The First Criminal Trial of a Former President Begins

A year after Donald Trump was indicted, and after months of legal skirmishes and a torrent of attacks directed at key players in his case, the former president went on trial today.

The 45th president entered a Manhattan courtroom about 9:30 a.m., wearing his trademark red tie, an American flag pin and a pronounced scowl. Moments before, he had given a brief address in the hallway outside the court, denouncing the trial as politically motivated and a “persecution like never before.”

“It’s an assault on America,” he said. “And that’s why I’m very proud to be here.”

Once he was in the courtroom, however, Trump was considerably less voluble, whispering to his lawyers, staring ahead and generally seeming unhappy to be there. (He also, at one point, appeared to nod off.)

He’s probably not the only defendant to have gotten sleepy in a courtroom. But today, even jury duty — an oft-dodged, and sometimes dry-as-dirt civic obligation — had taken on uncommon excitement, with crowds and protesters chanting outside the courthouse at 100 Centre Street as potential jurors walked in, summons in hand.

I had arrived around 6:45 a.m., part of a big New York Times team covering the opening day. Already, anti-Trump demonstrators held handmade signs with the word “Loser” and “Convict Trump Already.”

Trump’s supporters also soon descended. A pickup truck decked out in Trump flags, honking and blasting “Trump 2020,” drove past the courthouse, and the former president’s backers gathered, adorned with red Trump hats and flags, American and otherwise, including one that read “Trump or Death.”

Trump, 77, is facing 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, tied to his role in a hush-money payment to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, in the days leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Daniels says she and the former president had a sexual encounter in 2006; Trump denies that, and the charges against him, characterizing the trial as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a Democrat. (Bragg was in attendance today, sitting right behind his team of prosecutors.)

Trump has also repeatedly attacked the judge in the case, Juan Merchan, accusing him of bias, in part because Merchan’s daughter has worked as a Democratic political consultant. But this morning, Merchan dismissed an effort by Trump’s lawyers to force him to recuse himself from the case, one of a series of decisions that largely favored prosecutors.

That included the judge’s deciding that Trump’s comments on the infamous Access Hollywood tape — in which he bragged about grabbing women’s genitals — could be introduced as evidence. The judge will not allow the actual tape to be played, saying it would be prejudicial.

He also declined a prosecution motion to allow the introduction of other allegations of sexual assault against Trump — which emerged after the Access Hollywood tape was reported on — calling them hearsay. Such decisions, and the arguments about them, ate up the entire morning.

The first group of 96 potential jurors finally filed in around 2:30 p.m. All of them live in Manhattan, a borough in which 70 percent of voters are registered Democrats. Many of them stretched their necks to get a look at Trump.

After an introduction by the judge, a big batch of them — several dozen — indicated that they couldn’t be fair and were excused. But finally, a little after 3 p.m., the first group of 18 prospective jurors went into the jury box, and one by one, began to answer questions from a lengthy questionnaire.

Those questions plumb everything from their educational backgrounds and home neighborhoods to their preferences for news and their hobbies. More pointedly, they also ask about their interactions with law enforcement, connections with extremist groups and opinions about Trump’s prosecution.

Of the handful of prospective jurors who answered questions today, most were professionals — a creative director, a salesman — and reflected the city’s diversity but also the relative affluence of Manhattan. A young Black woman, the first to be questioned, answered quickly, mentioning her M.B.A. and fondness for dining out. Another prospective juror was of Irish descent — he had a faint brogue — and talked about his past as a waiter and how he liked the outdoors.

As my colleague Kate Christobek pointed out, few offered deeper feelings, though one man who identified himself as a bookseller said that “no one is above the law,” including former presidents. Another prospective juror, a nurse, said that she received Trump’s emails several years ago but that she “unsubscribed.”

There were some moments of levity, as when a young woman answered that one of her activities was clubbing. Dozens of reporters in the overflow room laughed. Another prospective juror answered a question about what radio programs he listened to by saying that he listens to “whatever is on when I’m in the shower.”

Early indications were that finding a jury could be a challenge. But the process was underway. The People of the State of New York against Donald J. Trump — the unprecedented criminal trial of a former president — has begun.

And if today is any indication, it will be wild.

Here’s the team we have reporting on the trial. During the proceedings, we’ll be sending you updates more frequently, including breaking news alerts and our regular weekly analysis on Thursdays.

We’re asking readers what they’d like to know about the Trump cases: the charges, the procedure, the important players or anything else. You can send us your question by filling out this form.

Why did it take so long for the Manhattan hush-money case to go to trial, especially compared with the other three cases? — Joanne Kimata, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Jesse: The path — and timetable — for Trump’s Manhattan trial was actually fairly smooth, and it will be the first to go to trial of four criminal cases in which the former president has been indicted. Trump’s lawyers repeatedly sought delays, and received a three-week reprieve in March, pushing the trial’s start to today. But other recent attempts to stall it failed.

  • The Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow about the scope and soundness of an obstruction law that sits at the heart of Trump’s case in Washington on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election. The law has also been used against hundreds of Trump supporters charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Trump is at the center of at least four separate criminal investigations, at both the state and federal levels, into matters related to his business and political careers. Here is where each case stands.

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