Trump’s historic New York hush money trial begins today with jury selection

Donald Trump will make history Monday as the first former president to stand trial on criminal charges, a watershed moment for American politics, the presidential election and Trump himself.

Trump — the presumptive Republican nominee for president — is required to be present for the entire trial, which could last as long as eight weeks. He’s pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records, a low-level felony punishable by up to four years in prison. The trial kicks off Monday with jury selection.

The charges relate to Trump’s first run for president, in 2016. Prosecutors from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office allege he took part in a scheme with his then-lawyer Michael Cohen and the publisher of the National Enquirer to suppress scandalous stories about him in the run-up to Election Day.

One of those stories involved porn star Stormy Daniels, who alleged she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. Trump has denied the claim, and Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 in October 2016 to keep quiet about the allegation. After he was elected, Trump repaid Cohen in payments recorded as legal fees at his company —documents the DA alleges were falsified to keep the hush money payments secret.

Trump has maintained he didn’t do anything wrong and derided the case as being part of a politically motivated “witch hunt” against him, a claim he’s used to galvanize his supporters and rake in millions of dollars in fundraising for his campaign.

The criminal case was the first of four brought against Trump in four different jurisdictions and is the only case definitively set to go to trial before the election.

Because Trump is required to be in court four days a week (the trial does not take place on Wednesdays), his ability to campaign in person is limited to times the court is not in session. But as he did during his previous New York trials, Trump is likely to speak publicly during breaks and after court adjourns for the day.

The start of the trial comes despite numerous lastditch efforts by Trump to delay it, including by filing appeals accusing Judge Juan Merchan of having a conflict of interest because his daughter’s media firm does work for Democratic candidates, arguing the judge’s partial gag order against him is “unconstitutional,” and claiming that it’s impossible for him to get a fair trial in Manhattan given the huge amount of pretrial publicity surrounding the case.

The DA’s office countered in a court filing that “given the sheer size of New York County, it is absurd for [Trump] to assert that it will be impossible or even impractical to find a dozen fair and impartial jurors, plus alternates, among more than a million people.”

The jury selection process is expected to take one to two weeks. Two sources with direct knowledge of the situation told NBC News that 6,000 jurors have been called to the Manhattan criminal courts this week — 2,000 more than in a typical week.

Merchan announced a methodical system of whittling down the large jury pool to 12 jurors and six alternates who can be “fair and impartial” about the deeply polarizing Trump.

Eighteen jurors will be put in the jury box at a time and each one in succession will read out loud their answers to a series of 42 questions. The questions include inquiries about what news sources they follow, whether they’ve ever attended any Trump rallies or anti-Trump protests, and whether they’ve ever supported the QAnon movement or antifa.

The form does not ask about party affiliation, political contributions or voting history, but the judge said answers to those questions “may easily be gleaned from the responses to other questions.” After the 42 questions are answered, prosecutors can ask the jurors a series of follow-up questions, and then Trump’s attorneys can ask their own follow-ups.

Merchan warned both sides “not to seek to expand the degree of intrusion beyond what is relevant and has already been approved,” and rejected a request from Trump’s attorneys that jurors be asked whether they “like” the former president.

“Such questions are irrelevant because they do not go to the issue of the prospective juror’s qualifications,” he wrote in an order made public on April 8. “The ultimate issue is whether the prospective juror can ensure us that they will set aside any personal feelings or biases and render a decision that is based on the evidence and the law,” the order said.

The trial will have an anonymous jury, meaning the jurors’ identities and addresses will not be made public. The judge said the move was necessary because of “a likelihood of bribery, jury tampering, or of physical injury or harassment of juror(s).”

While the trial is the first criminal trial involving a former president, it’s the fourth trial in New York involving Trump as a defendant since he left office. He was sued twice by writer E. Jean Carroll for sexual abuse and defamation and he and his company were accused of fraud in a civil case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James. The verdicts against him in the three cases — all of which he is appealing — total about $550 million.

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