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Jury selection begins in historic case against former US President Trump


Former President Donald Trump, flanked by his lawyers, appears at New York Supreme Court in New York, April 15, 2024, for the first day of his trial on charges of falsifying business records.
Former President Donald Trump, flanked by his lawyers, appears at New York Supreme Court in New York, April 15, 2024, for the first day of his trial on charges of falsifying business records.

Jury selection started Monday in a New York trial of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who is accused of scheming to hide hush money payments to cover up alleged extramarital affairs just ahead of his successful 2016 campaign for the White House.

It was a moment unlike any in U.S. history, with Trump the first former U.S. chief executive ever to face criminal charges and the threat of imprisonment if he is convicted.

New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan called 96 prospective jurors into his courtroom to begin questioning them on whether they held any biases for or against Trump and could render a fair verdict in the case, no matter their views of the country’s 45th president.

More than 50, an unusually large number, raised their hands that they could not be fair and were immediately dismissed.

Merchan was not expected to ask the jurors specifically how they voted in Trump’s presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020. Rather, among 42 queries, he planned to ask the possible jurors what sources they rely on to see and hear the news of the day, whether they have attended Trump political rallies or those opposing him, and if they belong to controversial groups opposing federal government actions.

Selection of 12 jurors and six alternates could take several days. Merchan adjourned the case for the day after questioning 10 possible jurors.

As the morning session opened, Merchan quickly rejected a bid by Trump’s lawyers for a second time to recuse himself from the case as allegedly biased against the former president.

Merchan heard several legal arguments on evidence in the case, issuing rulings that both favored Trump and prosecutors. Then, hours later, Merchan called in the first would-be jurors, some of whom strained to catch a glimpse of Trump.

About 500 New Yorkers were summoned as possible jurors and they would be questioned later if they are needed to fill the jury.

Merchan introduced Trump and the lawyers in the case and said the trial could last six weeks.

As he arrived at the courthouse, Trump told reporters, “This is a persecution like never before. It is an assault on America and that’s why I'm very proud to be here.” A short time later, his 2024 presidential campaign sent out a fundraising appeal referencing the case.

The presumptive Republican presidential contender in the November election is watching the proceedings from the defendant’s table flanked by his lawyers. He appeared to doze off at some points in the afternoon proceedings before jolting alert again.

Eventually, he could take the witness stand to defend himself or not, depending on how he and his lawyers view the prosecutors’ evidence.

Trump, the U.S. president from early 2017 to January 2021, has repeatedly assailed his prosecution and railed against Merchan.

Trump complained on his Truth Social platform last week, “No such thing has ever happened in our Country before. On Monday I will be forced to sit, GAGGED, before a HIGHLY CONFLICTED & CORRUPT JUDGE, whose hatred for me has no bounds.”

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Since he is required to be in court, the case almost certainly will keep the 77-year-old candidate off the campaign trail for large swaths of time. He is trying to reclaim the White House from Democratic President Joe Biden, who defeated him in the 2020 election, although Trump to this day claims falsely that he was cheated out of another four-year term by voting irregularities.

Trump stands accused of hiding a $130,000 hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels just ahead of the 2016 election to keep her from publicly talking about her claim that she had a one-night tryst with him at a celebrity golf tournament a decade earlier, less than four months after Trump’s wife Melania had given birth to their son, Barron.

In a second instance, the indictment alleges that a former Playmate of the Year, Karen McDougal, says she had a monthslong affair with Trump and was paid $150,000 by a tabloid publisher who bought the rights to her story and then, at Trump’s urging, killed the article.

Trump has denied both affairs and all 34 charges he faces in the New York case, including that he directed his one-time political fixer, convicted perjurer Michael Cohen, to make the payment to Daniels and then reimbursed him during the first year of his presidency in 2017, all the while labeling the monthly stipends to Cohen in Trump’s business records as legal expenses.

Altering his company’s ledgers would be a misdemeanor offense, but to convict Trump of a more serious felony, prosecutors will have to convince jurors he committed an underlying crime, such as trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 election by keeping information about the alleged affairs from voters.

It is not illegal to pay hush money and Trump may claim that the payments were made simply to avoid disclosure of personally compromising moments of his life, not to try to influence the 2016 election.

The eventual 12-member jury will have to reach a unanimous decision for either a guilty verdict or acquittal. If one or more jurors are unable to agree with the remaining jurors, there would be a hung jury, without rending a decision.

Each of the charges carries the possibility of a four-year prison term, although Trump is certain to appeal any guilty verdict and sentence.

The New York case is one of an unprecedented four criminal indictments Trump is facing encompassing 88 charges, all of which he has denied.

Some legal analysts view the hush money case as the least consequential of the four cases he faces. But it is also possibly the only one that will go to trial before the November 5 election.

Two of the other indictments accuse Trump of illegally trying to upend his 2020 loss, while the third alleges that he illegally took hundreds of highly classified national security documents with him to his oceanside Florida estate when his presidential term ended, and then refused requests by investigators to return them.

No firm trial dates have been set in any of these three cases, all delayed by pre-trial hearings and legal arguments. Trump has sought to push the start dates until after the election. If he wins, he could seek to have the federal charges dismissed. In any event, if he assumes power again, he would not be tried during his presidency.

Cohen, who turned against his one-time boss, is expected to be a key witness against Trump. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance charges in the case and lying to Congress, among other crimes. In all, he was imprisoned for about 13-1/2 months and spent a year and a half in home confinement.

Stormy Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, is also expected to testify, and McDougal could as well.

Prosecutors could also call Hope Hicks to the witness stand. Hicks is a loyal, longtime Trump aide who witnessed behind-the-scenes campaign strategizing just ahead of the 2016 vote.

Trump has railed against the hush money charges since he was indicted a year ago, claiming those and the other allegations filed against him are part of a plot by Biden and Democrats to keep him from winning the White House again. "Election interference,” he calls it.

There is no evidence that Biden played any role in the indictments Trump is facing.

Trump complained when Judge Merchan first imposed a gag order prohibiting him from verbally attacking principals in the case who are likely to testify against him, including Daniels, whom Trump has often called “horseface.”

On his Truth Social platform, Trump later attacked the judge’s daughter, Loren Merchan, who is a key official at a political consulting firm that worked for the 2020 campaigns of Biden and other Democrats.

“This Judge should be recused, and the case should be thrown out,” Trump contended. “There has virtually never been a more conflicted judge than this one. ELECTION INTERFERENCE at its worst!”

Merchan ignored Trump’s taunts but tightened the gag order, prohibiting him from attacking the judge’s relatives or those of the lead prosecutor in the case, Alvin Bragg.

Merchan said the gag orders against Trump were warranted because of his conduct in other recent court cases, citing “threatening, inflammatory, denigrating” statements he has made.

Trump says the gag order prohibits his freedom of speech.