Trump’s landmark criminal trial opens in New York


NEW YORK: Donald Trump’s New York criminal trial opened Monday in a historic first for a US ex-president and a seismic twist to an already explosive 2024 election where the Republican is seeking to defy multiple scandals and return to power.

Trump has repeatedly described the hush money case as a sham.

But reality set in for the 77-year-old, hard-right Republican as Judge Juan Merchan issued the routine warning for criminal defendants that he will have to attend proceedings in the gritty Manhattan courthouse daily — or face arrest.

Merchan also warned Trump against repeating his frequent past attempts to disrupt court hearings with incendiary social media posts.

The judge scheduled a hearing next week for the prosecution to argue that Trump should already be held in contempt for violating a partial gag order restricting him from attacking individuals connected to the case.

The Republican presidential candidate is accused of falsifying business records in a scheme to cover up an alleged extramarital sexual encounter with adult film actress Stormy Daniels to shield his first election campaign, in 2016, from last-minute upheaval.

He faces three other criminal cases centered on his hoarding of top-secret documents after leaving office and his alleged unprecedented attempt to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden.

Throughout the morning, lawyers for both sides in the case wrangled with Merchan over admissible evidence.

Trump, shoulders hunched, stared sternly straight ahead or looked down at the computer alongside his legal team. According to The New York Times reporter sitting close to Trump, he at times appeared to fall asleep, head drooping.

The judge ruled against allowing prosecutors to play the jury the infamous Access Hollywood recording that rocked Trump’s 2016 campaign in which he can be heard boasting that famous men can “grab” women by their genitals because “they let you do it.”

However, the contents of the recording — which prosecutors see as key in motivating Trump to pay to bury news reports about Stormy Daniel — can be introduced as evidence.

Prosecutors also demanded that Trump be fined for violating a gag order imposed earlier by Merchan to try and get the ex-president to stop attacking potential witnesses and others in the courtroom on social media. Merchan indicated he would rule on this later.

Selection of jurors, who will benefit from anonymity to protect them from widespread public interest in the case, was expected to begin next.

Given the notoriety of the case it could take as much as two weeks for defense lawyers and prosecutors to agree on the panel of 12 jurors.

Election wild card

Wearing his trademark red tie, white shirt and blue suit, Trump struck a defiant tone on arrival at the courthouse, telling a throng of journalists that his trial was an “assault on America.”

Outside, at a small but noisy pro-Trump protest, the former commander in chief’s supporters shouted obscenities about Biden and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the lead prosecutor.

One Trump backer flew a flag proclaiming “Trump or death.”

If convicted in the hush money case, Trump would potentially face years in prison, but legal observers consider that fines would be more likely.

Still, the prospect of Trump becoming a convicted felon throws an unprecedented wild card into an already unpredictable November 5 election, at which he will seek to defeat Biden and retake the White House.

Adding more uncertainty to the situation, Trump said last week he wanted to take the stand and testify — an unusual and often highly risky move for criminal defendants, who must face cross-examination.

For jury selection, a pool of ordinary citizens convened by Merchan must answer a questionnaire including checks on whether they have been members of far-right groups.

The actual charges revolve around highly technical finance laws.

Trump is accused of illegally covering up remittances to his longtime attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, who was using the funds to pay Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about the alleged sexual encounter in the final weeks of the 2016 election campaign.

A New York grand jury indicted Trump in March 2023 over the payments made to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, with the ex-president charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records.

If found guilty, the maximum sentences would be four years in prison for each count, but there is no mandatory prison time and the judge could decide on probation.

Trump denies the charges and says the encounter with Clifford and another with a Playboy nude model, whose story he also allegedly covered up, did not happen.

Trump’s other three criminal cases all face multiple delays.


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