Unprecedented criminal trial begins for ex-president Trump over hush-money charges

Trump attorneys lose bid to dismiss case after numerous appeals, worry jury pool tainted by negative publicity; judge also denies defense requests for recusal

File - Former US president and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump arrives at court for the start of jury selection in his historic hush money trial in New York, on April 15, 2024. (Angela Weiss/ Pool via AP)
File - Former US president and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump arrives at court for the start of jury selection in his historic hush money trial in New York, on April 15, 2024. (Angela Weiss/ Pool via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump arrived Monday at a New York court for the start of jury selection in his hush-money trial, marking a singular moment in American history, as the former president answers to criminal charges that he sought to stifle stories about his sex life.

The first trial of a former US commander-in-chief 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 also campaigning for the presidency.

After a norm-shattering presidency shadowed by years of investigations, the trial amounts to a historic courtroom reckoning for Trump, who now 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 have been known for years and are seen as less grievous than the conduct behind the three other cases.

The day began with Judge Juan M. Merchan denying defense requests to recuse himself from the case and to expand the questionnaire filled out by jurors. Additional legal arguments and housekeeping matters were expected before the formal start of jury selection.

When it finally does begin, scores of people are due to be called into the courtroom to start the process of finding 12 jurors, plus six alternates. Trump’s notoriety would make the process of picking a jury a near-herculean task in any year, but it is likely to be especially challenging now, unfolding in a closely contested presidential election in the city where Trump grew up and catapulted to celebrity status 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.”

Former US president Donald Trump arrives at the Manhattan criminal court with his legal team in New York, on April 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

No matter the outcome, Trump is determined to benefit from the proceedings, presenting himself as the victim of politically motivated prosecutions designed to derail his candidacy. He has lambasted judges and prosecutors for years, a pattern of attacks that continued up to the moment he entered court on Monday, when he said: “This is political persecution. This is a persecution like never before.”

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records that arose from an alleged effort to keep salacious — and, he 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 his then-lawyer, Michael Cohen. He had paid that sum on Trump’s behalf to keep porn actor Stormy Daniels from going public, a month before the election, with her claims of a sexual encounter with the married mogul a decade earlier.

In this April 16, 2018 photo, adult film actress Stormy Daniels speaks outside the US federal court in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

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.

Trump himself casts 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.

Former US president Donald Trump attends the first day of his criminal trial at the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on April 15, 2024. (Angela Weiss/AFP via AP Pool)

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 is convicted, though a no-jail sentence would also be possible.

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 cannot be found amid Manhattan’s roughly 1.4 million adult residents.

The process of choosing those 12, plus six alternates, will begin with scores of people filing into Merchan’s courtroom. They will be known only by number, as he has ordered their names to be kept secret from everyone except prosecutors, Trump, and their legal teams.

Supporters of former US president Donald Trump demonstrate outside Manhattan criminal court on April 15, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

After hearing some basics about the case and jury service, the prospective jurors will be asked to raise their hands if they believe they cannot serve or be fair and impartial. Those who do so will be excused, according to Merchan’s filing last week.

The rest will be eligible for questioning. 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 is 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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