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Trump's criminal trial, a first for a former president, begins today

Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump departs a pre-trial hearing in a hush-money case at Manhattan criminal court on Feb. 15 in New York City.
Spencer Platt
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Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump departs a pre-trial hearing in a hush-money case at Manhattan criminal court on Feb. 15 in New York City.

For the first time in U.S. history, a former president will sit in a courtroom for the first day of his criminal trial.

Former President Donald Trump faces 34-count felony counts alleging that he falsified New York business records in order to conceal damaging information to influence the 2016 presidential election. Monday kicks off an 18-person jury selection for the trial that is expected to last about six weeks — even as Trump campaigns to be president once again.

The trial begins after a 20-day delay was granted by New York Judge Juan Merchan to give both legal teams time to review 31,000 records provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office. In recent weeks, Merchan also issued a gag order on Trump that specifically bars him from making, or directing others to make, public statements about witnesses, prosecutors or jurors. He later extended the order to cover the families after Trump went after the judge's daughter by name on the former president's social media site.

The trial comes just months before the presidential election in November. Most polls show Trump in a tight race with President Biden, his successor to the presidency who is also seeking reelection. Trump must balance his legal troubles – he faces dozens of state and federal charges – with the election cycle, though his predicament hasn't dampened enthusiasm for him among his most ardent supporters.

Trump's other major trials – related to his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, his handling of classified documents, and alleged election interference in Georgia – are in various stages of delay, and it is unlikely that a verdict in any of them will come before the election. A decision in the New York criminal case could come by summer of this year.

At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments later this month on whether Trump enjoys blanket immunity for his actions as president, and what it decides could have ramifications for the presidency.

The district attorney hopes to make this case about 2016 election interference

Agrand jury indicted Trump in the spring of last year, marking the first time a former or sitting president faced criminal charges. Republicansquickly dismissed the indictment as an overreach of power by District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who had brought the charges. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

At the center of the trial are 11 "hush money" payments to adult film actor Stormy Daniels who, at the time Trump was first running for president, threatened to go public with accusations she'd had an affair with him not long after he married Melania Trump.

The lawsuit alleges that payments were made from Trump's flagship Trump Organization to Michael Cohen, then a vice president and counsel at the company. The payments were described by the Trump Organization falsely as "legal retainers"; they were, in fact, reimbursements to Cohen for paying Daniels.

Cohen transferred that money to Daniels less than two weeks before the 2016 election. After Trump won, he reimbursed Cohen, including with his own personal checks. Trump has denied an affair with Daniels, but in2018 he admitted reimbursing Cohen for money paid to her, arguing it had nothing to do with the campaign.

Theindictment also includes a separate $150,000 payment to another woman – the Playboy model Karen McDougal, who has spoken openly about her experience– who claimed to have had an intimate relationship with Trump.

The fact of the payments and the false records isn't in dispute. What Bragg has to prove is that Trump made them in order to further other crimes, such as violating campaign finance law and mischaracterizing the payments for tax purposes.

In 2018, Cohen admitted to paying Daniels $130,000 — pleading guilty to eight counts including criminal tax evasion and campaign finance violations — and implicated Trump. At his plea hearing, Cohen said he organized these payments in coordination with and at the direction of then-candidate Trump.

Trump will balance the courtroom and the campaign

As he campaigns for the 2024 presidency – with enough delegates to formally claim the Republican nomination – Trump is facing a combined 88 state and federal charges — including several related to his role to stay in office after he lost the 2020 election to Biden. This year judges in New York have already ruled against Trump in civil trials: He's been ordered to pay over $355 million for committing business fraud and to pay former columnist E. Jean Carroll $83 million for defamation.

Former President Donald Trump at New York State Supreme Court in New York, on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024.
Steven Hirsch / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump at New York State Supreme Court in New York, on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024.

He also faces charges in federal court in Washington related to his role in the Jan. 6 attack and in Florida for his handling of classified documents. He also faces state charges in Georgia over allegations of election interference.

Trump has received his own string of legal victories on all of these cases in the last month. The Florida and Washington cases are delayed until the Supreme Court rules on whether Trump enjoyed broad immunity as president. A judge in Georgia threw out three counts against Trump on the basis that they weren't detailed enough. Prosecutors could appeal the ruling, also go back to a grand jury and indict Trump again with more details. Trump now faces 10 felony counts in the state.

As opposed to his civil trials in Manhattan, where he was not required to attend hearings in person (though he did on several occasions), Trump will be required to spend every day of this criminal trial in the courtroom unless a judge rules otherwise. This puts him in New York nearly every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for at least the next two months. Speaking to reporters in the Manhattan criminal court after a pre-trial hearing in February, Trump vowed to attend court during the day and attend campaign events at night.

Trump has spent the last several months using stops in New York courthouses as opportunities to speak to the press about the cases, and about his campaign platform. He has baselessly called the trials politically motivated and railed against them at his rallies across the country.

His snowballing legal troubles have been used to fundraise for his campaign. There were big spikes in donations around news events related to the cases he's been involved in and court appearances he's made. The largest amount of any single day came when his mugshot was released for his criminal case in Georgia.

Trump's solicitations for donations from his supporters typically label the trials, without evidence, as "witch hunts" and "election interference." Recent Federal Election Committee filings show he isn't raising as much as he previously did during these legal events.

Trump went from raising about $4 million after pleading not guilty to the alleged hush money payments in New York and again after pleading not guilty to election interference charges in Georgia, according to Reuters, to only bringing in $200,000 and $400,000 in November and December following major court appearances in his civil fraud trial, including his first testimony on the witness stand.

For now, his run-ins with the law have not deterred potential voters and in some instances, it has bolstered support for him. However, a conviction may not play well with independent and swing voters. Although polls generally favor Trump, the latestNPR/PBS/Marist poll released last month showed that if Trump were convicted of a crime, Biden opens a 6% point lead, due largely to independent voters.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.

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