Trump makes history as New York ‘hush money’ criminal trial begins

Ex-US president accused of falsifying records to cover up $130,000 payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels

On the first morning of the trial of the People of the State of New York versus Donald J Trump, the prospective jurors among the cast of 500 hadn’t even made it to the courtroom when justice Juan Merchan broke for lunch. It is perhaps as well that the courtroom, a drab room on the 15th floor of the austere New York criminal court building, was sealed off from live television coverage because outside the building was orchestrated bedlam. So began the first criminal trial of a former president in the history of the United States.

Anti-Trump protesters marched outside the building minutes after the former president had arrived. His supporters, exhibiting the paraphernalia and fervour that has become part of the Trump-Republican rolling carnival, were there in large numbers, too.

Inside, the preliminary arguments began over the charges Trump faces, of falsifying records to cover up a $130,000 payment to guarantee the silence of an adult entertainment star, Stormy Daniels; a “hush-money” agreement in 2016 to buy her silence about an affair she claimed to have had a decade before with the then businessman and reality television star.

While the payment was not illegal, Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg brought 34 charges of records falsification against the president.


Bragg has argued that the case concerns an unlawful scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election by burying a scandalous story that would have harmed Trump’s campaign. Trump’s lawyers have said the payment to Daniels did not amount to an illegal campaign contribution.

Judge Merchan, reputed to be a no-nonsense justice with a preference for old-fashioned courtroom decorum, has already been the subject of intense spotlight while Joshua Steinglass, the lead prosecutor, and Todd Blanche, representing Trump, will become household names over the next several weeks. Then there is the cast of anticipated witnesses: Daniels; Michael Cohen, the disgraced former lawyer for Trump who negotiated the hush money payment; former publisher of the National Enquirer David Peck and possibly Trump himself.

On Tuesday morning, judge Merchan denied the prosecutors’ request to introduce other sexual assault allegations against Trump from three women, dismissing them as “complete rumours. Complete gossip, complete hearsay.”

Trump listened as prosecutors replayed his notorious Access Hollywood tape in which he boasted about grabbing women. He also listened to a taped interview in which he claimed that nobody has more respect for women, and he mouthed the word “true”.

Prosecutors argued that Trump’s social media posts which aimed unfiltered criticism of Daniels and Cohen were in breach of the gag order imposed on him, and asked the judge to fine him. Merchan set a date of April 23rd to consider the proposed fines.

The New York Times live-reported that mid-morning, the former president appeared to nod off when the exchanges turned technical and dull. At one stage, Merchan reminded the legal teams: “We have about 500 jurors waiting for selection.”

All of this was reported from a room that might as well have been hermetically sealed from the outside world. It is the beginning of a process which the star, the defendant, is bound to find draining and repetitive. Trump is required to attend the trial each day. The selection of a jury of 12 with six alternatives could take up to a week and will be closely scrutinised by Trump supporters.

When 96 potential jurors eventually entered the room, Merchan dismissed dozens of them when they said they could not be impartial in judging Trump. Others were excused over an inability to serve for other reasons.

“You almost have to take a look at what Merchan rules during the jury selection process,” said Andrew Giuliani, who was special assistant to Trump during his time in the White House. Giuliani, a New Yorker and son of the former city mayor Rudy Giuliani, mingled with Republican supporters gathered outside the courthouse in the morning.

“If Merchan is fair – which I highly doubt he can be considering the connections his daughter and wife have, and he himself is a product of the Democratic machine ... you can answer that question through the jury selection process and what Merchan allows. If it’s fair, Donald Trump gets acquitted. The facts are far too weak. They never should have been brought. But I am worried about it being an unfair process that the judge ends up tipping to the prosecution.”

After the court adjourned until Tuesday, Trump told reporters: “It looks like the judge isn’t going to allow me to escape this scam, this scam trial.”

Earlier, it emerged that Trump signalled his intention to stand alongside his lawyers in the “sidebar” questionnaire which all potential jurors will go through, meaning he would be up close and personal to the people who will eventually be asked to decide on his guilt or innocence. If they didn’t know before that moment that they were being thrust into a different world and into the realms of a historic and unprecedented crossing point, they knew it then.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times