5 takeaways from day one of Trump’s criminal trial

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The first criminal trial of an American president got underway in downtown Manhattan on Monday.

Former President Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records. The underlying events revolve around a $130,000 payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in the last stages of the 2016 presidential election campaign.

The payment was made to silence Daniels’s allegation that she and Trump had a sexual encounter roughly a decade previously. Trump denies they had such an encounter, and also denies any legal wrongdoing relating to the payment.

The trial is expected to last from six to eight weeks. Day one brought a massive media presence.

Here are the main takeaways.

Finding an impartial jury will be hard

The main agenda item for the day was to begin selecting a jury.

By the evening, it was clear how tough that process will be.

No jurors had been chosen by close of business. 

Among the first tranche of 96 potential jurors brought into court, around half told Judge Juan Merchan that they could not be impartial in a Trump trial. 

At one level, that is to be expected — Trump is, after all, the most polarizing president of modern times. And in New York, he was a high-profile fixture of the city’s tabloids for decades before that.

It’s also in the nature of jury selection that prosecution and defense look at the demographic and behavioral profiles of potential jurors for clues as to which way they might lean.

So, on Monday, the sides were mulling people such as, in The Associated Press’s description: “a married West Harlem resident who works in sales, has some college education, enjoys the outdoors and has a news diet that includes The New York Times, Daily Mail, Fox News and some MSNBC.”

Might such a person be pro-Trump, anti-Trump or impartial?

There will, in the end, be 12 jurors and six alternatives chosen.

The full selection process could easily drag into next week.

Sleepy Don?

The most dramatic or memorable moments of high-profile trials are often unrelated to lofty questions of jurisprudence.

That was true again on Monday, when the suggestion that Trump had dozed off at times in the courtroom got massive traction on social media.

Maggie Haberman of The New York Times — one of the most authoritative reporters on Trump for years — wrote that he “appeared to nod off a few times, his mouth going slack and his head drooping onto his chest.”

Haberman also reported that Trump’s lead lawyer Todd Blanche had seemingly “passed him notes for several minutes before Mr. Trump appeared to jolt awake and notice them.”

The apparent display of sleepiness was seized upon by Trump critics, who mockingly juxtaposed the descriptions of him asleep with his frequent attacks on President Biden as “Sleepy Joe.”

While it’s important to not overstate the importance of such a moment, it is an embarrassment to Trump. 

The former president likes to project an image of vitality despite being 77. 

Polling shows more voters are more concerned with Biden’s age and cognitive abilities — the president is 81 —  than Trump’s. But some of the former president’s more garbled comments at recent rallies have raised questions of their own.

At a Saturday rally in Pennsylvania, for example, Trump got some negative attention for rambling, peculiar remarks about the Battle of Gettysburg.

The tape that won’t go away

It’s almost eight years since the so-called Access Hollywood tape hit the political world like a bomb.

It’s still a topic of debate — including in the courtroom on Monday.

The recording came to light in October 2016, but the events it documents date from 2005. 

Trump is heard bragging in extremely graphic terms to TV host Billy Bush about women. Most infamously, Trump contended that “when you’re a star … you can do anything” — including grabbing women by the genitals.

Prosecutors wanted to be able to play the tape to jurors, a proposal that Trump’s defense team was set against.

On Monday, Merchan reaffirmed an earlier ruling, holding that it would be prejudicial to allow the recording itself to be played, but that prosecutors could quote from it.

Furthermore, prosecutors can also quote from the Trump campaign’s internal emails in the aftermath of the tape’s release.

The general gist of the prosecution case is that, in paying Daniels to keep quiet, Trump was seeking to influence the 2016 election.

The separate matter of the “Access Hollywood” tape could be used to underline why the Daniels issue was so politically important.

Trump’s lawyers, however, contended that even the evidence the judge did ultimately allow was “extremely salacious” and “prejudicial.”

Trump may face sanction for “sleaze bags” post

A running theme in each of the four criminal trials Trump faces has been his willingness to attack prosecutors, judges and hostile witnesses.

In the New York case, his behavior drew a gag order from Judge Merchan, which was subsequently expanded after Trump attacked the judge’s daughter, Loren Merchan, who works for a consultancy firm that has been used by Democrats.

Now, prosecutors are contending that Trump has violated that gag order — and they want him fined for doing so, at the rate of $1,000 per social media post.

One of the posts under scrutiny calls Daniels and Michael Cohen “two sleaze bags.” 

Cohen is the person who directly made the $130,000 payment to Daniels during his time as Trump’s attorney and fixer. Cohen later pleaded guilty to a series of charges including tax evasion and giving false testimony to Congress. 

He has latterly become a vehement critic of Trump and is expected to testify against his former boss.

Prosecutors say that, in addition to fines, Trump should be warned by the judge that further infractions could result in imprisonment.

Trump’s team argues he was simply responding to public statements made by Daniels and Cohen.

The issue is to be heard before the court on April 23.

White House tries to stay above the fray

Biden and his aides are understandably wary about saying anything that would give ammunition to Trump for his allegation that the charges against him are politically motivated.

The White House stuck with that approach on Monday, when press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked at a media briefing about the historic nature of the Trump case, and whether Biden was following events in New York

Jean-Pierre responded that Biden is “pretty busy today,” holding meetings with the prime ministers of Iraq and the Czech Republic.

“I’m sure he’ll get an update at some point today, but his focus right now are the meetings that he has and what he continues to do every day,” Jean-Pierre added.

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