In America, the freedom of the press is often exercised as the freedom to congregate in exactly the same place at the same time, not doing much. Two Saturday mornings ago, former President Donald Trump posted on his proprietary social-media platform, Truth Social, declaring that he would be indicted by the Manhattan District Attorney three days later—“on Tuesday.” That Monday, reporters from multiple continents and every major news network set up camp outside the seventeen-story Art Deco courthouse in lower Manhattan, where criminal defendants in the borough are taken for arraignment. Television cameras were planted side by side below a tent at the corner of Centre Street and Hogan Place, in view of the courthouse’s main entrance, where Trump would presumably be brought in, either with or without handcuffs. (What kind of visual they would get was a big subject of debate among the reporters.) A smaller pack of cameras was set up half a block south, near an entrance to the City Clerk’s office building, where witnesses were said to emerge after sitting for the grand jury. Network trucks and satellite vans took up parking spots usually enjoyed by city employees who work in the municipal building across the street from the courthouse. Technicians and camera operators, hopping out of these trucks and vans, put up portable generators and ran thick black cables along the sidewalks. Under the white tent, behind the cameras, bright key lights were stood up and turned on. And then everyone waited.
Reporters at stakeouts—both the ones who wear makeup and stand in front of the cameras, and the ones who walk around with notebooks in their hands—usually don’t have any special access to information. They learn about things through push notifications, Twitter, and calls from their bosses. And from one another. In New York, veteran camera operators and photographers who work for the local networks have known one another for years, if not decades, and are well practiced in the art of time-killing small talk and jocular, productive bullshitting. Rumors swirled about the details of the nearly five-year investigation that had led to this moment—what Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney, was thinking, and what the grand jury, which was looking into Trump’s 2016 pre-election hush-money payment to an adult film star, was doing.
That Monday—the first day of the stakeout—proved to be the most active. After announcing his impending indictment, Trump called on his supporters to protest and “take our nation back.” Some were quick to answer the call: the New York Young Republican Club, a hundred-and-twelve-year-old organization that was recently taken over by MAGA-fied twentysomethings, announced plans to hold a rally in support of Trump on Monday afternoon, at a location the group publicly described only as in “lower Manhattan.” The secret rally spot turned out to be adjacent to the stakeout, and, when the Young Republicans showed up, they were greatly outnumbered by journalists. “It’s mostly press here,” Viswanag Burra, the executive secretary of the club, who said he was an aide to Representative George Santos, told someone over the phone, soon after arriving. “They’re hoping for January 6th; they’re going to get nothing, not even Occupy Wall Street.”
A few of the foreign correspondents interviewed the Young Republicans about the significance of a former President being criminally indicted, for what would be the first time in U.S. history. Gavin Wax, the president of the club, held forth before a group of reporters, though he was continually interrupted by a large man, stalking the edge of the crowd, shouting “Fuck Trump!” over and over again. Wax grinned at him. The man stopped his shouting long enough to remark on how young Wax looked. “Oh, my God—what school did you go to to say this shit, bro?” he asked, as Wax described the potential indictment of Trump as a grave threat to law and order.
“Baruch,” Wax replied.
I asked Wax whether the Trump supporters who had participated in the events of January 6th were welcome at his group’s event. “Why wouldn’t they be?” he said. Those who had broken the law at the U.S. Capitol in 2021 had been prosecuted—many were in jail. Those who weren’t, Wax said, were part of the hundreds of thousands of people in Washington that day who had been “peaceful.”
The stakeout and the attention drawn to lower Manhattan as a place had as much to do with the spectre of violence and rioting from Trump’s supporters as with the ins and outs of the indictment. But, as the week went on, things calmed down. Tuesday came and went quietly. A few protesters, both pro- and anti-Trump, showed up almost every day, but they were generally ignored by reporters. Insurrectionists are news; cranks are cranks. The stakeout started to thin out.
This week, reports suggested that an indictment might not even come until late April, after Easter. On Wednesday afternoon, I arrived outside the courthouse to find no reporters and no protesters. The white tent was still up on the corner of Centre and Hogan Place. Some security guards were placidly watching over equipment that CNN had yet to retrieve. One of the few people still there was Terence Nelson, a fifty-six-year-old technician for CBS News. He was looking over his gear and chatting with a couple of the other holdouts.
Nelson has worked for CBS News for more than two decades. “I’m a live-shot guy,” he said. (On 9/11, he was a few blocks away from where we were standing, shooting footage of burning buildings, stunned firefighters, and bombed-out cars.) After Trump’s social-media post two Saturdays ago, Nelson’s bosses told him to get to the courthouse on Monday at 5 A.M., in order to be ready for live shots for the morning shows. Many others received similar orders. “Trump said it’d be Tuesday, so everyone got here Monday,” Nelson said. But Nelson had arrived much earlier: at 7 P.M. on Sunday. He told me that he prides himself on being the first person in and the last person out of every stakeout he’s assigned to.
Two hundred and forty hours had passed since last Sunday evening, and Nelson estimated that he’d spent a hundred and sixty of them waiting outside the courthouse. He showed me his setup: a giant black pickup truck with a covered cargo bed. The truck doubles as a generator. Nelson had gone through a half-dozen red jugs of gas in a week and a half. CBS News had cameras on all the entrances and exits of the courthouse. “You have to cover the doors,” he explained.
Nelson didn’t seem bothered that nothing much had happened yet. He had patience because he thought of the work as something greater than himself. “I still think of CBS as the Tiffany Network,” he said, solemnly. He’d grown up in Queens and Brooklyn, and now he lived in Bay Shore, on Long Island. He often rises at 3 A.M. for work. Several nights in the past week, he snatched a few hours of sleep in nearby hotels, to stay close. With everyone gone now, though, he let himself relax. His bosses had told him to plan on packing up by Thursday evening.
Then, on Thursday at 5:30 P.M., the Times reported that the grand jury had voted to indict Trump, with the charges filed under seal. I called Nelson, who naturally was still on the scene. He never left. “I’m setting up again right now,” he said, breathlessly. “I gotta go.” Soon the cameras would be rolling. ♦
A Little Indictment Music
Juilliard fires former chair after sexual misconduct investigation
Looking at the White House Through Wildfire Smoke