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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

An ex-president, a senator and the center of the (legal) universe

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) leaves the federal courthouse in Manhattan after the end of the day’s proceedings at his corruption trial on Monday, May 13, 2024. Manhattan is playing host to two of the biggest political trials in American history. The courthouses are just 500 feet apart. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times)

By Nicholas Fandos

At one corner of Baxter Street in lower Manhattan last week, former President Donald Trump transformed a shabby New York courthouse where he’s on trial into the backdrop for his comeback campaign. He vented to a lineup of cameras. The speaker of the House stopped by. Supporters waved purple and red Trump flags through a spring mist.

Things were far quieter just down the block, but still plenty noteworthy. There, at a different courthouse, another uncommonly high-powered defendant, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., shuffled silently through a metal detector each morning to face his own criminal trial.

The two men — one a Republican, one a Democrat — are longtime political adversaries with far different styles and stories. Their cases share little beyond tawdriness, with one centered on a hush-money payment to a porn actor and the other on alleged bribes paid in gold bars.

But in an extraordinary twist, the paths to their fates have physically crossed this past week, with the prosecution of a former president playing out all of 500 feet from where another jury of New Yorkers began hearing one of the gravest cases ever leveled against a sitting U.S. senator.

New York City is no stranger to blockbuster court dramas, many of them clustered like these in a dense neighborhood of courthouses and lockups once known as the Five Points. Alger Hiss’ perjury trial in 1949 helped set the tone for the Cold War. Prosecutors picked apart the mafia and then al-Qaida in courthouses here. There have been too many political corruption cases to count.

And yet, even by the standards of Manhattan — a tiny island where titans of business, prizewinning artists and heads of state jockey for restaurant booths and mingle at parties — the simultaneous trials have left judges, historians and court watchers alike grasping for anything close to a precedent.

“I can’t think of another time where you have had two major criminal trials, both involving political figures, vying for the front page like this,” said Robert Pigott, a lawyer and legal historian who leads walking tours of the court district.

“Usually, one is enough,” he added.

The trial of Trump, 77, is the bigger spectacle, attracting a who’s who of Republican politics, weekslong gavel-to-gavel live news coverage, and waves of rallies and counterprotests. On Thursday, a supporter released dozens of pink, phallus-shaped balloons bearing pictures of the judge and district attorney handling the case.

The stakes are significant, even if the charges — falsifying business records about the hush-money payment — sound dry. Trump, his party’s presumptive nominee, is hoping his case will be only a speed bump on his road back to the White House. But a conviction could eventually put him behind bars, even as he still faces three more criminal trials in Florida, Georgia and Washington, D.C.

The charges against Menendez, 70, are weightier. Federal prosecutors asserted in court this past week that as a leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he “put his power up for sale,” helping Egypt and New Jersey businesspeople in exchange for lucrative bribes, like the gold and a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible. But while he is fighting for his legacy and freedom, even the senator’s closest allies agree that his political career is probably over.

In Washington, the two men were mostly partisan enemies. The senator twice voted to convict the former president on impeachment charges and once suggested that Trump was “compromised” by Russia. Menendez maintained Trump was “unfit” even after Trump commuted the sentence of Menendez’s friend and former co-defendant in an earlier corruption case.

But trying times make for odd bedfellows. In September, not long after the senator was charged with covertly helping a foreign power, Trump expressed something like sympathy. He said the senator, like him, had been subject to “an attack” by the Justice Department because he “wasn’t getting along too well” with the Biden administration.

Both have maintained their innocence.

Trump is on trial on the 15th floor of the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse at 100 Centre St., a state court near the meeting point of Chinatown, Little Italy and Tribeca. Menendez’s case is being heard on the 23rd floor of the nearby Daniel Patrick Moynihan Federal Courthouse. (Trump knows that building well: He lost a defamation case there earlier this year to writer E. Jean Carroll.)

Inside the courtroom, Trump broods, shaking his head and mouthing obscenities. Menendez has appeared more amiable, singing to himself during breaks in the proceeding and chuckling Thursday as an FBI agent testified that he had spent his birthday searching the senator’s home.

“Trials are in reality not run the way they are on television,” Sidney Stein, the bow-tie wearing judge who is overseeing Menendez’s case, told potential jurors at the outset of the week.

To wit, some of the most engrossing action in the Menendez case has taken place 15 floors below the courtroom in a drab cafeteria where judges, defendants and reporters mingle over plastic clamshells of tuna salad.

Trump, who is more constrained by his Secret Service detail, has ordered in, including from McDonald’s, a favorite.

It is hard to imagine all of it — the bigness and the everyday, side by side — playing out quite the same way in any other city, even Washington.

As E.B. White wrote in “Here is New York,” his 1949 love letter to the vibrating city, “New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants.”

So it was this past week in Columbus Park, the small green space wedged between the courthouses. If you stood at the same corner on, say, Monday morning, you could watch Menendez arrive in a hired car within minutes of Trump’s motorcade racing him down the same small stretch.

A passel of Trump supporters materialized just in time. A man draped a Trump flag over a metal police barrier. A woman pulled a bright red Make America Great Again hat out of a gift bag and put it on her head.

But the women practicing tai chi nearby did not lose their focus. Across the street, couples waiting with numbered tickets at the Marriage Bureau knew how special the day was — but it had nothing to do with trials or charges or politicians. Same for the families at funeral homes on the opposite side of the park preparing to bury their dead.

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