Binoculars and batteries: What it’s like covering Trump’s hush money trial

NEW YORK — You pack for a day at Donald Trump’s trial like you’re going on a long hike to nowhere. Water, food, binoculars, laptop, mobile wireless and a big, big battery - you need all of that for an 11-hour journey in which you are mostly just … sitting and typing.

The first five weeks of Trump’s trial for allegedly falsifying records related to a hush money payment to Stormy Daniels have been fascinating, surreal and tiring. We’ve written news stories, analyses, live updates and takeaways.

Now, we want to tell you more about the mechanics of reporting on the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president.

Waking up, lining up

- Devlin: The alarm on my phone goes off at 5:15 a.m., but my brain tends to wake me up earlier, not because it is a high-profile case or a Trump case, but because it is a trial, and trials are amazing. I started covering trials more than 25 years ago, and there’s still nothing better.

Most days I arrive at court around 6 a.m. Sometimes, we hire people to stand in line earlier to ensure we get in. I don’t want just a seat; I want a good seat. I want to be able to see, hear and even smell as much as possible.

The main thing to understand about the line is it is really four lines. The first line is for the roughly 60 news organizations that have a dedicated seat in the courtroom; each entity gets one seat. For The Washington Post, this line is for Shayna.

The second line is for people - mostly reporters - who have IDs specifically for the New York court. On any given day that is around 30 people. Some but not all will get into the main courtroom. The third line is for general press. As an out-of-towner, this is my line, and it gets pretty long, which is why I get there early. The fourth line is for the public.


I have a pathological hatred of lines generally; I wouldn’t stand in one for free money. But I will cheerfully line up for a trial. I eat my breakfast (yogurt) while the regulars chat and drink coffee, complain about the coffee, and go buy more coffee.

- Shayna: I also start the day with a 5 a.m. or 5:30 wake-up, but unlike Devlin I could sleep for a week. That alarm kicks off the checklist routine of gathering coffee (multiple travel mugs), a laptop, several press IDs, two spare batteries and chargers, various other chargers, and multiple stainless steel water bottles because there is no safe drinking water available at the Manhattan criminal courthouse at 100 Centre Street.

I rarely have time to pack food, which means I’m having a Kind bar for lunch because attempting to leave the courthouse - or even getting to a vending machine - would significantly complicate the afternoon courtroom entry process.

My backpack on most days weighs more than 11 pounds, serving as a constant reminder that when this is over, I really need to exercise again. Plus a heavy tote bag and occasionally a lunch bag. It is always a schlep.

I kind of enjoy the subway ride because there’s hardly anyone on it except for construction workers and other early risers. The former jail next door is now a demolition site, which sometimes means construction dust and holding your breath as you walk by.

Security and overflow

- Devlin: I’m not going to say much about the security setup, because that tends to defeat the point of a security process. It is thorough, and can take about 15 minutes to get through the multiple stages of screening.

The reporters assemble in three baskets: those who go into the courtroom, a larger number who go into an overflow courtroom, and a handful who serve as pool reporters in the hallway. These are the folks who get the statements from Trump, when he decides to talk to the cameras.

The overflow room is a regular courtroom repurposed with flat-screen televisions for watching and reporting the trial action. There are several rows reserved for the public. The closed-circuit feeds show four things: the defense table, the prosecution table, the witness and the judge. The feed cuts out when the jury is moving in or out of the courtroom, because the one thing court officials never want to show on camera is a juror.

- Shayna: This is a security system tailored to the Trump trial, highly unusual for any proceeding in state court. Much of it has been mapped out from scratch. Manhattan court officers - and some on loan from other boroughs - have done a very good job of running the show and keeping people safe.

Anyone entering the courtroom or overflow room gets a color-coded pass with a date stamp, and we must keep it with us always. Any trial attendee will be reminded no fewer than 10 times a day to not misplace their pass.

- Devlin: On most days, Shayna goes to the main courtroom, while I go to the overflow along with other Post reporters.

It’s a bit lame to cover a trial remotely on a feed, but the overflow room has one crucial advantage over the courtroom - you can see Trump. In the courtroom itself, court officers stand at his back, facing out toward the public section of the room. Most of the time, when someone reports what Trump is doing or saying during the trial, that comes from reporters watching the feed in the overflow room.

The room is classic Manhattan criminal court: old green linoleum, hard wooden benches and the musk of decades of life-altering judgment. When I get in, I quickly move toward the best open seat and unpack my gear.

There are very few power sources in an old courtroom, so the most important reporting tool after my laptop is a heavy portable battery. Without that, my laptop would die after two or so hours of clacking out details from the testimony. The laptop balances on my lap while the battery is tucked tight against my side. Basically I spend the day with a heating pad on my legs.

A few reporters find the benches so uncomfortable that they bring seat cushions. I am not one of those. The WiFi in the building is just spotty enough that most reporters bring a backup for emergencies. Some trial days start without the jury so the lawyers can make legal arguments or so the judge can make rulings.

- Shayna: Inside the courtroom, there are lots of stringent rules. No talking. No cellphones. Binoculars down! No food. Only water. No standing to stretch when we are on 15-minute breaks and Trump is out of the room (you must wait in an impossibly long line and go into the bathroom just to stretch, even after sitting for hours).

About half of the courtroom has no view of the witness stand - or a very limited one - because the officers standing behind Trump block that view. Many of us spent a lot of the time leaning and craning our necks to the left or right to try to see a sliver of Stormy Daniels or Michael Cohen as they testified.


A number of journalists and spectators have brought binoculars to better see exhibits when they are displayed on video screens mounted on walls far away from us. We can see a small version of Trump’s face on those same distant screens. Most of the courtroom has no view of Trump during the proceedings except for the back of his head.

Binoculars became prohibited during bench conferences and when a witness is shown an exhibit that isn’t yet in evidence. “Binoculars down!” court officers say to particular offenders. The theory seems to be that binoculars could help someone lip-read those private conversations between the judge and the lawyers, or see the unentered documents on small monitors at the defense or prosecution tables.

There are several dozen reporters in that room at any given time, and most of us are frantically typing notes and sending feeds. As we do that, court officers hover over us and scan our laptop screens, pacing slowly up and down the aisles to get a good look and making sure we are not reaching for our phones or violating any of the directives.

During breaks, Trump, his attorneys and his entourage leave the courtroom to go to their designated space across the hall. We are frozen in place while he does that and also stuck in the room if he stops in the hallway to address news cameras. “Stay in your seats!” we are reminded repeatedly. Then, seconds later: “At this time you must leave!”

Testimony and technology

- Devlin: The dozen jurors and six alternates all walk right in front of Trump at the defense table. I always look for the body language, and so far it is always the same: Trump, standing, occasionally glancing at the individuals who will decide his fate. The jurors tend to keep their heads down and their eyes focused ahead.

- Shayna: It appears the jurors are all taking this very seriously. They are on time, they are paying close attention and they are truly not having visible reactions to any of what they’ve heard, including the most tawdry parts of the testimony.

- Devlin: Our team communicates constantly between the courtroom and the overflow room. Once court begins at 9:30, each reporter calls out in our group chat which piece of new information we will write about.

When it works well, it is like a 400-meter relay race, each one grabbing the baton, cranking out some quick copy before handing off writing duties to the next and waiting for their next turn in the rotation. During intense or particularly interesting testimony, those handoffs can come in a matter of seconds; at other times, a turn can take 15-30 minutes.


Court breaks for about 15 minutes in late morning and midafternoon. There is an hour for lunch starting around 1 p.m. Because the security procedures to get back into the building are so time-consuming, and I want to use the lunch time to make calls and write, I pack a lunch: turkey sandwich, granola bar and a bottle of water.

- Shayna: We’ve had some significant technology troubles: problems with WiFi or personal hotspots inside the main courtroom (sometimes both), occasional computer issues.

More than once, with no internet connection from the courtroom, I’ve been missing in action from the group chat Devlin described for an hour or more, sometimes during key testimony. It’s like being on a space station with no way to reach Earth. You refresh every page on your laptop and switch between networks in case one gets even a weak signal. Because it is a very firm rule that you cannot use your phone in the courtroom, you can’t message anyone to tell them you’re offline.

Almost two weeks ago, the letter “T” broke off my keyboard, kicking off a new set of logistical problems. Must have been from typing “T-R-U-M-P” more times than anyone could count.

From a relay sprint to a 5k

- Devlin: The trial ends for the day at 4:30 p.m. Because the security apparatus around the entire operation is so complex, it takes time to shut it all down and empty the floor.

My feet hurt, my back is sore, and my clothes feel like they could stand up on their own.

The pace of our work suddenly shifts, from a relay to a 5K. Shayna or I write a summary story that puts into context the day’s developments. After that is filed, one of us sometimes goes on TV to talk about the trial, or records a video or audio report for Post podcasts or live shows.

Some of those appearances are outside court, where you get to shout above the din of Manhattan rush hour. That is absurdly wonderful, talking about the Big Historic Case while everyone around you is just trying to get home in time for the Knicks game.

We try to grab dinner somewhere in there. The courthouse is close to Chinatown and Little Italy, and I have rarely spent this much time so near great food, while eating so little of it.

At night, I line up all my batteries and gear to charge. I sleep for about as long as that takes. Then it’s time to go back to court.

- Shayna: This trial is an amazing experience, but it is absolutely a grind - physically and mentally. I particularly appreciate getting to work closely with my wonderful D.C. colleagues, whom I don’t often get to coordinate with in person because I am based in New York.

For the trial, I usually huddle with them for the first time at the lunch hour, since we start our day in separate lines and work separately from the courtroom and the overflow room. We convene on a courthouse bench, share observations, continue working and attempt to refuel. It’s not glamorous but it works.


The afternoons have mostly brought the feeling of things winding down for the day - unlike mornings, which have a sense of anxious anticipation that something unexpected and newsy could kick off the proceedings.

I have the same nighttime device-charging practice as Devlin, and I have occasionally jumped out of bed to charge something I’d overlooked.

It can be hard to fall asleep with so much to remember.

• • •

Devlin Barrett writes about the FBI and the Justice Department, and is the author of “October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election.” He was part of reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes in 2018 and 2022. In 2017 he was a co-finalist for the Pulitzer for Feature Writing and the Pulitzer for International Reporting.

Shayna Jacobs is a federal courts and law enforcement reporter on the national security team at The Washington Post, where she covers the Southern and Eastern districts of New York.