Published: 20:06, April 15, 2024
Trump makes history with New York hush money criminal trial
By Reuters
Former President Donald Trump leaves Manhattan criminal court, Feb 15, 2024, in New York. (PHOTO / AP)

NEW YORK — Donald Trump becomes the first former president to face a criminal trial on Monday when jury selection begins in Manhattan in a case involving hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels, with the US election looming in less than seven months as he seeks a return to the White House.

Trump, 77, has three other criminal cases that are bogged down by legal wrangling and may not occur before the election in which he is the Republican candidate challenging Democratic President Joe Biden. Two of the other cases concern his attempts to overturn his 2020 election defeat and one involves his retention of classified documents after leaving office in 2021.

He is accused of falsifying records to cover up a $130,000 payment he arranged to be made by his then-lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen to Daniels in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign to buy her silence about a 2006 sexual encounter she has said she had with him at a Lake Tahoe hotel.

Trump has denied any such relationship. He pleaded not guilty last year to 34 counts of falsification of business records in the case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, in New York state court. A conviction would not prevent Trump from running for or taking office.

He has painted all the criminal cases against him as intended to harm him politically - even as he warns that he would seek to turn the Justice Department on political adversaries including Biden if he regains the presidency.

Some legal experts have said the case, with its focus on an extramarital relationship, lacks the gravitas of Trump's other indictments.

"There's going to be an argument from the defense that this is a politically motivated prosecution, and if they had a real crime they'd have brought a real crime, and instead they have little notations on a checkbook," said Adam Kaufmann, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney's office.

Bragg has argued that the case is about an unlawful scheme to corrupt the 2016 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.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll published last week found that nearly two in three voters found the charges in the case at least somewhat serious. One in four Republicans and half of independents said they would not vote for Trump if he were convicted of a felony.

Choosing a jury from a pool of people from heavily Democratic Manhattan could take several days, to be followed by opening statements and witness testimony in the trial presided over by Justice Juan Merchan.

Daniels and Cohen are among the witnesses expected to testify. Trump has said he plans to testify in his own defense, a risky proposition that would open him up to probing cross-examination by prosecutors.

'Catch and kill'

Prosecutors have said the payment to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was part of a broader "catch and kill" scheme to pay off people with potentially negative information about Trump to keep quiet before the election in which Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump is accused of falsely recording reimbursements to Cohen as monthly legal retainer fees in his New York-based real estate company's books. Falsifying business records in New York is a felony punishable by up to four years in prison, though many defendants convicted of that charge have been sentenced to fines or probation.

Trump's defense has argued that Trump's payments to Cohen in 2017, while he was president, were for legal services. Trump has called Cohen a "serial liar" and his lawyers are expected to attack his credibility at trial. Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to violating campaign finance law and testified that Trump directed him to pay off Daniels. The federal prosecutors who brought that case did not charge Trump.

Trump will be required to attend the trial unless he requests an exemption. While that could limit Trump's ability to travel to the half dozen closely divided swing states that are expected to determine the election's outcome, he has used his legal woes to rally his supporters. His daily courtroom appearances could become the equivalent of campaign stops.

Trump's lawyers lodged three last-minute bids to delay the trial last week. All were rejected by judges.