May 29, 2024

What to know about Trump’s hush-money trial

Video caption, Watch: Our New York correspondent sets out what’s at stake in Trump’s unprecedented trial?

Donald Trump’s first criminal trial is now firmly under way after opening statements from the prosecution and defence.

The former president has in recent months faced judges in two separate New York civil trials, but his criminal trial there will look very different.

Mr Trump, 77, has been charged with 34 counts of fraud, related to hush-money that was paid to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election.

He has pleaded not guilty, arguing the allegations he faces are not criminal.

The Manhattan case could frequently take the Republican frontrunner for president off the campaign trail during a trial expected to span six weeks.

Here’s everything we know about the trial.

What is it all about?

Ms Daniels alleges that she had sex with Mr Trump in 2006 – something he denies – and that she was paid money to stay quiet about it in the lead-up to the 2016 election, which Mr Trump won.

The trial centres on a reimbursement Mr Trump made to his former personal lawyer and “fixer”, Michael Cohen.

Cohen, 57, claims he was directed to pay Ms Daniels $130,000 (£104,000) in exchange for her silence about her alleged affair with Mr Trump. Prosecutors have described this as an attempt to “unlawfully influence” the 2016 election.

Hush money payments are not illegal. But the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office alleges that Mr Trump committed a crime by improperly recording the money with which he reimbursed Cohen as legal expenses.

In total, he is accused of 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree.

Is Trump attending?

Mr Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for the 2024 election, has previously vowed to be in court by day and campaign by night. He has been in court every day during jury selection.

As a criminal defendant, he is legally required to be in court and the trial judge, Justice Juan Merchan, has threatened to issue arrest warrants for absences.

Mr Trump has asked to skip court for his son’s high school graduation on 17 May. The judge has said he will decide closer to the date.

This is a distinct change for Mr Trump. The former president showed up sporadically at his pair of recently concluded civil trials, often entering and leaving the courtroom as he pleased.

The court does have some limited discretion to approve absences, experts said, so the judge could decide to permit Mr Trump to leave for another hearing or an important event.

But not appearing can prove costly at a jury trial, said Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and president of West Coast Trial Lawyers.

People do not like jury duty, he said, “and when they see that a party in the case does not care and does not respect their time, that is a sure-fire way to get convicted”.

The ex-president already has crushed the competition in the Republican primary, and is now the presumptive Republican nominee. He only has the general election in November to worry about from here.

But the trial could serve as a distraction from his campaign and conflict with his challenge of President Joe Biden. It could also siphon off much-needed campaign funds to support his legal defence.

What will the trial look like?

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, who oversaw a tax fraud trial against the Trump Organisation last year, has more than 16 years on the bench. But the first criminal trial of a former US president will be his highest-profile case yet.

Mr Trump has repeatedly said the the judge “hates” him and called for him to step aside, a move Justice Merchan rejected.

This case has already veered twice from a typical, lower-profile proceeding.

Justice Merchan issued a sweeping gag order that bars the former president from talking about jurors, witnesses, and members of the prosecution team and even the judge’s family. Mr Trump can speak about the judge and the lead prosecutor, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

And the prosecution refused to share the names of its first three witnesses with defence attorneys, saying Mr Trump might tweet about them. Usually, prosecutors will tell the other side who they plan to call as a courtesy.

The former president has hired a coterie of lawyers for his various cases. Representing him here is a team led by Susan Necheles and Todd Blanche.

District Attorney Bragg, the first person to indict Mr Trump, has assembled a team of eight seasoned litigators for the prosecution.

Prosecutors have told the court they will need 15 to 17 days minimum to present their case and may need more if the two sides cannot agree on certain stipulations.

Mr Cohen is expected to be the prosecution’s star witness. He will likely face an intense cross-examination over his chequered past.

Video caption, Watch: How Trump and Cohen’s friendship soured over the years

The ex-president, meanwhile, will argue that the charges are “meritless” and “politically motivated”. Per Justice Merchan’s rules, the court will not sit on Wednesdays, or on 29 April.

How did jury selection work?

The jury was selected last week, taking far less time than expected. Ultimately – as required by New York law for felony trials – 12 jurors and four alternates were chosen.

Prospective jurors answered a wide range of questions, from where they get their news to whether they have ever attended a Trump rally.

They also were asked if they have read any of Mr Trump’s books or if they have listened to anything from Mr Cohen.

Jury selection was complex, Mr Rahmani said, because “everyone knows who Donald Trump is. Everyone has an opinion about him”.

“People are not coming into the courtroom with a blank slate,” Mr Rahmani said.

Justice Merchan, however, imposed a time limit to ask questions. Each side also was limited to 10 challenges without providing cause. The Trump team ran out of challenges during the process.

Two jurors who had been picked were ultimately dismissed by Judge Merchan. One was dismissed when she said she realised she could no longer be impartial after friends and family, having gleaned from media reports that she was chosen for the panel, bombarded with her messages.

Another was found to have lied about having no criminal history.

Three potential alternate jurors were excused on Friday after saying the trial was causing them stress and anxiety.

Will the trial be televised?

New York is one of only three jurisdictions in the country that bans nearly all audio and visual coverage during trials, although it made a brief exception for audio during the pandemic.

Judges have discretion over letting cameras into their courtrooms, and we did catch brief glimpses from Mr Trump’s civil fraud trial on most days.

Video caption, Donald Trump Jr: ‘I should have worn make-up’

But Justice Merchan has so far not appeared to reverse course on television cameras.

That means – despite the intense public interest – that only a few members of the public and the press will be inside the Manhattan courthouse to watch the prosecution of Mr Trump.

The rest of us will have to rely on media reports, sketch art, some photos and, in all likelihood, Mr Trump’s comments and online posts to colour in the scene each day.

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