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What it was like to be there for George’s day in court

After all this time, we finally breathed the same air.

I couldn’t decide what to wear.

After all these months of being singularly focused on this one man, I was finally going to be in the same room with him and I was getting anxious. For all these months he’s been an idea, a story, a myth, but now we’d be sharing oxygen and it was important for me to look my best. He has, for better or worse, become an important part of my life, but I wasn’t sure if he would even recognize me. I’ve hardly been the only one on his tail, which was evident when I pulled up to the court house.

A long row of TV cameras camped out across a strip of grass directly opposite the towering white courthouse in Central Islip, NY, that looks like an intergalactic cruise ship. Other journalists hung out by giant cement blocks meant to prevent cars from driving up the sprawling shallow stairs, waiting for notable figures to come through and waiting for the official word on when George’s arraignment would be. 

I’d traveled the 90 minutes east of Brooklyn because even though I knew the proceedings would be brief and available to watch on Zoom, I felt I needed to be there to believe it was really happening. Consequences for people in power are so rare, and even more rare for people working in government. (The fact that George’s arrest happened the same week as his idol former President Trump was found liable for sexual abuse and defamation did feel like a little wink from the universe that maybe the tides had turned.)

After a couple hours of quiet, George’s lawyer Joseph Murray and his staffer Vish Burra walked up. One of the folks standing with me was the first to notice them, and as we scurried over to get a glimpse, others followed. Burra, George’s Director of Operations who previously worked for Steve Bannon and enjoys trolling people on Twitter, was dressed in a bright blue three-piece suit. He clearly wanted to be seen.

When I finally ended up entering the courthouse, I was told all visitors had to surrender their phones and laptops, which initially sparked panic. I knew the arraignment, no matter how brief, would be a visual buffet of which I’d want to capture every detail. But in hindsight, it allowed me to be fully present—something we so rarely get to do with screens constantly in our faces. 

As I waited on the line outside the 8th floor courtroom, I recognized familiar faces from Santos world: TV reporters from CBS, ABC and CNN, and print reporters from Newsday and the New York Times. It was easy to tell the two camps apart because the TV reporters were dressed for a conference and the print reporters were dressed for a brewery. Save for a couple of constituents, the line was wall-to-wall media, waiting to see Santos at his most vulnerable. 

Though I was one of the last people allowed into the three rows of spectator pews, I landed a spot directly behind the defense table where George would soon be sitting. His lawyer held court with reporters and chatted up one of the prosecutors while we waited for Judge Anne Shields and the guest of honor to arrive. 

Then suddenly out of a side door, there he was, dressed in a white button down, gray sweater, blue blazer, khaki pants and his signature glasses. His hair was rumpled and he looked nervous as he hurried to sit down and avoid contact with the prying eyes. 

He sat with his lawyer for a few moments before the judge entered, quietly conferring about what was to come. I had a clear shot right between the two of them, and only I and a couple of others nearby could see Murray showing George a piece of paper with some writing and a picture of his own mugshot taken just a few hours earlier when he turned himself in for arrest. Looking at George while he looked at his mugshot was surreal.

The Judge entered and the room fell silent as she made sure George understood his rights. He replied “yes ma’am” to all her queries, and asserted a plea of “not guilty” to the 13 criminal counts facing him. The room was rapt as the terms of his $500,000 bond were discussed, including restricted travel—even within the continental United States. In order to go beyond New York or DC for campaign-related events, he’d need permission from pre-trial services. He’d already surrendered his passports (American and Brazilian). 

We also learned three suretors (essentially guarantors) would be necessary to guarantee George complied with the bond terms, and the prosecution seemed confident those three individuals had been secured. The arraignment ended, and George was free to go.

Back downstairs, the cameras had moved to the courthouse steps, waiting for George in one line like a massive game of Red Rover with heavy machinery. Every time a person exited the building, the media would stutter step forward just in case it was him. And then finally it was. George was instantly enveloped by the media crush, as a giant sign that said “LIES” bobbed behind him. He slowly made his way to a podium set up by the parking lot, while photographers stumbled backwards down the stairs. 

When he finally reached the podium, he admonished a reporter for getting in his way, and launched into his best impression of Trumpian defiance and confidence. He called the case against him a “witch hunt,” and those gathered around him groaned at the painful unoriginality. George assured those in front of him and viewers watching at home that the charges were bogus and that he still planned to run for reelection. Then he was whisked away into a beige Ford Bronco. 

The next time we see George in court will be June 30th at noon. In the meantime, he’ll be allowed to remain in Congress, vote on important legislation, and continue to represent a district that elected him based on a mountain of lies. Speaker McCarthy won’t ask him to leave and his Republican colleagues by and large won’t turn against him because their slim majority needs him.

It was remarkable watching a man who had so clearly overplayed his hand. A man who’s spent his 34 years taking down anyone in his path to achieve fame and fortune. A man who, it seems, flew far too close to the sun. And with a trial hopefully forthcoming, we’ll finally learn the truth of a man who has become so familiar to us, but who we don’t actually know at all.

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