Donald Trump’s historic hush money criminal trial begins

NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s historic hush money trial got underway Monday at Manhattan Supreme Court, where the former president was dealt a set of legal blows — when he wasn’t nodding off at the defense table — and a stern warning that he can’t pick and choose when he wants to turn up.

The trial officially got underway at 2:30 p.m. when the first batch of 96 prospective jurors who filed into Justice Juan Merchan’s 15th-floor courtroom were sworn in — and only 32 were still in their seats a few hours later, expected to face further questioning Tuesday.

“The system of trial by jury is one of the cornerstones of our judicial system,” Merchan said, as some potential jurors stretched out their necks to peek at Trump seated at the defense table and looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

“The name of this case is the People of the State of New York vs. Donald Trump.”

Trump stood briefly as Merchan introduced him, looking around the room with a tight-lipped smirk. Straight out of the gate, more than 50 Manhattanites, almost half of them white women, raised their hands when the judge asked if anyone felt they couldn’t be fair or impartial.

“I just couldn’t do it,” one young woman told reporters outside the courtroom after she was dismissed. Merchan previously ruled that the jurors’ names would be anonymous to the public and that their addresses would remain unknown to Trump, noting safety concerns.

Merchan dismissed at least nine jurors who said they couldn’t serve because of various personal commitments and was expected to get through the first batch by around 11 a.m. Tuesday.

The former president walked into Merchan’s courtroom around 9:30 a.m. with his Secret Service entourage at the center of a media and law enforcement maelstrom clogging up the downtown courthouse and much of lower Manhattan. He looked to be in foul humor and was spotted appearing to fall asleep at one point while reclined back in his chair with his legs outstretched during the morning session.

Outside the courtroom, Trump decried the case as an “an assault on America.”

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Trump said. “This is political persecution, persecution like never before.”

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felonies in the case, which alleges he repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records during his first year in the White House to cover up a payment to a porn star. He also faces three more criminal cases in Georgia, Washington, D.C., and Florida, alleging he plotted to subvert the results of the last election and mishandled classified documents he wasn’t supposed to hold on to.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who sat in the courtroom’s second row throughout Monday’s proceedings, alleges Trump disguised payments to his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, totaling $420,000 to conceal that they were repayment for carrying out an illicit hush money scheme including $130,000 to Stormy Daniels.

Jury selection was delayed by several hours as Merchan resolved several outstanding motions. First, he denied Trump’s latest request to recuse himself from the case because his daughter is employed by a political firm that works with Democrats.

“To say that these claims are attenuated is an understatement,” Merchan said, adding Trump could take it up with the appeals courts. “The court will not address this matter further.”

Before jury selection, prosecutors asked Merchan to hold Trump in criminal contempt for potentially violating a gag order in one of his latest online diatribes, in part attacking anticipated star witness Michael Cohen as a liar and a “sleazebag,” which the judge said he’d weigh at a hearing next week.

In the weeks ahead of the trial, Merchan imposed a gag order prohibiting Trump from making extrajudicial statements about witnesses, jurors, prosecutors on the case and other trial participants. He expanded it to include his relatives and those of Bragg after Trump targeted the judge's daughter online.

Assistant District Attorney Chris Conroy said Trump should be fined $1,000 for each Truth Social post in question. He said prosecutors were reviewing whether he violated Merchan’s gag order a fourth time in another online post Monday morning.

“It’s entirely possible it was done within this courthouse,” Conroy said.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche, in response, denied his client had broken the gag order, claiming he was defending himself against “salacious, repeated, vehement attacks.”

After hearing arguments from both sides, Merchan said he would allow prosecutors to present evidence of Trump’s alleged 2015 agreement with The National Enquirer concerning the magazine’s efforts to hurt his competitors in the presidential race. He also said jurors could hear allegations of Playboy model Karen McDougal’s monthslong affair with Trump.

The judge said he would not permit the jury to hear that Trump’s wife, Melania, was pregnant at the time of his alleged tryst with Stormy Daniels, finding it would be overly prejudicial.

In a win for Trump, Merchan wouldn’t budge on his previous denial of prosecutors’ request to show the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that showed Trump boasting about grabbing women by the genitals because he’s a “star.” But Merchan reiterated that jurors could read a transcript and ruled that prosecutors could ask witnesses about it.

He also rejected prosecutors’ request to show footage of Trump’s contentious deposition in litigation with E. Jean Carroll, the writer Trump was last year found liable for sexually assaulting, when he said it was “historically” true that famous men could grope women by their genitals, “unfortunately or fortunately.” And he denied a request from the prosecution to bring up other women’s sexual assault allegations against Trump, calling them “complete gossip, completely hearsay.”

The jury selection at his Manhattan trial, which is expected to be the only one he sits through before the election in November, will involve hundreds of New Yorkers being surveyed for potential biases before the parties decide on 12 jurors and six alternates.

In the lead-up to the trial, Trump’s lawyers took a kitchen sink approach in their attempts to delay it. They wound up before appeals court judges three days in a row last week and lost each time.

Blanche told the court that his client plans to be present for the whole trial, and even wants to be present when lawyers and prosecutors huddle at the bench — highly unusual for a defendant. Merchan didn’t immediately give Trump’s legal team an answer when asked whether he could miss trial to attend his son Barron’s high school graduation, which Trump took to mean no in his comments after trial wrapped for the day.

“My son has worked very, very hard, and he’s a great student,” said Trump, who was not accompanied by any relatives on the first day of his trial.

“I was looking forward to that graduation with his mother and father there and it looks like the judge does not allow me to escape this scam.”

Toward the end of Monday’s proceedings, Blanche said Trump might want to call out when his lawyers argue before the nation’s high court on April 25. Trump has invoked presidential immunity in his federal election interference case, arguing he can’t be held legally liable for his actions as president.

Merchan said he recognized it was an important court hearing — but no more so than his Manhattan trial.

“Arguing before the Supreme Court is a big deal, and I can certainly appreciate why your client would want to be there, but a trial in New York County Supreme Court is also a big deal,” the judge said, looking at Trump.

“I will see you here next week.”