News & Politics

Protesters, Sketch Artists, and an Early-Rising Intern: The Scene at the Manafort Trial’s First Day

A report from the media circus in Alexandria.

Photographs by Lila Thulin.

“I pray for Paul Manafort every day,” Bill Cleveland says. The retired Capitol Police officer is seated on a bench in the park outside of the Albert V. Bryan federal courthouse on Tuesday morning. It’s the first day of Paul Manafort’s trial, and Cleveland says he also prays for all the members of Congress. “I even prayed,” he says, “for you.” But Cleveland, who lives just up the street from the media circus, just came here to finish reading Sean Spicer’s brand-new book. Everyone else in this park, it seems, is here to watch: spectators, journalists, and protesters all here to see the case against the former Trump campaign chairman unfold.

Gayelynn Taxey doesn’t keep Manafort in her prayers. “I’m protesting Manafort’s crimes,” she says. Her protest takes musical form: she plays a funeral march or bossa nova beat on a drum she’s made from a blue plastic bucket. Taxey took up drumming a year ago after she attended the counter-protest at Charlottesville and saw activists using instruments to amplify their message; now she uses them to protest at the White House several times a week—maybe even tonight, after the trial. Now, a little after 9 AM, Taxey is one of a handful of remaining protesters‚ including a man who shows me the Sharpie he brought with him to touch up the letters on the “Trump wouldn’t spend one second in prison for you” sign he hastily made this morning, but she estimates that earlier this morning more than 20 people showed up toting signs.

“I wish I brought my camera,” says Deirdre MacNeil, looking up at the courthouse and its statue of blinded Lady Justice through her sunglasses. MacNeil lives three blocks away, and she’s walking her five-year-old mutt before she heads to her job in the federal government. Other observers elect to take in the scene from the area of the park benches: a man who works in the nearby US Patent and Trademark office, a man in his 80s who uses a wheelchair, another fellow wearing a golden bracelet and smoking a cigar.

What’s the spectacle? For now, it’s the several pitched TV station tents and cameras lined up outside the main door with picket-fence regularity. A journalist in a teal dress speaks into a camera, face bathed in bright white light; another steeples his hands and gives an update in a language I can’t identify.

The overflow courtroom on the sixth floor is crowded; they’ve booted some members of the public from Judge T.S. Ellis III’s courtroom so the many prospective jurors can sit apart from the press scrum. Activist Bill Christeson, who threw a Russian flag at Manafort as he exited this very courthouse in March, says he gave his seat up in courtroom 900 to Kathleen Manafort.

Manafort trial day 1

Before the jurors’ numbers are called in an attendance check, more people slip into the overflow courtroom, including a courtroom sketch artist who promptly takes his half-finished drawings out, affixes a magnifying lens to his glasses, and keeps on working. Word goes around the room that three artists had to leave the courtroom to make space for juror pool.

ABC News, however, has snagged a coveted seat in the main courtroom, thanks in part to the efforts of an intern who showed up at 401 Courthouse Square close to 4 AM. A producer in leggings grabs a page of handwritten notes—no electronic devices are allowed inside the building—from a reporter and hurries outside. One white-haired man, probably tempting fate until the Court Security Officers or US Marshals see him, peers through the windows and cracks between the courtroom doors.

Outside the antiseptic confines of the courthouse, the ad hoc retiree watch party continues. Across the way, Gallery Cafe & Market has gotten a Manafort-induced boost to business: It has 20 or 30 phones stored behind the counter at $2 per device.

Editorial Fellow