POLITICS + GOVERNMENT

Potential jurors called into courtroom for start of Trump’s historic hush-money trial

Apr 15, 2024, 7:34 AM | Updated: 1:46 pm

Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower on his way to Manhattan criminal court....

Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower on his way to Manhattan criminal court, Monday, April 15, 2024, in New York. The hush money trial of former President Donald Trump begins Monday with jury selection. It's a singular moment for American history as the first criminal trial of a former U.S. commander in chief. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

(AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

NEW YORK (AP) — The historic hush-money trial of Donald Trump got underway Monday as dozens of prospective jurors packed into a courtroom where the former president will answer to charges that he falsified business records in order to stifle stories about his sex life.

The first criminal trial of any former U.S. president will unfold 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 since 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 Monday afternoon. 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 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.”

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.

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.”

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 said: ’“This is political persecution. This is a persecution like never before.”

Earlier Monday, the judge denied a defense request to recuse himself 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 Monday 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 that 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 and instead set a hearing for next week.

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 their names to 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.

“Do you have any strong opinions or firmly held beliefs about former President Donald Trump, or the fact that he is a current candidate for president, that would interfere with your ability to be a fair and impartial juror?” asks one question.

Others ask about attendance at Trump or anti-Trump rallies, opinions on how he’s being treated in the case, news sources and more — including any “political, moral, intellectual, or religious beliefs or opinions” that might “slant” a prospective juror’s approach to the case.

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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Potential jurors called into courtroom for start of Trump’s historic hush-money trial