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Supporters listen as Donald Trump speaks outside the courtroom on Tuesday. Mark Peterson/AP

Inside the Unglamorous Life of a Republican Attending Trump’s Trial

I thought the train ride back from Trump’s trial to D.C. would be a rollicking bacchanal. The truth was far more depressing.

MOYNIHAN TRAIN HALL — It was 2:59 p.m., Rep. Daniel Webster had been waiting for a train back to D.C. for more than two hours, and he was suffering a common fate in the Daniel P. Moynihan Train Hall: He couldn’t find a seat.

Webster had spent the morning at Donald Trump’s criminal trial on Tuesday, seeing the chaos and being seen in the chaos. He’d flown in from his Florida district the night before, showed up at Trump Tower early in the morning so he could stash his luggage, and got over to the courthouse long before the trial started, ensuring that he and six other members of Congress could get seats together right behind the former president.

After the defense rested its case midmorning on Tuesday, Webster joined his fellow Republicans for a press conference outside the courthouse. He spoke for approximately one minute, went back to Trump Tower to get his bag and then went to the train station.

He was booked for the 2 p.m. Acela, but he wanted to get on the 1 p.m. That didn’t happen. When 2 p.m. rolled around, his Acela was delayed. Then it was delayed again.

Unable to find a seat in the train station — or a bathroom — the 75-year-old Webster wandered the gleaming train hall, wheeling around a small suitcase. He did multiple laps. He was alone. He was hardly in a mood to chat.

I was in New York to watch members who watched the trial come back to D.C. I spent hours at the station, trying to figure out which train they were all taking back to Washington so I could observe the party that my editors assured me members would be having in the bar car. The reality was far more disappointing but perhaps more telling:

There was no party. No one seemed to be having a good time. They weren’t laughing or drinking, at least not socially. And they weren’t chatting about Trump or the trial. They were commuting. They were making their way to House votes after spending the day 200 miles north in a dreary courtroom. The trial had turned Trump’s most loyal congressmen into sullen super-commuters.

When I approached Webster in the train station, he explained that, after the press conference, “we all went our separate directions.”

One of those members who truly went his own direction was Alabama Rep. Dale Strong.

Strong opted to fly to D.C. over taking the train back. He noted that no one was really organizing the courthouse pilgrimages, nor were they organizing the logistics of travel or lodging. Strong booked a hotel a few blocks away from Trump Tower, one he described as “some hole in the wall.”

“Didn’t even have a check-in. You had to check your own self in,” he told me, without seeming too resentful about it.

(“I’m not really a flashy guy,” he explained.)

He also told me his decision to fly wasn’t about avoiding his colleagues. He just had no idea who was going to be in court that day. The Trump staff who coordinated his visit hadn’t told him, and Strong didn’t ask. He only found out who would be sitting with him in the courtroom — and joining him at a midday press conference — when he was whisked into a van at Trump Tower that morning.

“I’m not a cheerleader; I call it like I see it,” Strong said. “And there are times you do organize and bring people with you for certain purposes, but that’s not what this should be.”

Whatever the courthouse visits should be, they’ve become a rite of passage for many of Trump’s most loyal followers in Congress. For weeks, Republicans have traveled to New York to stand with the former president and offer their support at impromptu-seeming press conferences during the lunch break.

But unlike most of the press conferences with Trump-aligned lawmakers, Strong actually took a question on Tuesday. He was asked if Trump implored members to come to the trial. Strong insisted it was the other way around.

I caught up with Strong after his flight, at the 6:30 p.m. votes on Tuesday that were the first of the week.

“You’re probably the 10th reporter I’ve talked to in a year and a half. But my thing is, I said I wanted to see this. This is history,” he said.

Trump Trial
Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan Criminal Court. Mark Peterson/AP

As for the day itself, Strong’s most notable takeaway seemed to be the age of the building where Trump is on trial.

“I’m surprised with how old that courthouse was. I mean, the staging area we were in looked like it was from the 1950s or 1960s. And I’m sitting here going, ‘Oh my goodness.’ It was open pipes and all this other stuff,” he said. “It’s a lot more, I would say, ‘professional’ in Alabama.”

***

The public wouldn’t know it, but the Moynihan Train Hall was crawling with members of Congress Tuesday afternoon. And it wasn’t just the lawmakers headed back to D.C. from the Trump trial.

Rep. Julia Letlow was in the station after visiting West Point. Rep. Max Miller was also in the train hall commuting to D.C. after attending a Manhattan fundraiser. In Miller’s telling, they literally bumped into each other.

“I actually — am not joking — ran into Julia Letlow,” Miller told NOTUS, before adding that they then saw Texas Reps. Ronny Jackson and Troy Nehls, who both attended the trial.

While being clear that he wasn’t talking about Jackson or Nehls, Miller criticized the members who have made a sport out of attending the Trump trial.

“I mean, look, I would go to the trial if I got the invite. More of the people who have gone up there, in my opinion, are ones that are kind of Johnny-come-latelys,” said Miller, who was a 2016 Trump campaign aide before joining the administration in a number of capacities.

“It’s kind of funny to watch,” he added. “It’s all the people who called him Hitler and said all these mean things. Then he helped get them elected, and now he drags them around like little children and dogs. I think that’s hysterical.”

(Miller, for what it’s worth, had much nicer things to say about the Moynihan Train Hall than his GOP colleagues. “It’s a nice station,” he said.)

But it wasn’t just Republicans at the trial or in the train station. When I spotted Democratic Rep. Jasmine Crockett of Texas waiting for her train, she told me she was in New York — originally — for a fundraiser. But she decided to pop into the overflow room of the trial, becoming the first Democratic member to observe the spectacle in person.

“I was really just there to be in lawyer mode,” she told NOTUS. “I miss the courtroom every single day.”

Crockett said she was glad to see the trial firsthand, that now she didn’t have to filter what was happening through her colleagues across the aisle. “They tend to miss the truth sometimes,” she said.

Crockett got on the 1 p.m. train, as did GOP Rep. Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania, who told me he wanted to make sure he got back for votes.

***

The rest of the members trickled in soon after. Most of them were on the 2 p.m. Acela, which was delayed about an hour, giving them time to sample some of Moynihan’s famous food offerings.

Meanwhile, Webster kept circling the train hall by himself, towing that small roller suitcase.

Finally, just before 3 p.m., we all boarded the Acela — individually. The unified gang in the courtroom that morning was now completely divided. They were almost entirely in separate cars. No one went to the bar car. There weren’t any chats about the trial or discussions about Trump or their colleagues. No one got drunk.

I figured my best bet for a good story was to follow Nehls. The only problem was he was in first class, and my editors sprang for coach (technically “business” on the Acela). In service to getting the story and definitely not because I wanted the extra legroom, I decided I wouldn’t be deterred.

I confidently walked past the two attendants and the curtain separating me from Nehls and quickly slunk into the row behind him.

The next three hours weren’t terribly eventful. My notes from the ride include groundbreaking observations like Nehls reclining his seat, the fact that he read CNN on his phone, ordered some nuts and two Stellas (as well as a cup of ice on the side) and the possibility that he either slept for some portion of the ride or was simply listening to music with his eyes closed.

If you were picturing a united group of conservatives riding back from the trial, toasting each other and sharing insights about the Trump legal defense — as I definitely was — you’d be disappointed.

For most of the members, it seemed the trip was reduced to a bureaucratic chore, another thankless task in a long list of thankless tasks that lawmakers accomplish every day.


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When the train eventually rolled into Union Station just past 6 p.m., the members scattered. Nehls, Webster and Jackson each left individually, departing for the same place, less than half a mile away, in separate cars.

I approached Nehls as he walked out of Union Station. A few days prior, I asked him if he thought about going to New York. At the time, he hadn’t decided, telling me he had “a smokin’ hot wife and a beautiful family.”

“I’m gonna go home to them,” he told me last Thursday.

While waiting for his car, I asked Nehls what had changed his mind in the last few days.

“I had an opportunity to go, and I seized the moment. The trial obviously is ending, and it’s just — I needed to go there because I felt it was my duty to go up there and show him some support,” he said, wearing one of his signature ties emblazoned with the former president’s portrait.

Nehls couldn’t talk long. He had to figure out where his driver was to take him to the Capitol. It was yet another thing to get done, and there were less than 20 minutes until House votes.

“I’ve gotta figure out where he’s at. I don’t know, he’s here somewhere,” Nehls said.


Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.