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Trump’s historic hush-money trial gets underway; 1st day ends without any jurors being picked

It’s the first criminal trial of any former U.S. commander-in-chief and the first of Trump’s four indictments to go to trial.

Former US President Donald Trump attends the first day of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on April 15, 2024. Trump is in court Monday as the first US ex-president ever to be criminally prosecuted, a seismic moment for the United States as the presumptive Republican nominee campaigns to re-take the White House. The scandal-plagued 77-year-old is accused of falsifying business records in a scheme to cover up an alleged sexual encounter with adult film actress Stormy Daniels to shield his 2016 election campaign from adverse publicity. (Photo by Jefferson Siegel / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JEFFERSON SIEGEL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President Donald Trump attends the first day of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on April 15, 2024. Trump is in court Monday as the first US ex-president ever to be criminally prosecuted, a seismic moment for the United States as the presumptive Republican nominee campaigns to re-take the White House. The scandal-plagued 77-year-old is accused of falsifying business records in a scheme to cover up an alleged sexual encounter with adult film actress Stormy Daniels to shield his 2016 election campaign from adverse publicity. (Photo by Jefferson Siegel / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JEFFERSON SIEGEL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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By JENNIFER PELTZ, MICHAEL R. SISAK, ERIC TUCKER and JAKE OFFENHARTZ Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — The historic  trial of  got underway Monday with the arduous process of selecting a jury to hear the case charging the former president with falsifying business records in order to stifle stories about his sex life.

The day ended without any jurors being chosen. The selection process was scheduled to resume Tuesday.

The first criminal trial of any former U.S. president began as Trump vies to reclaim the White House, creating a remarkable split-screen spectacle of the  spending his days as a criminal defendant while simultaneously campaigning for office. He’s blended those roles over the last year by presenting himself to supporters, on the campaign trail and on social media, as a target of .

“It’s a scam. It’s a political witch hunt. It continues, and it continues forever,” Trump said after exiting the courtroom, where he sat at the defense table with his lawyers.

After a norm-shattering presidency shadowed by years of investigations, the trial amounts to a reckoning for Trump, who faces four indictments charging him with crimes ranging from  to . Yet the political stakes are less clear because a conviction would not preclude him from becoming president and because the allegations in this case date back years and are seen as less grievous than the conduct behind the three other indictments.

The day began with pretrial arguments — including over a potential fine for Trump — before moving in the afternoon into jury selection, where the parties will decide who might be picked to determine the legal fate of the former, and potentially future, American president.

 

  • Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears with his legal team...

    Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears with his legal team Todd Blanche (L) and Emil Bove (R) ahead of the start of jury selection at Manhattan criminal court on April 15, 2024 in New York City. Former President Donald Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first of his criminal cases to go to trial. (Photo by Jabin Botsford-Pool/Getty Images)

  • NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 15: Former U.S. President...

    NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 15: Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the press as he arrives for the first day of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 15, 2024 in New York City. Former President Donald Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first of his criminal cases to go to trial. (Photo by Angela Weiss – Pool/Getty Images)

  • NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 15: Former U.S. President...

    NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 15: Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends the first day of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 15, 2024 in New York City. Former President Donald Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first of his criminal cases to go to trial. (Photo by Angela Weiss – Pool/Getty Images)

  • Former President Donald Trump arrives at Manhattan criminal court with...

    Former President Donald Trump arrives at Manhattan criminal court with his legal team, Monday, April 15, 2024, in New York. The hush money trial of former President Donald Trump begins Monday with jury selection. It’s a singular moment for American history as the first criminal trial of a former U.S. commander in chief. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

  • Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower on his way...

    Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower on his way to Manhattan criminal court, Monday, April 15, 2024, in New York. The hush money trial of former President Donald Trump begins Monday with jury selection. It’s a singular moment for American history as the first criminal trial of a former U.S. commander in chief. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

  • Judge Juan Merchan poses for a picture in his chambers,...

    Judge Juan Merchan poses for a picture in his chambers, Thursday, March 14, 2024, in New York. A dozen Manhattan residents are soon to become the first Americans ever to sit in judgment of a former president charged with a crime. Jury selection is set to start Monday in former President Donald Trump’s hush-money trial. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

  • FILE – Adult film actress Stormy Daniels arrives at an...

    FILE – Adult film actress Stormy Daniels arrives at an event in Berlin, on Oct. 11, 2018. Donald Trump will make history as the first former president to stand trial on criminal charges when his hush money case opens with jury selection. The allegations focus on payoffs to two women, Daniels, a porn actress, and Playboy model Karen McDougal, who said they had extramarital sexual encounters with Trump years earlier, as well as to a Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have a story about a child he alleged Trump had out of wedlock. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

  • FILE – Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg listens at news...

    FILE – Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg listens at news conference in New York, Feb. 7, 2023. Donald Trump will make history as the first former president to stand trial on criminal charges when his hush money case opens with jury selection. Bragg’s office has said that Trump was trying to conceal violations of federal campaign finance laws — an unusual legal strategy some experts have said could potentially backfire. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

  • FILE – Michael Cohen, former attorney to Donald Trump, leaves...

    FILE – Michael Cohen, former attorney to Donald Trump, leaves the District Attorney’s office in New York, March 13, 2023. Trump is set to stand trial Monday, April 15, 2024, in New York on state charges related to the very sex scandal that he and his aides strove to hide. Many details of the case have been public since 2018, when federal prosecutors charged Cohen with campaign finance crimes in connection with a scheme to bury Stormy Daniels’ claims, and other potentially damaging stories from Trump’s playboy past. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File)

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After the first members of the jury pool, 96 in all, were summoned into the courtroom, Trump craned his neck to look back at them, whispering to his lawyer as they entered the jury box.

“You are about to participate in a trial by jury. The system of trial by jury is one of the cornerstones of our judicial system,” . “The name of this case is the People of the State of New York vs. Donald Trump.”

Trump’s notoriety would make the process of picking 12 jurors and six alternates a near-herculean task in any year, but it’s likely to be especially challenging now, unfolding in a closely contested presidential election in the heavily Democratic city where Trump grew up became a celebrity decades before winning the White House.

Underscoring the difficulty, only about a third of the 96 people in the first panel of potential jurors remained after the judge excused some members. More than half the group was excused after telling the judge they could not be fair and impartial. At least nine more were excused after raising their hands when Merchan asked if they could not serve for any other reason.

A female juror was excused after saying she had strong opinions about Trump. Earlier in the questionnaire, the woman, a Harlem resident, indicated she could be neutral in deciding the case. But when asked whether she had strong opinions about the former president, the woman answered matter-of-factly, “Yes.”

When Merchan asked her to repeat the response, she replied, “Yeah, I said yes.” She was dismissed.

Merchan has written that the key is “whether the prospective juror can assure us that they will set aside any personal feelings or biases and render a decision that is based on the evidence and the law.”

No matter the outcome, Trump is determined to benefit from the proceedings, casting the case, and his indictments elsewhere, as a broad “weaponization of law enforcement” by Democratic prosecutors and officials. He maintains they are orchestrating sham charges in hopes of impeding his presidential run.

He’s lambasted judges and prosecutors for years, a pattern of attacks that continued Monday as he entered court after calling the case an “assault on America.”

“This is political persecution. This is a persecution like never before,” he said.

The judge denied a defense request to recuse himself from the case after Trump’s lawyers claimed he had a conflict of interest. He also said prosecutors could not play for the jury the  in which Trump was captured discussing grabbing women sexually without their permission. However, prosecutors will be allowed to question witnesses about the recording, which became public in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.

Prosecutors with the Manhattan district attorney’s office also asked Merchan to fine Trump $3,000 over social media posts they said violated the judge’s gag order limiting what he can say publicly about witnesses. Last week, he used his Truth Social platform to call his  and the  “two sleaze bags who have, with their lies and misrepresentations, cost our Country dearly!”

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche maintained Trump was simply responding to the witnesses’ statements.

“It’s not as if President Trump is going out and targeting individuals. He is responding to salacious, repeated vehement attacks by these witnesses,” Blanche said.

Merchan setting a hearing for next week on the request.

 of falsifying business records. Prosecutors say the alleged fraud was part of an effort to keep salacious — and, Trump says, bogus — stories about his sex life from emerging during his 2016 campaign.

The charges center on payments Trump’s company made to Cohen to reimburse him for $130,000 he paid to keep Daniels from going public, a month before the election, with her claims of a sexual encounter with the married mogul a decade earlier.

Prosecutors say the payments to Cohen were falsely logged as legal fees in order to cloak their actual purpose. Trump’s lawyers say the disbursements indeed were legal expenses, not a cover-up.

After decades of fielding and initiating lawsuits, the businessman-turned-politician now faces a trial that could result in up to four years in prison if he’s convicted, though a no-jail sentence also would be possible.

Trump’s attorneys lost a bid to get the hush money case dismissed and repeatedly sought to delay it, prompting a  last week.

Among other things, Trump’s lawyers maintain that the jury pool in overwhelmingly Democratic Manhattan has been tainted by negative publicity about Trump and that the case should be moved elsewhere.

An appeals judge  to delay the trial while the change-of-venue request goes to a group of appellate judges, who are set to consider it in the coming weeks.

Manhattan prosecutors have countered that a lot of the publicity stems from Trump’s own comments and that questioning will tease out whether prospective jurors can put aside any preconceptions they may have. There’s no reason, prosecutors said, to think that 12 fair and impartial people can’t be found amid Manhattan’s roughly 1.4 million adult residents.

The prospective jurors will be known only by number, as the judge has  from everyone except prosecutors, Trump and their legal teams.

They’re being asked 42 questions about their backgrounds, hobbies and news habits, whether they hold strong beliefs about Trump that would prevent them from being impartial and about attendance at Trump or anti-Trump rallies.

Based on the answers, the attorneys can ask a judge to eliminate people “for cause” if they meet certain criteria for being unable to serve or can’t be unbiased. The lawyers also can use “peremptory challenges” to nix 10 potential jurors and two prospective alternates without giving a reason.

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Tucker reported from Washington.

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