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Donald Trump’s Trials Should Not Be Televised

Trump is no mere apprentice when it comes to manipulating the media in his favor.

Former President Donald Trump giving the keynote speech at the 56th Annual Silver Elephant Dinner hosted by the South Carolina Republican Party on August 5, 2023, in Columbia, South Carolina.

Part of the Series

Two days after a federal grand jury charged Donald Trump with three conspiracies for his attempts to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory, culminating in the January 6, 2021, insurrection, 38 Democratic members of Congress urged the U.S Judicial Conference to allow Trump’s federal trials to be televised.

Be careful what you wish for, Democrats. Trump lawyer John Lauro said he would “love to see” his client’s January 6 trial televised. Lauro must know that Trump is a master at manipulating the media and a televised trial could put undue pressure on jurors to acquit him.

Trump now faces two federal indictments. One charges him with concealing, withholding and mishandling classified documents with national defense information. The other, filed August 1, alleges that Trump committed conspiracies to defraud the United States, to obstruct an official proceeding, and against the right to vote.

In their letter to the Judicial Conference, the congressmembers cited the “extraordinary national importance to our democratic institutions and the need for transparency” and the necessity for the public “to fully accept the outcome” of the trials, including “the strength of the evidence adduced and the credibility of witnesses.”

It’s one thing to televise the proceedings of the House of Representatives Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol; it’s quite another to broadcast Trump’s criminal trials.

These two proceedings have very different functions. The January 6 Committee hearings were designed to provide the viewing public with information about Trump’s actions leading to the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. The purpose of a criminal trial is for a jury to examine the evidence and decide whether Trump is guilty or innocent of the charges; it is not to educate the public.

Televising Trials Is Prohibited in Federal Courts

Although television broadcast of federal trials is forbidden, some commentators have urged rule changes to allow cameras in Trump’s conspiracy trial.

There are only two paths to allow Trump’s trials to be televised in federal court, neither of which will likely be pursued. One would require the Judicial Conference, chaired by Chief Justice John Roberts, to amend Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53. The other requires Congress to pass a law allowing trials to be broadcast but Congress is unable to agree on virtually anything.

The federal rules, however, do not apply in state courts, each of which is governed by its own rules. Trump has been indicted in New York state court for falsifying business records to hide his adultery with Stormy Daniels from voters during the 2016 election. An indictment in a Georgia state court for election interference will reportedly be filed by mid-August.

Laws for Televising Trials Vary by State

New York, Louisiana and the District of Columbia are the only nonfederal jurisdictions that prohibit the televising of trials. Senate Bill S160, which would allow trials to be broadcast (with judicial discretion), was introduced in the New York legislature on January 4. It has been passed by the New York Senate but not the Assembly. Unless S160 is adopted by the Assembly (which is not at all certain) and signed by the governor before Trump’s New York state trial about falsifying records to deceive voters, it will not be televised.

A grand jury in Fulton County is considering charges against Trump for efforts to overturn the election, including pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to reverse Biden’s victory in that state. District Attorney Fani T. Willis will reportedly issue a charging decision by August 18.

Television cameras are allowed in criminal trials in Georgia except in limited circumstances, generally involving juveniles. In the event Trump is charged and goes to trial in Georgia, his trial will invariably be televised.

The Pitfalls of Giving Trump More Airtime

Christina Bellantoni, media director at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, warns of the pitfalls of televising Trump’s trials. “My prediction… would be that his public opinion ratings would go up, no matter what evidence is presented,” she told Agence France-Press. “People will hate-watch it; people will rally and root for him. And there’s not going to be anybody that’s like, ‘Gee, I think I’ll watch this and see how justice plays out.'”

Jurors would be mindful of the need to explain a guilty vote to Trump loyalists in their communities who have watched his antics on television.

In the course of analyzing O.J. Simpson’s televised criminal trial, David Dow and I wrote in our book, Cameras in the Courtroom: Television and the Pursuit of Justice, “With a camera present, critics assert, lawyers embellished arguments, waged unnecessary debates, prolonged the examination of witnesses and tended to ‘perform’ for the camera.”

Televising Trump’s trials would provide him with a golden opportunity to play to the cameras — and in turn to his base — and distract the jurors from their responsibility to soberly judge the evidence.

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