First day of Donald Trump’s hush money trial ends without any jurors being picked

The historic hush money trial of Donald Trump got under way on 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 expected to resume on Tuesday.

The first criminal trial of any former US 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 has blended those roles over the past 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.

Donald Trump in the courtroom. Photo: Pool via Reuters

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.

How Trump will seek to turn his hush money trial into political gold

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.”

Trump’s notoriety would make the process of picking 12 jurors and six alternates 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 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.

Porn actress Stormy Daniels. File photo: AFP

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 tests gag order limits by insulting potential witnesses in criminal trial

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

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 called the case an “assault on America”.

Earlier on Monday, the judge denied a defence 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.

Anti-Trump protesters outside the court. Photo: dpa

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 US$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”.

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

Merchan did not rule on the request immediately, instead setting 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 centre on US$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 is convicted, though a non-custodial sentence could be possible. Trump would also be expected to appeal any conviction.

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



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