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Trump's Historic Hush-Money Trial Gets Underway; 1st Day Ends Without Any Jurors Being Picked
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By Associated Press
Published 1 month ago on
April 15, 2024

Historic Trump hush-money trial begins in New York, with jury selection facing challenges amid his presidential campaign. (AP File)

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NEW YORK — The historic hush-money trial of Donald Trump got underway Monday with the arduous process of selecting a jury to hear the case charging the former president with falsifying business records in order to stifle stories about his sex life.

The day ended without any jurors being seated. The selection process was scheduled to resume Tuesday.

The First Criminal Trial of a Former U.S. President

The first criminal trial of any former U.S. president began as Trump vies to reclaim the White House, creating a remarkable split-screen spectacle of the presumptive Republican nominee spending his days as a criminal defendant while simultaneously campaigning for office. He’s blended those roles over the last year by presenting himself to supporters, on the campaign trail and on social media, as a target of politically motivated prosecutions designed to derail his candidacy.

After a norm-shattering presidency shadowed by years of investigations, the trial amounts to a courtroom reckoning for Trump, who faces four indictments charging him with crimes ranging from hoarding classified documents to plotting to overturn an election. Yet the political stakes are less clear because a conviction would not preclude him from becoming president and because the allegations in this case date back years and are seen as less grievous than the conduct behind the three other indictments.

The day began with hours of pretrial arguments — including over a potential fine for Trump — before moving into the start of jury selection. The first members of the jury pool — 96 in all — were summoned into the courtroom, where the parties will decide who among them might be picked to decide the legal fate of the former, and potentially future, American president.

Trump craned his neck to look back at the pool, whispering to his lawyer as they entered the jury box.

“You are about to participate in a trial by jury. The system of trial by jury is one of the cornerstones of our judicial system,” Judge Juan Merchan told the jurors. “The name of this case is the People of the State of New York vs. Donald Trump.”

The Challenge of Jury Selection

Trump’s notoriety would make the process of picking 12 jurors and six alternates a near-herculean task in any year, but it’s likely to be especially challenging now, unfolding in a closely contested presidential election in the heavily Democratic city where Trump grew up and catapulted to celebrity status decades before winning the White House.

Underscoring the difficulty, only about a third of the 96 people in the first panel of potential jurors remained after the judge excused some members of the jury pool. More than half of the group was excused after telling the judge they could not be fair and impartial. At least nine more prospective jurors were excused after raising their hands when Merchan asked if they could not serve for any other reason.

A female juror was excused after saying she had strong opinions about Trump. Earlier in the questionnaire, the woman, a Harlem resident, indicated she could be neutral in deciding the case. But when asked whether she had strong opinions about the former president, the woman answered matter-of-factly: “Yes.”

When Merchan asked her to repeat the response, she replied: “Yeah, I said yes.” She was dismissed.

Merchan has written that the key is “whether the prospective juror can assure us that they will set aside any personal feelings or biases and render a decision that is based on the evidence and the law.”

Trump’s Response to the Trial

No matter the outcome, Trump is determined to benefit from the proceedings, casting the case, and his indictments elsewhere, as a broad “weaponization of law enforcement” by Democratic prosecutors and officials. He maintains they are orchestrating sham charges in hopes of impeding his presidential run.

He’s lambasted judges and prosecutors for years, a pattern of attacks that continued up to the moment he entered court Monday when he called the case an “assault on America” and said: ’“This is political persecution. This is a persecution like never before.”

Earlier Monday, the judge denied a defense request to recuse from the case after Trump’s lawyers claimed he had a conflict of interest. He also said prosecutors could not play for the jury the 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording in which Trump was captured discussing grabbing women sexually without their permission. However, prosecutors will be allowed to question witnesses about the recording, which became public in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.

Prosecutors with the Manhattan district attorney’s office also asked for Merchan to fine Trump $3,000 over social media posts they said violated the judge’s gag order barring him from attacking witnesses. Last week, he used his Truth Social platform to call his former lawyer Michael Cohen and the adult film actor Stormy Daniels “two sleaze bags who have, with their lies and misrepresentations, cost our Country dearly!”

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche maintained Trump was simply responding to the witnesses’ statements.

“It’s not as if President Trump is going out and targeting individuals. He is responding to salacious, repeated vehement attacks by these witnesses,” Blanche said.

Merchan did not rule on the request immediately, instead setting a hearing for next week.

The Charges Against Trump

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. Prosecutors say the alleged fraud was part of an effort to keep salacious — and, Trump says, bogus — stories about his sex life from emerging during his 2016 campaign.

The charges center on $130,000 in payments that Trump’s company made to Cohen. He paid that sum on Trump’s behalf to keep Daniels from going public, a month before the election, with her claims of a sexual encounter with the married mogul a decade earlier.

Prosecutors say the payments to Cohen were falsely logged as legal fees in order to cloak their actual purpose. Trump’s lawyers say the disbursements indeed were legal expenses, not a cover-up.

After decades of fielding and initiating lawsuits, the businessman-turned-politician now faces a trial that could result in up to four years in prison if he’s convicted, though a no-jail sentence also would be possible. Trump would also be expected to appeal any conviction.

Trump’s attorneys lost a bid to get the hush-money case dismissed and have since repeatedly sought to delay it, prompting a flurry of last-minute appeals court hearings last week.

Among other things, Trump’s lawyers maintain that the jury pool in overwhelmingly Democratic Manhattan has been tainted by negative publicity about Trump and that the case should be moved elsewhere.

An appeals judge turned down an emergency request to delay the trial while the change-of-venue request goes to a group of appellate judges, who are set to consider it in the coming weeks.

Manhattan prosecutors have countered that a lot of the publicity stems from Trump’s own comments and that questioning will tease out whether prospective jurors can put aside any preconceptions they may have. There’s no reason, prosecutors said, to think that 12 fair and impartial people can’t be found amid Manhattan’s roughly 1.4 million adult residents.

The prospective jurors will be known only by number, as the judge has ordered that their names be kept secret from everyone except prosecutors, Trump and their legal teams. The 42 preapproved, sometimes multi-pronged queries include background basics but also reflect the uniqueness of the case.

They’re being asked, among other questions, about their hobbies and news habits, if they hold strong beliefs about Trump that would prevent them being impartial and about attendance at Trump or anti-Trump rallies.

Based on the answers, the attorneys can ask a judge to eliminate people “for cause” if they meet certain criteria for being unable to serve or be unbiased. The lawyers also can use “peremptory challenges” to nix 10 potential jurors and two prospective alternates without giving a reason.

“If you’re going to strike everybody who’s either a Republican or a Democrat,” the judge observed at a February hearing, “you’re going to run out of peremptory challenges very quickly.”

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