outspoken critic of Trump, said he found the defendant less compelling as a character than those who followed him.

“I think they’re tired of democracy — it’s too hard — and so they’re grabbing for the magic solution that gets rid of the strain of trying to live on the planet with people who aren’t exactly like you,” said Kushner, who has long been working on a play about the former president. “So that’s dramatic.”

That the case has a tabloid feel is no surprise. Trump was long a fan and feature of those easy-to-read publications. And a man and politician whose public persona was forged by television and social media is catnip for both.

Yet, for all of the sizzle and slime surrounding Trump’s case, which is likely to reach closing arguments this upcoming week, it has not seemed to dominate American conversation like one it was often compared with before it began: the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson.

The explanation is complicated, including political fatigue and an atomized media environment in which consumers can choose to tune out stories they do not care for, said Whitney Phillips, a professor of journalism and communication at the University of Oregon who describes her area of expertise as “the political hellscape.”

“It’s got pop culture references, high-profile personality-slash-celebrity references, it has pornography as a backdrop,” Phillips said. “It has everything that you would expect that would make it be the thing that people are sort of centering their lives around. But that’s not exactly how it’s playing out.”

David Margolick, an author who covered the Simpson trial for The New York Times, was even more blunt.

“If this is the trial of the century,” he said, “the next 75 years promise to be pretty dull.”

Still, there have been ample jaw-dropping moments in court, particularly for fans of political news, who have gotten to peek behind the scenes at Trump’s frantic efforts to suppress Daniels’ story and one told by Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who said she had a 10-month affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007. (Trump also denies this.)

There has been a revisiting of the “Access Hollywood” scandal, in which Trump bragged of grabbing women’s genitals, and an appearance by Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director who broke into tears on the stand.

In the eyes of Trump, a fan of television — and ratings — the trial has almost surely delivered: It has led to an across-the-board increase in overall viewership on the major cable news networks, compared with the same period last year. Fox News is up 18%, CNN up 24% and MSNBC up 19%, according to Nielsen.

But from a dramatic standpoint, the trial could be difficult to re-create onstage or screen, writers say, despite its cast of characters and potential themes of revenge and redemption, justice served or denied.

J.T. Rogers, the Tony Award winning playwright of “Oslo,” a drama about diplomacy, said that one challenge was the sense that the verdict — whatever it is — will not change many minds.

“You really couldn’t make a movie out of this or a series, because it just doesn’t have the shift,” Rogers said. He added that the central character, Trump, was not “capable of the profound the moment of revelation of your own mistakes and failures, which is what we go to see.”

Late-night talk shows have had a field day, with jokes about everything from Republican lawmakers showing up at the courthouse to Trump’s habit of closing his eyes in the courtroom.

J-L Cauvin, a comedian and former prosecutor in the Bronx district attorney’s office, said he had been struck by the reaction of conservatives to Trump’s case, calling him “the white O.J.”

“I think most of the people supporting him are aware of his guilt,” said Cauvin, adding that Trump’s supporters believe “this is bigger than one case” and that their movement has “been done wrong by the system.”

Cauvin, who does a fine imitation of Trump, added that the trial was a mirror of the nation’s celebrity-obsessed culture. “We created him,” he said.

In the courtroom, which has been packed to capacity with reporters, members of the public and elected officials, Judge Juan M. Merchan has been trying to keep things from becoming a circus.

During Daniels’ testimony, for instance, he sternly reminded her to avoid tangents. He has also cited Trump for violating the gag order, and at one point warned the former president about making remarks in the courtroom.

Even before testimony began, Merchan told jurors that some of what they would see in court would not comport with the high drama of legal thrillers on the screen.

“That happens on TV and in the movies,” Merchan said. “But it doesn’t happen in real trials.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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