Six takeaways from first day of Trump’s New York hush money criminal trial

Trump has become the first president, past or present, in US history to face criminal trial, with three other criminal cases pending.

So it begins. On Monday, history was made as former United States President Donald Trump appeared in a New York courtroom for the start of his trial over charges of falsifying business records.

He became the first US president, past or present, to stand trial on criminal charges.

Monday was the start of what is expected to be a six-week-long process, according to Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over the case.

The trial is also the first of four separate criminal trials Trump faces. It comes in the midst of his 2024 bid for the presidency.

Prosecutors hope to convict the former president on 34 felony charges related to hush-money payments he allegedly made to the adult film star Stormy Daniels, who claims they had an affair.

Not only did he attempt to hide the payments, but he did so in an attempt to stem bad press and conceal information from voters just months before the 2016 presidential election, prosecutors have argued. Trump went on to win that election.

On Monday, Trump appeared at the Manhattan court in his go-to uniform: a blue suit, red tie and US flag lapel pin. He was greeted by hordes of reporters and television cameras, plus a handful of supporters and protesters.

Once inside, the prosecution and defence teams began jury selection, an undertaking that could last weeks, particularly given the political sensitivities involved.

Here are six key takeaways from the first day of the New York trial:

Former US President Donald Trump attends trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 15 [Michael Nagle/Pool]

Trump calls trial ‘assault on America’

Upon arriving at the court, Trump swiftly set the tone for his defense.

The trial is an “assault on America” and “political persecution”, the 77-year-old former president said.

Trump has regularly dismissed the charges against him as a political “witch-hunt”. He has also used the legal proceedings against him to energise his base — and collect donations — amid his myriad legal woes.

Early in the day, for instance, Trump’s campaign released a “fact sheet” on the trial, seeking to frame it as a means of tilting the upcoming presidential election in November.

“Fact 1: President Trump did nothing wrong. These charges are entirely fabricated in order to interfere in the election and distract from the failed presidency of Crooked Joe Biden,” the email said.

Trump reprised that theme outside the court, taking direct aim at Biden, his likely opponent in November.

“It’s a country that’s failing, it’s a country that’s run by an incompetent man and is very much involved in this case,” Trump said. “This is really an attack on a political opponent. That is all it is, so I’m very honoured to be here.”

He also accused the judge and prosecutors leading the case, including Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, of being partisan.

“It’s a scam. It’s a political witch hunt. It continues, and it continues forever. And we’re not going to be given a fair trial,” he told reporters at the end of the day.

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Judge will not recuse himself from case

At the start of the day’s hearing, Judge Merchan denied a request from Trump’s defense team, saying once again that, no, he will not recuse himself from the trial.

Trump’s team has alleged that, since Merchan’s daughter works as a consultant with Democrats, the judge has a conflict of interest and should be taken off the case.

But Merchan said the defence team’s request relied on “a series of references, innuendos and unsupported speculation”.

Trump’s lawyers have repeatedly attempted to delay the trial, in part by calling for the judge to step down from the trial. Trump has also accused Merchan of being “corrupt”.

Merchan rejected a similar request to recuse himself last year.

Prosecutors say Trump should pay for violating gag order

Monday’s hearing also saw prosecutors seek to penalise Trump for alleged violations of a court gag order.

Judge Merchan had issued the gag order against Trump in March, prohibiting him from making statements about possible witnesses and their “potential participation” in the case.

But prosecutors on Monday said he had defied the order at least three times.

They pointed to recent social media posts Trump made, including one about his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. Trump called him a “disgraced attorney and felon”, casting doubt on his credibility.

Cohen’s testimony is expected to be central to the prosecution’s case.

“The defendant has demonstrated his willingness to flout the order. He has attacked witnesses in the case. In the past, he has attacked grand jurors in the case,” prosecutor Christopher Conroy said.

Prosecutors asked the judge to fine Trump $1,000 for each of the posts. Judge Merchan said he would hold a hearing about the gag order later in the month.

Access Hollywood tape will not be played

​​Judge Merchan, however, quickly denied a request from the prosecution to play an Access Hollywood recording in which Trump bragged about grabbing women by their genitalia.

Merchan made a similar decision last month, ruling that the prosecution could discuss the tape but not play it in court. Prosecutors can also question witnesses about the recording, he said.

Trump’s defence team has argued that playing the tape would be “prejudicial” for a jury.

The prosecution, however, has argued the tape is important for establishing its case. The recording became public in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential election, when Trump was under scrutiny for his relationships with women.

Prosecutors will seek to show this public pressure helped motivate Trump’s hush-money schemes, as he allegedly attempted to quash unflattering press.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump demonstrate outside the Manhattan Criminal Court where jury selection was held [Stefan Jeremiah/AP]

The start of a long jury selection process

After some legal wrangling between the prosecution and the defence, the day’s main event began: jury selection.

More than 500 prospective jurors have been lined up for evaluation, 96 of whom were invited into the courtroom on Monday.

From that vast pool, the prosecution and defence team will select 12 jurors, plus six alternates.

“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 Merchan told the 96 potential jurors at the start of the day.

Each prospective juror was given a questionnaire aimed at sussing out their political bias.

They were asked where they lived, what jobs they had, what their educational background was and what media they consumed. They were also questioned about whether they had strong opinions about Trump and if they felt they could be a “fair and impartial juror”.

In Monday’s hearing, Judge Merchan appeared quick to dismiss the prospective jurors.

More than half of the 96 jurors present raised their hands to indicate they felt they could not be impartial in the case, and they were all dismissed immediately. No jurors were seated on Monday.

Trump Media stocks tumble

Trump’s woes extended outside of the courtroom, with shares of his social media company slumping by 15 percent on Monday.

Shares in the Trump Media & Technology Group, which operates the Truth Social platform, have been volatile. The shares had already fallen nearly 60 percent since the company first went public on March 26.

The company’s stock initially peaked at $70.90, and the public offering was believed to have inflated Trump’s overall wealth by billions.

However, shares were at $27.56 as Trump’s trial began.


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