May 30, 2024

Opening statements are set to begin next week in Donald Trump’s historic criminal trial after the final members of the jury were seated Friday, following a dramatic day in which two prospective jurors broke down in tears, an appeals court judge rejected Trump’s request for a stay, and a man set himself on fire in front of the courthouse.

“We’re going to have opening statements on Monday morning. This trial is starting,” Judge Juan Merchan said towards the end of the day, after successfully seating the remaining five alternate jurors that were needed.

The case — the first-ever criminal trial of a former president —will be heard by a panel of 12 jurors and a total of six alternates. It’s expected to last roughly six weeks.

The five alternates ultimately selected Friday include an unemployed married woman who’s into art and described herself as not political, an audio professional, a contract specialist, a clothing company executive and a construction company project manager. It took four days of jury selection to find the 18 jurors.

Around the same time the judge declared, “we have our full panel” inside the courtroom in the early afternoon, a man set himself on fire outside the courthouse. The NYPD said the man, identified as Max Azzarello of Florida, later died. He appeared to have had pamphlets describing a conspiracy involving cryptocurrency that he threw around before setting himself ablaze, police said.

Later in the afternoon, Trump’s attorneys were in a state appeals court trying again to get an emergency stay of the trial. Trump attorney Cliff Robert argued his client could not get a fair trial in Manhattan, which had been Trump’s longtime home before moving to Florida after he was elected president in 2016.

Steven Wu of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office countered that “what the last week has shown is that the jury selection has worked.”

“We have 18 ordinary New Yorkers who are ready to serve. It would be unfair to them and the public for this to be delayed further,” he argued. The judge rejected Trump’s stay request a short time later.  

The jury selection process Friday was especially intense, some potential jurors breaking down in tears and others saying they were too anxious to serve.

The day began with the judge calling up the 22 remaining potential jurors from the previous pool of 96 to answer questions designed to indicate whether they could be fair and impartial about the divisive real estate mogul and presumptive Republican nominee for president.

The first of those potential jurors was dismissed after she said she didn’t think she could be fair. “I have really, really bad anxiety and people have found out where I am,” she told the judge. A short time later, two other potential jurors were dismissed after each told the judge that upon further reflection, “I don’t think I can be impartial.”

Other potential jurors included a married father who said he listens to a podcast called “Order of Man,” which is described on Apple’s website as discussions about “reclaiming what it means to be a man.” Some past guests of the podcast include people who’ve been outspoken in their support of Trump and were highly critical of the civil fraud case New York Attorney General Letitia James brought against the former president. The man, an audio specialist, was chosen as one of the alternates.

Another potential juror was a married fund manager who said he’d done “get-out-the-vote” work for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 presidential opponent. Trump and his attorney Todd Blanche passed notes back and forth while that juror was speaking. He was later dismissed after being asked about a 2020 Facebook post where he apparently called Trump “the devil and a sociopath.”

Former President Donald Trump waves as he returns to the courtroom with attorney Todd Blanche, from left, during a recess in his criminal trial as jury selection continues at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on April 18, 2024.Brendan McDermid / Pool via Getty Images

Trump appeared most interested in jurors whose answers offer ambiguity around their personal political views. When one prospective juror said they were a Fox News viewer, Trump cocked his head, then quickly conferred with his lawyer, Todd Blanche.

Another potential juror was a woman who became emotional as she disclosed she’d served two years in prison on drug-related charges, but said she could be “fair and impartial.”

During a morning break, Merchan — who’d chided reporters on Thursday for disclosing too much information about potential jurors — said the woman had shared “very personal things about her life” and was “very brave.” “I just wanted to encourage the press to please be kind. Please be kind to this person,” the judge said. He later dismissed her, saying she needed a certificate of release to be qualified for service going forward. On her way out, she cheerfully called out, “Good luck!”

Following that juror’s departure, the DA’s office began its individual questioning of the jurors. One woman, who’d disclosed that her father is lifelong friends with Trump ally turned critic Chris Christie, broke down in tears when prosecutor Susan Hoffinger asked her an innocuous question about the burden of proof in the case. “I feel so nervous and anxious right now. I’m sorry,” she responded, bursting out into tears. “I thought I could do this,” she said, adding “I wouldn’t want someone who feels this way to judge my case.” She was dismissed.

Hoffinger’s questioning was followed by Trump attorney Susan Necheles, who asked a potential juror who’d started their own business how she would assess a witness’s credibility. The woman then asked to speak to the judge, saying she was “getting anxiety and self-doubt” from Necheles’s line of questioning. She was dismissed. 

Necheles later asked another woman — who previously said she was a victim of sexual assault — whether she would hold it against Trump that women outside this case have accused Trump of sexual assault. She said she would not have a problem setting those accusations aside but the judge ultimately excused her, saying, “It’s best to err on the side of caution.”

Another man said he has some differences from Trump on his policies but thinks he’s “usually awesome.” He was not chosen for the jury.

On his way into court in the morning, Trump again complained the case against him is “unfair,” and that the partial gag order preventing him from lashing out at witnesses, prosecutors, court staffers and jurors is not “constitutional.” “Everyone else can say whatever they want about me. They can say anything they want. They can continue to make up lies and everything else. They lie. They’re real scum. But you know what? I’m not allowed to speak,” he told reporters.

Prosecutors this week asked the judge to fine Trump and hold him in contempt for social media posts that they said violate the gag order. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Tuesday.

The main panel of 12 is made up of seven men and five women, including two lawyers, a teacher, a retired wealth manager, a product development manager, a security engineer, a software engineer, a speech therapist and a physical therapist. The foreman — the juror who essentially acts as the leader and spokesperson for the panel — is a married man who works in sales and gets his news from The New York Times, MSNBC and Fox News.

The lone alternate selected Thursday is a woman who works as an asset manager.

Trump vented about the speed of the process in a post on social media shortly after the final jurors were selected, claiming the judge is “‘railroading’ me, at breakneck speed, in order to completely satisfy his ‘friends’.”

Later in the day, Merchan held what’s known as a Sandoval hearing. That’s a type of hearing designed to let defendants know the scope of questions they could face from prosecutors on cross-examination so they can make informed decisions about whether to take the witness stand in their own defense.

Leaving court on Friday, Trump was asked whether he was still planning to testify and he said he was.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office disclosed in a court filing that it would like to ask Trump about several items, among them the $464 million civil judgment against him and his company for fraud, the total $88 million verdicts and liability findings for sexual abuse and defamation in lawsuits brought by writer E. Jean Carroll and a number of other adverse court rulings over the past few years.

Trump has denied wrongdoing in all the cases and is appealing the fraud judgment and the Carroll verdicts.

Prosecutors said they want to be able to bring those findings up “to impeach the credibility of the defendant” if he takes the witness stand.

Discussing the findings in the fraud case, prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told the judge it was “hard to think of something that is more squarely in the wheelhouse” for the DA to ask Trump about “than a finding by a judge of persistent and repeated fraud and illegality.”

Trump’s attorney Emil Bove countered that prosecutors shouldn’t be able to breach the topic at all because Trump’s appeal is still pending. He made similar arguments over the DA’s contention that they should be allowed to ask about a judge’s finding that he was untruthful on the witness stand during the fraud trial and had violated a gag order in the case.

“Is it your position that because a case is being appealed or might be appealed, that therefore it can not be used?” Merchan asked the lawyer. “Not necessarily,” Bove replied.

The judge said he’d issue his ruling on the dispute on Monday morning.

Trump said last week he “absolutely” plans to testify, but he is under no obligation to do so.

Asked by Necheles at the end of the day who the DA’s first witness would be, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said they wouldn’t inform Trump’s team of the person’s identity until Sunday, given that Trump has been criticizing some witnesses on social media despite the partial gag order in the case. “And if that should be tweeted, that’ll be the last time we provide that courtesy,” Steinglass said.

Merchan called the DA’s position “understandable” and told Necheles “I will not compel them to do anything.”

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records and faces up to four years in prison if he is convicted.

Bragg alleges that Trump falsified records to hide money he was paying his former lawyer Michael Cohen to reimburse him for $130,000 he paid adult film actor Stormy Daniels near the end of the 2016 presidential campaign. Daniels has claimed she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. Trump has denied that he slept with Daniels, but he has acknowledged repaying Cohen.

The DA’s office also alleges that as part of a scheme to boost Trump, National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc. paid $150,000 to model and actor Karen McDougal, who appeared in Playboy magazine and claimed that she had a nine-month affair with Trump before he was elected president “in exchange for her agreement not to speak out about the alleged sexual relationship,” according to a statement of facts filed by Bragg.

Trump has also denied having a sexual relationship with McDougal.