Trump is used to the finer things in life. At the courthouse, ‘He’s miserable.’

Former President Donald Trump, seen in a reflection, spoke with reporters after a day of jury selection at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse. JABIN BOTSFORD/PRESS POOL
Former President Donald Trump, seen in a reflection, spoke with reporters after a day of jury selection at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse. JABIN BOTSFORD/PRESS POOL

Summary

The former president and current political star spends four days a week cold and without Diet Coke as a defendant in a drab Manhattan courtroom.

The real estate tycoon and political star who once held the nation’s nuclear codes now spends four days a week confined to a drab Manhattan courtroom with harsh lighting and poor climate control.

Donald Trump, a billionaire accustomed to jet-setting between adoring campaign rallies and his Florida estate, has spent two weeks—with as many as six to go—sitting unhappily at the defense table in the city where he built his real-estate empire and his 2016 White House campaign. Though he fumes daily about the 34 New York felony charges he’s facing, the small indignities of being on trial are what appear to bother him most.

He’s freezing, he says, due to the building’s finicky heating system. In court he can’t eat or drink anything but water, robbing him of some of the multiple of the Diet Cokes he consumes in a typical day. He can use the bathroom only when the judge declares a break in proceedings. A panel of 18 New Yorkers—12 jurors and six alternates—have front-row seats to his every yawn, catnap and mutter.

Perhaps worst of all, Trump must remain silent in court as witnesses who swear to tell the truth recount his alleged crimes and sexual impropriety several feet away.

“He’s miserable," said John Catsimatidis, the New York grocery-store magnate and a longtime Trump friend. “There is no more horrible thing than just having to sit there and be quiet."

Trump’s New York criminal case—the first and possibly the only one of four he faces to go to trial before Election Day—revolves around allegations that Trump falsified documents to cover up a 2016 hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, who alleged a sexual encounter a decade earlier. The former president has pleaded not guilty and denied the affair.

Just before 9:30 a.m. each day, when court is in session, Trump walks down a dim 15th-floor hallway. Reporters pelt him with questions he’d rather not answer: Did you sleep with Playboy playmate Karen McDougal? Do you think the courtroom is cold to make you uncomfortable? What are you doing for Melania’s birthday?

“It’d be nice to be with her, but I’m at a courthouse for a rigged trial," he said Friday, the day his wife turned 54.

Trump then enters Room 1530, where the drawn shades of four large windows allow little sunlight. His family is conspicuously absent. The gallery’s wooden benches are packed with reporters whose typing creates an audible stir when testimony turns toward allegations of Trump’s firsthand knowledge of hush money.

The room’s temperature, too, has been a sore spot. During jury selection, Trump lawyer Todd Blanche asked the judge to turn up the temperature.

“Honest answer to that question is if I did that, it would probably go up about 30 degrees," Justice Juan Merchan said.

“We are shaking," Blanche replied.

At times, Trump appears engaged in the proceedings, rustling through papers or whispering to his lawyers, but often he looks just plain bored. His eyes close for extended periods and his head starts to nod. He tilts his head back and crosses his arms. Even the slightest assertion of autonomy can provoke a rebuke from the judge.

As one day drew to a close, Trump stood up prematurely. “Sir, can you please have a seat, thank you," Merchan said sternly.

Trump is no stranger to New York courts. In an ornate federal courtroom down the street, he watched his lawyers argue this winter that he didn’t owe damages to writer E. Jean Carroll for defaming her. During last year’s civil-fraud trial, Trump was a regular in the New York State Supreme Court Building’s expansive ceremonial courtroom, where detailed murals line the walls. But in both of those cases, his appearances were voluntary, and he could pop in and out of the courtroom as he pleased.

The former president lost both cases, racking up more than a half-billion dollars in civil judgments.

His current venue, the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, where the borough’s workaday drug dealers, thieves and violent offenders fight their cases, is a dingier locale. Outside, there are few of the Trump supporters who turn out in droves when he makes appearances in other parts of the U.S. In front of the few who do show up, blue-and-white Department of Correction buses drive up to drop off the jailed.

Being on trial is hard for anybody, said public defender Tina Luongo, who heads the criminal-defense practice at the Legal Aid Society. Her jailed clients are shaken awake at Rikers Island at 4 a.m., thrown on a bus and handed a cheese sandwich and milk carton for lunch.

“These folks have to sit awake, pay attention and not fall asleep, too," she said.

Trump has lost control of his calendar, as Merchan has shown little appetite for accommodating the defendant’s personal or legal conflicts. The judge declined to rule on whether Trump could attend his son Barron’s high-school graduation, saying he’d see how the case was progressing. He shot down Trump’s request to attend the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing on whether he is immune from criminal prosecution, although the judge acknowledged the case was “a big deal."

“But having a trial in New York County Supreme Court with a jury of 12 and perhaps six alternates, that is also a big deal," Merchan said.

Alternate No. 6’s toothache, however, was a different matter. Merchan wrapped up proceedings early so she could go to the dentist.

Alex Leary and Erin Mulvaney contributed to this article.

Write to Corinne Ramey at corinne.ramey@wsj.com

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