Today we do not access information in a strictly corporeal world, but the sketch artist does. In the courtroom, all devices must be turned off. The roles of each participant are specified and then ordered into the architecture: Individuals fit into the space, the space does not change to fit the individual. The sketch artist must rely on their own faculties to sense, communicate, and maneuver within the space. In high-profile trials, the rules are even more intense. Visitors to the courtroom are instructed to “not move around,” warned several times about technology, and told when and how they can enter and exit. You are watched closely, and every sound you make feels like you have incriminated yourself.
Entering the court, through security, and into the courtroom, I am flanked on both sides by hallways lined with officers and members of the Secret Service. They all ask to see my green pass; I go through two rounds of metal detection and bag searches. I was running late because of a logistical issue with my official placement in the court, so by the time I arrived, all authorized press and sketch artists were already seated. An officer led me down the center aisle and into the jury box, where five sketch artists were at work furiously drawing the architecture of the courtroom and the profiles of the state attorneys. When I finally sat down, a bundle of adrenaline was delivered, my hands and legs vibrated joyfully, my shocked body celebrating the return to being the center of attention; this is a physical performance.
In this new chapter in American history, The People of New York v. Donald Trump, the shift in power is Shakespearean. Stormy Daniels, a porn star, has lubricated the stagnant wheels of justice, bringing the former president to his knees. A man who only a few years earlier held the highest office in the land, arguably the world, is now a criminal defendant. Last Tuesday, April 4, Trump walked down the aisle slowly, haloed by a blur of officers, secret servicemen, and attorneys.
Despite this drastic repositioning of power, Donald Trump’s strides are measured, walking confidently while wearing an expression of military stoicism expertly stolen from the generals he envies and the duties he infamously dodged decades earlier. In this moment, I am convinced firsthand of his deep and genuinely pathological confidence.
Like a disgraced bride, he looks from side to side at those observing him from their seats.
In this metaphor the groom is the judge, walking in after everyone is seated upon the bailiff’s announcement “all rise,” including Donald Trump. Judge Merchan’s bench is raised and positioned to face the entire court, casting a shadow over the 45th president.
Trump hunches involuntarily in his seat, facing the judge. His groom hovers over him, holding an invisible thread to Trump’s tongue, momentarily canning his chronic platitudes.
Like Dorothy saw Oz, I see Donald Trump. Stripped of his arsenal, there was no livestream to perform in front of, no phone to echo his belligerence. Restrained to the park outside the courthouse, the sounds of his protesting base are abstracted but still audible from the 15th floor. I study Trump’s colors and grab pens and pencils in shades of blue, orange, red, and yellow. His face is tan with bright white raccoon rings around his puffy eyes. The glazed marbles turn slowly in their sockets without the rest of his head. His hair is as thin as phyllo in varying shades of yellow and sand and is perfectly blown out into one thin layer placed stiffly over the surface of his head. His lips are small and pursed sourly, casting a shadow over his chin. His eyebrows are up wrinkling and reddening the center of his powdered forehead. He hardly moves or speaks, but when asked how he pleads, he leans forward and utters the words “not guilty,” instantly memorializing an unprecedented moment in our nation’s history.
Upon leaving the courtroom, Trump regains a more recognizable form, insults flare from his recently zip-locked lips. He attacks the judge and his family, sowing doubts about his professionalism by accusing his daughter of receiving money from the Biden campaign. Trump’s mania presents itself in desperate fear-mongering tactics and violent calls to action for his disenfranchised base to save the country with him, hidden away but still standing firmly at the helm.
Sketching this trial as it happened afforded me the right to gather as much nuance as I pleased. Where a photograph signals a moment, a live drawing bulges to contain it. Interpretations of Trump’s presence in court claim he appeared diminished, weak, and defeated. He did not. As someone I had only witnessed through a screen, Trump was dangerously flat and comprehensible, living in my mind as a gaudy symbol of opportunistic hate, taking up space in a nightmarish realm of the surreal. But he was unfortunately very real and magnetic. Calm as a seasoned crook, a compelling source of immeasurable mayhem, he released an uncanny, sociopathic remorselessness into the air we both shared, patiently waiting to leave and do whatever the fuck he wants to … for now.