Home News What’s Happening in the Trump Hush-Money Trial?

What’s Happening in the Trump Hush-Money Trial?

by NORTH CAROLINA DIGITAL NEWS

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Photo-Illustration: Joanne Imperio; Photos Getty Images

Donald Trump’s first and potentially only criminal trial before Election Day has begun. He’s returned to his former hometown to be tried by a jury of his peers in Manhattan that will determine whether he broke the law by paying, and subsequently disguising, hush money to Stormy Daniels to protect his reputation in the closing days of the 2016 election. The first-ever such trial for a former president, Trump could be sent to prison if convicted. (Judge Juan Merchan could jail him in the meantime for contempt of court, such as repeatedly violating a gag order.) The stakes could not be higher for the 77-year-old defendant or the country, which faces the possibility that he will end up behind bars or back in the White House or both. Below, our recap of the trial, which we’ll update daily with all the important developments and drama. (And here are the key people involved in the trial.)

On the first day of the trial, Judge Merchan worked to hammer down what would and wouldn’t be allowed in the court proceedings moving forward. Prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office sought a fine against Trump over a social-media post that called potential witnesses Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels “sleaze bags.” On his way into the courtroom, Trump railed against the trial, but he dozed off in his chair. And the jury-selection process got underway, but just barely.

Trump arrived at the courthouse in his motorcade around 9 a.m., stopping in the hallway outside of the courtroom to address reporters. He reiterated his claims that the case against him is unfair and politically motivated, calling it “political persecution” and “an assault on America.”

Trump arrives at court in lower Manhattan on Monday.
Photo: Mark Peterson

Judge Merchan denied a motion from Trump’s legal team that called for him to recuse himself. He said that Trump was using a “series of inferences, innuendos, and unsupported speculation” to support his recusal claim. He reiterated his earlier decision that the Access Hollywood tape could not be shown in court, deeming it too prejudicial. Prosecutors are also barred from mentioning the numerous sexual-assault allegations against Trump. However, he ruled that Karen McDougal will be allowed to testify, though the prosecution won’t be allowed to mention her claim that her alleged affair with Trump occurred while his wife, Melania, was pregnant with their son, Barron. The prosecution will also be allowed to enter evidence about the National Enquirer’s past coverage of Trump.

Prosecutors filed a motion, claiming that several of Trump’s social-media posts violated the gag order Merchan set on Trump, which bars him from commenting publicly on potential witnesses, among others — he called Daniels and Cohen “sleaze bags.” Prosecutors are seeking a $1,000 fine per post.

The buzz of pretrial hype wasn’t enough to keep the 77-year-old awake. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman caught Trump appearing to fall asleep at one point during the proceedings, writing, “His head keeps dropping down and his mouth goes slack.”

P.S. Will “Sleepy Don” stick?

96 prospective jurors were brought into the courtroom to kick off the jury-selection process, but more than half were quickly sent home after stating they couldn’t be impartial or were unable to serve. By the end of the day’s proceedings, Merchan had only gotten through the questionnaires of nine jurors, and none have been selected for the final panel. The novelty of possibly sitting on this particular jury wasn’t lost on these Manhattanites, some of whom were seen craning their heads to sneak a peek at the defendant. One juror was excused owing to a potential conflict with his son’s wedding in June, prompting congratulations from Merchan. Another who listed clubbing among her hobbies was dismissed after acknowledging she had “strong opinions or firmly held beliefs” about Trump. Another potential juror said his girlfriend worked in finance but admitted that he didn’t know what she did, sparking laughter from the prosecutors. A second group of prospective jurors will get their shot on Tuesday.

Behold the dour glowerer-in-chief:

Photo: MICHAEL NAGLE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A kidnapped-Biden truck drove in circles outside court on Monday morning:

Like any other trial, this one begins with the process of selecting a jury, which could take several days. Attorneys for the defense and prosecution will question a large pool of Manhattan residents until they find 12 jurors and six alternates. Judge Merchan drafted a 42-question-long survey for prospective jurors to fill out in order to determine their impartiality. In addition to personal questions, potential jurors are asked about their media diets, whether they’ve volunteered for Trump’s campaign or attended a rally, and if they’ve ever read any books or listened to any podcasts by Michael Cohen, a key witness for prosecutors, or Mark Pomerantz, the attorney who previously worked on the DA’s investigation into Trump. It also asks whether they have been a member of several extremist groups and movements, such as the Proud Boys and antifa.

Merchan previously ruled that jurors will be anonymous and have their identities shielded from the public owing to the risk of “a likelihood of bribery, jury tampering, or of physical injury or harassment.” Trump, his attorneys, and prosecutors will have access to the jurors’ names and addresses.

From potential witnesses to the judge and attorneys, here’s a quick primer on the big names in the trial.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

The first former president to be charged with a crime, Trump appeared in a Manhattan courtroom last year and pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. Prosecutors allege that in 2016 he personally played a role in Cohen paying Daniels $130,000 to silence her allegation that she and Trump had an affair years earlier. (He has consistently denied her allegation.) Trump is accused of breaking the law by categorizing the reimbursements to Cohen as a legal retainer; prosecutors say Cohen performed no legal services. Trump is charged for each of the records prosecutors say were bogus: checks made out to Cohen, invoices from Cohen, and accounting entries in Trump’s books.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

Although once a loyal enforcer for Trump, Cohen now calls him “a cheat, a liar, a fraud, a bully, a racist, a predator, a con man.” A key witness for the prosecution, he alleges that during the 2016 election, Trump directed him to facilitate a $130,000 payment through a shell company to Daniels in order to suppress her story that she and Trump had sex a decade earlier. He claims that Trump later reimbursed him for the payment, disguising the expense in business records as a retainer for legal services. (Cohen has also said that he played a role in the National Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, paying to “catch and kill” model Karen McDougal’s story of her own affair with Trump.)

Cohen’s credibility is expected to come under fire because of his own legal history: In 2018, he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. That same year, he was also sentenced to three years in federal prison for tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign-finance violations in connection to the payments made to Daniels and McDougal.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

Stephanie Clifford took the stage name Stormy Daniels when she began working as a stripper and kept that name when she transitioned into adult films. In 2006, according to Daniels, she met Trump in Lake Tahoe, where he was hosting a celebrity golf tournament. She alleges that he invited her to dinner in his hotel suite and, after some conversation and Daniels spanking Trump with a copy of Forbes, the two had sex.

In January 2018, after The Wall Street Journal broke the story that Cohen had paid off Daniels, she sued Trump to get out of their nondisclosure agreement. Soon after, she went on 60 Minutes, during which she detailed having sex with Trump and said she only signed the NDA out of concern for her and her family’s safety. Daniels will be allowed to testify after Judge Merchan rejected an attempt from Trump’s legal team to block her testimony.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

McDougal is a model and former Playboy Playmate of the Year who has claimed to have had a monthslong affair with Trump back in 2006, when he was newly married to his wife, Melania Trump. In 2016, McDougal was paid $150,000 by American Media, Inc. in exchange for the rights to her story about the affair and for her to stay silent on the subject in the media. AMI never published her story about Trump — a move known as a “catch and kill.” McDougal went on to sue AMI in order to be freed from her contract. She and the company would later reach a settlement, allowing her to speak about her experience with Trump. She is expected to testify during the trial.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

David Pecker is the former head of American Media, Inc., the publisher of the infamous National Enquirer. A longtime friend of Trump’s, he frequently used the Enquirer to run unflattering stories about Trump’s rivals, including Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz.

Also during Pecker’s time at AMI, the company often utilized the practice of “catch and kill” — when a publication buys the rights to a potentially damaging story and suppresses the information by declining to publish it. Pecker did this to McDougal and a former doorman at Trump Tower who prosecutors allege was trying to sell a story about a supposed love child of Trump’s. Pecker also communicated with Cohen regarding Daniels’s story. He is expected to testify.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

In 2021, voters elected Democrat Alvin Bragg to be the Manhattan district attorney — the first Black person to serve in the role. Last April, Bragg announced that his office had filed felony charges against the former president, becoming the first prosecutor in the nation to indict Trump. To do so, though, Bragg used a novel legal theory to upgrade what is usually a misdemeanor (falsifying business records) to a felony by arguing that the records were changed in order to cover up another crime: in this case, violations of the state’s campaign-finance laws. Bragg’s office alleges Trump tried to hide relevant information about his alleged affair from the voting public prior to the election.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Redux

Judge Merchan is presiding over the historic trial, though it’s not his first time dealing with Trump figures. He oversaw the trial of former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg for financial fraud and tax evasion, sentencing him to five months in prison. He is also presiding over the pending trial of Steve Bannon, who is charged with fraud for allegedly bilking donors for a border-wall scheme.

Merchan immigrated to the United States with his family from Colombia when he was 6 years old, growing up in Jackson Heights. After working as a prosecutor in both the Manhattan district attorney’s office and the state attorney general’s office, he was appointed as a Family Court judge in 2006 and to the State Supreme Court three years later.

As he has done with other judges, Trump has attacked Merchan on social media, hurling insults and claiming that he is “corrupt.” Things escalated after Trump targeted Merchan’s daughter, suggesting that the judge is biased owing to his daughter’s work as a Democratic strategist. Merchan revised the gag order he placed on Trump to bar him from talking about his and Bragg’s families in addition to court staff and potential witnesses.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Merchan did not discuss specifics about the case but said that he and his staff want to be sure that they “dispense justice.”

“There’s no agenda here,” he said. “We want to follow the law. We want justice to be done.”

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

One of Trump’s closest aides as president, Hope Hicks first began working for Ivanka in the Trump Organization in 2014 before she became the Trump campaign’s press secretary in 2015. Hicks is expected to testify at the trial as a witness for the prosecution because she communicated with various figures involved in silencing Daniels, including Daniels’s then-lawyer, Keith Davidson, as well as Pecker and Dylan Howard, two AMI executives. The communications started the day after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016, which is believed to have sparked the plan to pay Daniels.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

In 2023, Trump tapped attorney Todd Blanche to lead his defense in the Manhattan case. A veteran federal prosecutor experienced in white-collar cases, Blanche left his job as a partner at the prominent law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft to defend Trump. He previously represented Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, and Igor Fruman, an associate of Rudy Giuliani’s, in separate federal cases.

If defending Trump in Manhattan weren’t enough, Blanche is also taking the lead for Trump’s defense in the federal government’s classified-documents case in Florida and is co-counsel for the January 6–related case in Washington, D.C.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

After defending the Trump Organization against tax-fraud charges filed by Bragg’s office in 2022, Susan Necheles is working alongside Blanche to defend Trump himself. A veteran defense attorney, she has represented no shortage of notorious clients throughout her career: Pedro Espada Jr., the New York State Senate majority leader found guilty of embezzlement; Clare Bronfman, the Seagram’s heiress in the NXIVM sex-cult case; and Venero Mangano, an underboss for the Genovese crime family known as Benny Eggs.

This post has been updated.


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