May 30, 2024

By Luc Cohen and Jack Queen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -The judge in Donald Trump‘s trial dismissed dozens of potential New York City jurors on Monday who said they could not fairly decide whether the 2024 Republican presidential candidate illegally covered up a hush money payment to a porn star.

On the first day of the historic criminal trial, the first to involve a former U.S. president, Justice Juan Merchan told nearly 100 prospective jurors they must set aside any biases or personal attitudes about the defendant or the case, including “political orientation.”

At least 50 were dismissed after saying they could not be impartial in judging Trump. Others were excused who said they could not serve for other reasons.

“I just couldn’t do it,” one prospective juror was heard to say outside the courtroom.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, has charged Trump with falsifying records to cover up a $130,000 payment in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels about a 2006 sexual encounter she has said they had. Trump has denied any such relationship with Daniels and has pleaded not guilty.

Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen has testified that he made the payment to buy Daniels’ silence ahead of the 2016 election, in which Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump must attend the trial, which is expected to last through May, the judge ruled, denying a request for Trump to miss a session to attend a U.S. Supreme Court session in Washington next week where Trump’s lawyers will argue he should not face separate criminal charges of election interference.

“It looks like the judge isn’t going to allow me to escape this scam, this scam trial,” Trump said in the hallway after the court adjourned until 9:30 a.m. (1330 GMT) on Tuesday.

Lawyers from both sides will seek to impanel 12 jurors and six alternates to hear what could be the only criminal case Trump faces before the Nov. 5 election.

Choosing a jury from a pool of people from heavily Democratic Manhattan could take several days, to be followed by opening statements and testimony from a parade of potentially riveting witnesses, including Cohen and Daniels.

Merchan said that in order to convict, jurors must find that Trump is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, not that he is “probably” guilty.

A guilty verdict would not bar Trump from office, but half of independent voters and one in four Republicans say they would not vote for him if he were convicted, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Falsifying business records in New York is a felony punishable by up to four years in prison, though many of those found guilty have been sentenced to fines or probation.

Wearing his signature blue suit and red tie, Trump, 77, watched from the defendant’s table as prosecutors asked a judge to fine him and remind him he could go to jail for violating a gag order that bars him from interfering with potential witnesses.

Prosecutors asked the judge to fine Trump $1,000 for each of three social-media posts this month about Cohen and Daniels.

“The defendant has demonstrated his willingness to flout the order. He has attacked witnesses in the case, in the past he has attacked grand jurors in the case,” prosecutor Christopher Conroy said.

Merchan set April 23 to consider the proposed fines.

Under Merchan’s gag order, Trump is barred from making public statements about witnesses concerning their potential testimony and about prosecutors, court staff and their family members if the statements are meant to interfere with the case.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche said Trump did not violate the gag order because he was responding to Daniels and Cohen, who he said have been “just generally disparaging President Trump constantly.”

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to violating campaign finance law, though the federal prosecutors who brought that case did not charge Trump.

Trump has called Cohen a “serial liar” and his lawyers are expected to attack his credibility at trial.

POLICE STAND GUARDPolice stood guard in front of the courthouse amid a maze of barricades. A handful of protesters carried hand-painted signs reading “LOSER” and “convict Trump already.”

Though the case is regarded by some legal experts as the least consequential of the four criminal prosecutions he faces, it is the only one guaranteed to go to trial before the Nov. 5 election.

The businessman-turned-politician, who served as president from 2017 to 2021, says he is being targeted by his political enemies.

“This is political persecution,” Trump said before entering the courtroom.

In his three other criminal cases, Trump stands accused of mishandling classified information and trying to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. He has pleaded not guilty in all of those cases.

Bragg has argued that the case concerns an unlawful scheme to corrupt the 2016 election by burying a scandalous story that would have harmed Trump’s campaign.

David Pecker, the former head of the National Enquirer tabloid, will testify that he ran stories in the tabloid to boost Trump’s 2016 campaign, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said.

Also due on the witness stand is Karen McDougal, a former nude model for Playboy magazine who prosecutors say was paid by the National Enquirer to keep quiet about an affair she says she had with Trump.

Merchan said he would not permit witnesses or prosecutors to tell the jury that the affair took place while Trump’s wife Melania was pregnant with their child.

Trump has said he plans to testify in his own defense, a risky move that could open him to cross-examination.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Jack Queen in New York; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Howard Goller)