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Should Trump's trial be televised?

Former President Donald Trump gestures as he enters the Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pa., for a political rally while campaigning for the GOP nomination on July 29.
Jeff Swensen
Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump gestures as he enters the Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pa., for a political rally while campaigning for the GOP nomination on July 29.

The trial of former President Donald Trump on charges related to his alleged attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election would likely prove among the biggest television events in history.

But a federal rule forbids "the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom."

House Democrats, led by Rep. Adam Schiff of California, are hoping to change that.

A letter on Thursday signed by Schiff and 37 other congressional Democrats, calls on the Judicial Conference — the national policymaking body for the federal courts, which is led by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts — to "explicitly authorize the broadcasting of court proceedings in the cases of United States of America v. Donald J. Trump."

A path through the Judiciary Conference is one way to get a televised trial. Another is for Congress to pass legislation to that effect.

Although Trump's own attorney, John Lauro, has also called for a televised trial, getting permission to broadcast the proceedings "would be pretty cumbersome to do," says Gabe Roth, executive director of the advocacy group Fix the Court. "But it's not impossible."

How many people would actually watch? Andrew Weissmann, a professor at NYU School of Law and a former lead prosecutor for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, recalls the summer of 1973. He spent it inside, glued to the television watching the Senate Watergate hearings.

But not everyone, he admits, is likely to be as engaged with the Trump trial. "There's always a bell curve of people, and so the issue is whether it's significantly important to a significant portion of the populace," he says.

Cameras could "prove irresistible" for Trump

Televising Trump's trial would theoretically benefit one side more than the other — inside the courtroom (legally) and outside (politically). But both sides appear to believe they would gain the upper hand, says Jordan Singer, a law professor at New England Law Boston.

They are "very confident that the nature of the trial will vindicate their view," he says.

For Trump, cameras in the courtroom could "prove irresistible," Singer says.

"I don't know if, in the absence of cameras, he would still take the stand in his own defense," he says. "But he is a man who's very, very confident in his ability to say things and have the cameras rolling in a way that will benefit him."

That may well be exactly what congressional Democrats are counting on. They are likely betting that "whatever will come out will be sufficiently bad for Mr. Trump that it will kill any presidential aspirations," Singer says.

Cristina Tilley, a law professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, agrees that Trump's calculus might have little to do with legal considerations. "This is sort of a unicorn case in a lot of ways," she says.

The arguments for and against allowing the public to watch

Schiff and his fellow Democratic lawmakers argued in their letter to the Judicial Conference that, "If the public is to fully accept the outcome, it will be vitally important for it to witness, as directly as possible, how the trials are conducted, the strength of the evidence adduced and the credibility of witnesses."

Singer says there's some evidence to back up the Democrats' claim. When people are able to sit down and watch court proceedings, it builds public confidence in the process and the final outcome, he says.

Misinformation surrounding the case is already rife, says Fix the Court's Roth. "So you know if that's happening before the trial is even started, you can only imagine a lot more of that will happen when you're only getting snippets" from a trial that isn't being televised, he says.

However, Tilley of the University of Iowa, isn't convinced that putting the proceedings on TV is a such a good idea.

People watching at home are likely to focus on the dramatic and emotionally charged moments of the trial as opposed to the less interesting — but more important — legal minutiae that the real jurors are required to consider, she says. "I think the nature of human psychology is such that we're always going to privilege the emotional and the visual over boring conceptual information."

"Let's be realistic," she says. "When the judge is instructing the real jurors ... about what a conspiracy is and here's how you have to prove it, I suspect that's exactly when our armchair jurors are going to go get a snack."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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