The trial of former president Donald Trump on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election will be the most consequential in U.S. history. But because Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure bans the broadcasting of federal criminal proceedings, only a handful of Americans will be able to watch it live.

That does the public a huge disservice. Although the motivations might be diametrically opposed, on this we should all agree with Trump’s attorney, “Let’s have cameras in the courtroom.

Jonathan Perloe

At a time when trust in government is near an all-time low, and nothing less than the cornerstone of our democracy is at stake —the peaceful transfer of power— it is imperative that Americans have a full and transparent view into the proceedings.

With four in five Republicans believing the investigations leading to Trump’s indictment are a “witch hunt,” every effort must be made to prove or disprove their strongly held convictions. Televising the trial would demonstrate whether Trump is being treated like everyone else charged with a crime. Steven Brill, founder of Court TV, wrote that jurors consistently reported greater faith in the U.S. justice system following their time in the courtroom. Seeing is believing.

Changing the rules will not be easy; three have to be suspended, starting with Rule 53 which is administered by the U.S. Judicial Conference, chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Demonstrating overwhelming public support for a televised trial is critical, which is why Americans should start speaking out now.

Despite the prohibition on broadcasting federal trials, there have been exceptions. In the 1997 trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, survivors were afforded the opportunity to watch the proceedings via closed-circuit TV. The 9/11 families were similarly allowed to view the trial of alleged al-Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui.

Considering this is the case of the United States of America v. Donald J. Trump, in which one of the charges is conspiracy against the right to vote and to have one’s vote counted, the alleged victims in this case are the 81 million voters who cast their ballots for Joe Biden. They should have a right to watch Donald Trump tried in a rules-bound court of law, not in the circus-like court of media spin. In Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that the press and the public have a right to attend and observe federal criminal trials. Unnecessary barriers should not be erected to diminish that right; the trial should be televised.

As Alberto Gonzales, former attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, put it, “The government has made the argument that every American was affected. This case is so unique that televising the proceedings deserves serious consideration.” Public interest is likely to be high: approximately 20 million people watched the first Jan. 6 hearing.

Televising federal trials is not a new idea, and it has support among many constituencies. The Judicial Conference piloted two programs to explore the use of cameras in the courtroom, one ending in 1994, the second in 2015. In a follow-up survey, many of the federal judges affirmed that cameras were not disruptive and did not change their behavior.

A majority has consistently favored televising Supreme Court oral arguments, and by extension, presumably all federal trials. Letting cameras into federal courts has bipartisan support in Congress, including from Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and John Cornyn, who co-sponsored the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act. When Grassley re-introduced the bill in 2021, he commented, “Federal courtrooms…represent the birthplace of decisions that can impact the lives of Americans for generations.” That could not be truer than in the outcome of USA v. Trump.

Even Trump lawyers (and thus presumably Trump himself) want the trial televised, even if not for the sake of transparency. Trump’s lawyer, John Lauro, told Fox News, “The first thing we would ask for is: let’s have cameras in the courtroom.”

America needs to see the trial of USA v. Trump first-hand, unfiltered by media bias and partisan spin. You can add your name to my change.org petition to call on the U.S. Judicial Conference and Chief Justice Roberts to suspend Rule 53 to make it possible.

Jonathan Perloe lives in Greenwich.