Donald Trump appears for hush-money trial in New York

A historic trial began in New York on Monday, with former president Donald Trump facing criminal charges in a case focused on an alleged hush money payment to an adult film star during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Mr Trump is the first former or sitting president of the US to be charged in a criminal case and the New York case was the first time a president has appeared in court as part of a trial.

Wearing his signature blue suit and red tie, the putative Republican presidential candidate appeared at the trial, which is expected to last until the end of May.

The selection of 12 jurors and six alternates from a pool of Manhattan residents is expected to take about a week, followed by witness evidence. The judge brought in 96 New Yorkers as prospective jurors, though more than half were dismissed as they said they could not be impartial.

A group of protesters and supporters had assembled in the plaza across the street, holding hand-painted signs that declared “Convict Trump already” and “Make America godly again”.

Lito from the Bronx told The National that he has been a supporter of Mr Trump since 2016 and believes the former president is “only guilty about doing the right thing”.

State prosecutors argue that Mr Trump falsified business records to cover up a hush-money scheme aimed at shutting down possible public scandals.

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Mr Trump has pleaded not guilty to the 34 felony charges.

If the trial ends in a conviction, he could face a fine or up to four years in state prison.

“This is a kind of crime that New York does incarcerate people for when they are convicted for it,” David Super, professor of law at Georgetown University, told The National.

The case

Once a 12-member jury is selected, formal arguments begin, with witnesses to potentially include Michael Cohen, former adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, Karen McDougal, David Pecker and Mr Trump’s former personal counsellor Hope Hicks.

Ms Clifford, better known by her screen name Stormy Daniels, was allegedly paid $130,000 by Mr Trump’s lawyer at the time Mr Cohen for her silence after claims arose that she had an affair with the former president in 2006. Mr Trump has denied the affair.

According to a court document made public this month, “it is alleged that Donald Trump made or caused false business records to hide the true nature of payments made to Michael Cohen, by characterising them as payment for legal services rendered pursuant to a retainer agreement”.

Mr Cohen has completed a three-year sentence in federal prison for the hush-money payments he made.

“New York is the financial capital of the US and is very concerned that if it gets a reputation as a place where people can submit fraudulent paperwork and fraudulent reports, that people will not want to do business in New York, and that will be very bad for the city in the state,” said Mr Super.

Paul, a Trump supporter who is originally from Cuba, said the former president’s critics were out to get him over his desire to bring religion into the US government.

“They [his critics] hate that about him. He’s trying to bring, first of all, God into our government, into our country, and they don’t like that,” he said.

Prosecutors also say that tabloid publisher National Enquirer paid former Playboy model Ms McDougal $150,000 on behalf of Mr Trump over claims that she had an affair with him.

Mr Pecker, a former executive at the tabloid, allegedly worked with Mr Trump’s team to block negative stories about him in the press.

In another “catch and kill” strategy by the Enquirer to squash a story, the publisher also allegedly paid off a doorman at Trump Tower so he would not share claims that Mr Trump had a child out of wedlock.

Scheduling conflicts

According to New York state law, Mr Trump has to be present in person for every day the trial is in session. Cameras will not be allowed into the court during proceedings.

“On Monday, I will be forced to sit, GAGGED, before a HIGHLY CONFLICTED and CORRUPT JUDGE, whose hatred for me has no bounds,” Mr Trump posted on his Truth Social network.

The trial is expected to last from six to eight weeks.

This poses a scheduling difficulty for Mr Trump, who is campaigning for the presidency and is the presumed Republican Party candidate for the general election in November.

Mr Trump is the first US president to be criminally charged, racking up 91 felony counts in four cases, but the New York case is currently on track to be the first and potentially only one to make it to trial before election day in November.

“There’s a good chance that none of the other criminal charges against Mr Trump will go to trial before the election,” Mr Super said.

Where is Donald Trump facing criminal charges?

Where is Donald Trump facing criminal charges?

“So this is the one chance that voters will have to hear from a jury, whether or not he committed crimes he’s charged with.”

The other cases include two separate federal challenges over conspiracy and obstruction charges related to the 2020 presidential election he lost to Joe Biden and another focused on his alleged mishandling of government documents after his presidency ended.

He also faces racketeering charges over trying to subvert the 2020 election results in the state of Georgia.

Mr Trump has repeatedly delayed those cases from reaching trial, with pretrial actions and legal challenges arguing presidential immunity. His legal team has also tried its delaying tactics with this New York case with limited success.

In a press conference on Friday, Mr Trump volunteered to testify in the case.

Mr Super expressed scepticism about him testifying, noting that while he might deny any improper intent, both he and his lawyers would likely prefer to avoid cross-examination on other issues.

“I think their preference will be to keep them off the stand,” he noted.

Mr Trump is also under a gag order with this case and he cannot publicly speak about witnesses and their testimony nor about prosecutors, court staff and their family members.

In addition, he cannot talk about the family of the district attorney and judge overseeing the case.

The former president has found it difficult to comply with gag orders in the past, claiming the cases against him are part of a “witch hunt”.

Prosecutors asked Judge Juan Merchan to sanction Mr Trump and fine him for violating the gag order prohibiting him from talking about witnesses in the case, the DA’s office or court staff, CNN reported.

Mr Merchan scheduled a hearing on the district attorney’s motion for next Tuesday.

Julian Epstein, a long-time Democratic Party operative who served as chief counsel during the impeachment proceedings in 1998 and staff director to the House Oversight Committee Democrats, told The National he does not think the New York trial will have any effect on the election.

“I think it’s already baked into most voters’ minds and most have dismissed it as political, which it is,” he said. “This is the classic definition of lawfare: selective prosecution by partisan prosecutors.”

Updated: April 16, 2024, 7:39 AM

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