Trump 'smirks' in court as historic criminal trial gets under way

By Isaac M April 16, 2024

Donald Trump has described the hush money case against him as a “scam” as the first day of the historic trial comes to an end in New York.

He is accused of criminally altering business records to cover up a $130,000 (£104,200) payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, real name Stephanie Clifford, during his 2016 election campaign.

Ms Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who was paid $150,000 (£120,000), both claim to have had affairs with Trump.

His lawyers say the payment was meant to spare himself and his family embarrassment, not to help him win the election.

The day focused on handling motion arguments from the defence and prosecution and selecting the jury, but ended with no jury members being seated after they were subject to a 42-question survey which asked them about their news habits, hobbies and ability to travel.

Donald Trump  sits in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York.
Pic: Reuters
Image:
Donald Trump sits in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York.
Pic: Reuters

A total of 200 jurors are available for possible selection, and today, more than half of the first group were excused after telling the judge they couldn’t be fair and impartial.

Sky News’ US partner network NBC said the selection of 12 jurors and six alternates could take up to two weeks because of the large pool of prospective jurors.

Speaking as he left court, after becoming the first ex-US president to face a criminal trial, Trump said: “It’s a scam. It’s a political witch hunt. It continues, and it continues forever.

“We are not going to be given a fair trial and it is a very sad thing.”

Meanwhile, inside the Manhattan courtroom, Trump stood and turned around when he was introduced as the defendant, giving prospective jurors a little tight-lipped smirk.

Pic: AP
Image:
Pic: AP

Read more:
All the terms you might hear in Trump’s court cases

The key figures in the hush money case

Before proceedings began Judge Juan M Merchan denied a request by the defence to recuse himself from the case after defence lawyers said a prior interview he had given and his daughter’s job in a political consultancy firm created a conflict of interest.

But Mr Merchan said Trump had “failed to provide” evidence of a conflict, instead relying on a “series of inferences [and] innuendos”.

Stormy Daniels, seen here in January, received a $130,000 payment from Trump's lawyer Pic: AP/DeeCee Carter/MediaPunch /IPX
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Stormy Daniels, claims to have had an affair with Trump. Pic: AP/DeeCee Carter/MediaPunch /IPX

He also declined a request for Trump to skip the trial on 25 April to allow him to attend US Supreme Court arguments on his claim of presidential immunity in another of his four criminal cases.

The judge said he will also not yet rule on a separate request for the former president to take 17 May off in order to attend his son’s high school graduation.

Gag order violations

Later in the hearing, prosecutors asked Mr Merchan to fine Trump $3,000 (£2,500) for three separate social media posts they said violated a 1 April gag order which said the former president could not threaten or talk about the trial in public.

Donald Trump .
Pic: Reuters
Image:
Pic: Reuters

One of Trump’s lawyers, Todd Blanche, defended his actions, saying the posts on Truth Social did not violate the gag order because Trump was responding to witnesses’ public statements.

Mr Merchan said he will hold a hearing on 24 April over the request.

People hold placards against Former U.S. President Donald Trump on the day of his hush money criminal trial, in New York City, U.S., April 15, 2024. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
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People hold placards against Trump. Pic: Reuters

The judge also refused the prosecution from playing Trump’s Access Hollywood tape – where the former president was heard speaking disparagingly about women before making a cameo appearance on a television show in 2005.

“I remain convinced at this moment… that the tape should not come in,” the judge said regarding the tape, adding that prosecutors could introduce the exact words that Trump said and an email related to the tape, as long as jurors do not hear the recording itself.

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‘No one is above the law’

Around 200 Trump supporters gathered outside the court as well as roughly 40 other individuals who were protesting against the former president.

One group of demonstrators carried a banner that read, “no one is above the law”.

Monday’s proceedings mark the first of four indictments against the former president to go to trial, and is the first to be held ahead of this year’s presidential election.

Donald Trump at Manhattan criminal court with his legal team ahead of the start of jury selection
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Trump with his legal team ahead of the start of jury selection. Pic: Reuters

Trump faces two other criminal trials accusing him of trying to subvert his 2020 election loss to Mr Biden, and another that accuses him of mishandling classified information after he left the White House in 2021.

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. No other former US president has ever faced criminal charges.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, said he co-ordinated with Trump on payments to Ms Daniels and to Ms McDougal.

Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations in 2018 in relation to the payments and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was released into house arrest after one year.

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