Donald Trump’s ‘hush money’ trial begins in a New York court as lawyers start assembling a juryBy …

Donald Trump’s ‘hush money’ trial begins in a New York court as lawyers start assembling a jury

By North America correspondent Barbara Miller in New York

Posted , updated 

Hush money, an alleged sexual liaison, an adult film star, a presidential candidate, and an insider-turned-key-prosecution-witness – the criminal trial of Donald J Trump has it all.

Throw in New York, the city that made the real estate agent and one-time reality TV star, and you have a veritable blockbuster.

For the next six weeks or so a courtroom on the 15th floor of the New York County Supreme Court in Lower Manhattan will be the setting for a trial that made history before it even started.

The defendant is the first ever US president to be tried on criminal charges.

Once again, Mr Trump is at the centre of unprecedented events.

He’s pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records about a payment made to adult film actor Stormy Daniels just before the 2016 election, to prevent her going public with allegations of a sexual encounter.

Donald Trump is now the first ex-president to go on criminal trial.(Reuters: Jane Rosenberg/Pool)
Donald Trump is charged with 34 felonies.(Reuters: Jabin Botsford)

The case to be argued is legally complex.

Paying hush money is not necessarily a crime in itself, but falsifying business records is a misdemeanour.

What elevates this to the more serious felony charge is the allegation Mr Trump conspired to influence the 2016 presidential election by making sure the allegations were not aired, and then falsified the records to cover up the nature of the payments.

Before the court gets into the meat of these allegations, a jury must be found.

Twelve people drawn from Manhattan will sit in judgement.

So how are they being selected? Who’s in and who’s out?

We sat in on day one of the process to see how it all unfolded.

‘I just couldn’t do it’

After a sluggish morning filled with haggling over evidence and various other formalities, the initial group of 96 potential jurors finally enter the courtroom at 2:30pm and are sworn in.

The first criminal trial of an American president has begun.

Judge Juan Merchan begins by introducing the legal teams and Mr Trump, who turns and gives them a tight smile.

A reporter in court notes that one woman puts her hand over her mouth and giggles as she raises her eyebrows at the person sitting next to her.

Others craned their necks for a peek at the star defendant.

The judge instructs the potential jurors on the bones of the prosecution’s allegations and their duty as jurors.

Mr Trump appears to chuckle when the judge tells jurors he will ensure the trial is fair.

Then it’s down to business, deciding who might be qualified to decide on a case that could change the course of one man’s life and potentially the 2024 presidential election.

First up, anyone who thinks they cannot be fair and impartial is asked to make themselves known.

The judge has decided in advance that they are to be immediately excused.

More than 50 hands go up.

Anti-Trump demonstrators rallied outside the court.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)
Trump fans also showed up to voice support.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

It was always going to be hard to find a jury in heavily liberal-leaning New York to decide Mr Trump’s fate.

The former president’s team has argued he can’t get a fair trial here.

It’s possible some ruled themselves out because they felt they would be biased towards the former president.

We’ll likely never know, but the fact that more than half of the first group of potential jurors immediately rule themselves out demonstrates why 500 stand ready to be called for duty.

As one leaves the court, a reporter in the corridor hears her say “I just couldn’t do it”.

At least nine more prospective jurors are excused after raising their hands when Judge Merchan asks if they can’t serve for any other reason.

The reasons are not disclosed.

The others are called to the jury box, where each has to go through a questionnaire drawn up by the judge with input from the prosecution and defence.

Donald Trump is charged with falsifying business records.(Reuters: Jane Rosenberg/Pool)
The former president will need to attend court each day of the trial.(Reuters: Jabin Botsford)

There are 42 questions in all, some of which have several components.

Judge Merchan has described it as “by far the most exhaustive questionnaire this court has ever used”.

Each potential juror has to read out the question number and tell the court the answer.

Jurors are asked about where they live, their marital status, their employment, educational status and hobbies.

It’s strangely intimate and, to me, remarkable how confident their voices sound.

Surely this is a daunting experience?

42 questions help select who sits in judgement

Some even manage to raise a laugh.

One woman drawls on the word when she says she likes to go to the club in her free time.

“My girlfriend works in a bank, but I honestly don’t know what she does there,” says another.

As the questionnaire progresses it gets a little more pointed.

Potential jurors are asked about which media they consume and given multiple choices.

From the few vetted on day one, several said they were New York Times readers, CNN viewers and listeners to National Public Radio.

You could almost hear the groans from the defence table.

I note just one who mentions also watching the more Trump-friendly Fox News.

There are no questions asking potential jurors whom they voted for or intend to vote for or their general political affiliation. But as the judge himself previously noted, “the answer to that question may easily be gleaned from the responses to the other questions”.

On the whole, they appear to be liberal and well-educated, not really your typical MAGA crowd.

Most rattle through the questions pretty quickly.

One, a bookseller, elaborates a little, saying he doesn’t think anyone should be above the law, whether it’s a former president or a janitor.

It’s question 28 of 42 before the defendant is mentioned by name.

“Have you, a relative, or a close friend ever worked for any company or organisation that is owned or run by Donald Trump or anyone in his family?”

Some resorted to performance to make their case.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)
Demonstrators brought banners and signs to express their views.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

The final questions go directly to potential jurors’ attitudes towards the 45th president of the United States.

Jurors must say whether they have attended a Trump campaign rally or an anti-Trump event and whether they follow him on social media.

Question 34 sees another juror knocked out.

“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?”

A woman, originally from Texas – the one who likes clubbing – answers yes to this question.

She’s excused.

A long line for a front seat to history

The trial is not being televised.

When opening arguments begin, around 60 journalists will be allocated seats in the courtroom proper.

More than 100 more will be accommodated in an “overflow” flow, where large screens relay proceedings.

On Monday local time, to make room for the dozens of prospective jurors, only six reporters are allowed into the actual courtroom.

Many of the rest, including this one, lined up for hours to secure a seat in the overflow, just along the corridor from the proceedings themselves.

The case has attracted huge media attention.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)
Trump fans showed their support in a range of ways.(ABC News: Cameron Schwarz)

Access to the court is so coveted that a months-long process has culminated in a complex seating plan and pool arrangement, itself part of the reporting around this case.

Some members of the public also have to be allowed in.

“Life is beautiful,” the woman next to me, a law student who got in from the public line, writes on her notepad as proceedings get underway.

Tonda Marton, who described herself as a “literary agent playing hooky”, also made it in.

“I wanted to see this moment in history,” she says.

“When he was finally brought in … when he couldn’t dodge it any longer.”

She says she’s “rooting for the prosecution”, but admits she doesn’t understand the intricacies of the case.

A high-stakes case

The judge ultimately decides who will sit on the jury, but each side gets the chance to strike out 10 potential jurors.

The stakes are high.

Each of the 34 counts carries a penalty of up to four years of jail time, though any sentences would likely be served concurrently.

Any jail time at all could be unlikely, given Mr Trump has no criminal record.

If he were found guilty it could however influence the election.

Polls have shown a significant number of voters would reconsider voting for Mr Trump if he were criminally convicted.

If, on the other hand, he is found not guilty, it would bolster his argument that this is all a witch hunt.

“This is really an attack on a political opponent,” the former president said as he entered the courtroom on Monday.

Outside court, Donald Trump argued his prosecution was “an assault on America”.(Reuters: Angela Weiss)
Donald Trump smiled to the jury pool as he was introduced.

Along with the 12 jurors, six alternates will be chosen, but just one person could make a difference.

A single juror who disagrees with the majority means a hung jury.

This is the type of person the defence will be hoping makes it onto the case, former federal prosecutor Mitchell Epner told the ABC.

“People who would describe themselves as fiercely individualistic people who would say, ‘I pride myself for the solitary stands I’ve taken,'” he said.

The prosecution meanwhile “wants people who will say the law should apply equally to everybody”.

“People who are civic-minded, who are sort of your prototypical do-gooders; teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, janitors, accountants,” Mr Epner said.

What they don’t want however is people with an agenda, who seem to want to be in the spotlight.

“Anything like that can only serve to be fodder for appeal for Donald Trump if he’s convicted.” 

Slow start to a long trial

Ms Marton has long gone home as the day wraps at 4:30pm.

The stifling heat in the overflow room has proved too much for her.

“I need more coffee and cake,” the law student next to me writes on her pad.

It’s been a slow start to a trial that has been years in the making, but it has begun.

Mr Trump’s legal team has tried and tried again to delay this trial, as they are doing with the other three criminal cases he’s facing.

It’s possible this is the only one he will face before the November election.

It’s expected to last around six weeks, but it could drag on.

One potential juror mentions his child is getting married on June 8 in Seattle.

Judge Merchan tells him he thinks the trial will be done by then, but he can’t be sure.

“I think to be on the safe side we should excuse you,” he tells the man, whose wedding speech will no doubt include the one about the day he almost sat in judgement of a former president.

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