Historic criminal trial against Trump for hush money affair begins – jury selection

In a trial for the history books, the expected new US presidential candidate Donald Trump has had to answer in New York since Monday for covering up a hush money payment to a former porn actress. It is the first criminal trial against a former US president. After the start on Monday, the selection of the jury will also take place on Tuesday.

Trump is accused in the lawsuit of forging business documents to cover up a payment to former porn actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election. Stormy Daniels was thus silenced about an alleged sexual adventure that she said she had had with Trump ten years earlier.

The 77-year-old likely Republican presidential candidate has pleaded not guilty. Trump also accuses Judge Juan Mercan of bias because his daughter worked for a consulting firm with ties to the Democratic Party. Merchan rejected this at the start of the trial.

The judge also warned Trump not to disrupt the proceedings with aggressive online messages, as he has in the past. The defendant followed the proceedings with a mostly dark expression. According to a reporter from the New York Times who was sitting near the ex-president, he also appeared to be falling asleep at times.

In the hush money trial, Trump is accused of falsifying business documents in order to keep secret the hush money payment of $130,000 (122,000 euros at today's rate) to Stormy Daniels. According to her own account, the porn actress had sex with Trump in 2006 while he was already married to his third wife Melania. Trump has denied any sexual contact with Stormy Daniels.

Hush money is generally not illegal in the United States. But the indictment does not relate to the hush money itself, but rather to the fact that Trump is said to have disguised the payment in 34 cases by forging business documents.

At the start of the trial it was also about which evidence should be admitted. The prosecution wants to paint a broader picture of Trump's treatment of women based on the Stormy Daniels case. The infamous recording was played in front of the judge in which Trump once boasted that he could grab women's crotch at any time with impunity.

Trump remained silent while this recording was played. The judge ruled that the content of this recording could be discussed in the trial, but that the audio recording itself should not be played to the jury. At the beginning of the trial, another recording was also played in which Trump boasts of his good treatment of women. “That’s true,” the defendant murmured from his seat between his lawyers.

As he left court, Trump spoke of “fraud” and a “political witch hunt.” “We have a real problem with this judge.”

In the first phase of the hush money trial, the twelve jurors are to be selected. This is a complicated process that can take up to two weeks.

Of the first group of 96 potential jurors on Monday, at least 50 were quickly dismissed. They had stated that they could not be fair and impartial in the case. Nine others were able to leave after saying they had compelling reasons why they were ineligible. The remaining potential jurors were questioned about their education, hobbies and news consumption. Jury selection will continue Tuesday.

Each of the 34 charges is punishable by up to four years in prison. However, experts say it is unlikely that Trump would actually have to serve prison time since it would be his first criminal conviction. A prison sentence could be suspended.

If Trump is convicted, it would not prevent him from running for president or from returning to the White House if he wins the election. The U.S. Constitution generally does not prohibit convicted felons from running for the highest office in the state. However, the outcome of the trial could influence some voters' voting behavior.

Trump faces criminal charges in three other cases. Two of them are about his attempts to subsequently overturn his 2020 election defeat against Joe Biden, and the third case is about taking secret government documents to his private estate in the state of Florida. However, it is uncertain when the trials for these three cases could begin.

Trump denounces all charges against him as politically motivated maneuvers intended to prevent him from returning to the White House. In the election on November 5th, he wants to run again for the Republicans against incumbent Biden from the Democrats.