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Opening statements set for Monday in Trump’s New York hush money trial

NEW YORK — A jury is set to hear opening statements Monday on whether Donald Trump falsified bank records in connection with his effort to hide an alleged affair from voters in the 2016 election.

The historic trial began this week with a speedy but emotional jury selection. A few potential jurors cried as they considered whether they could handle the first-ever trial of a former president — one who is known for his tirades against the U.S. justice system and is also the presumptive Republican nominee in this year’s presidential election.

New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan thanked participants for their bravery as several shared painful details of their pasts in front of scores of reporters during the jury screening process. He praised others for their honesty in saying that Trump’s rhetoric would make it hard for them to judge Trump fairly.

“I feel so overcome, nervous and anxious,” one potential juror told the judge Friday morning. “This is so much more stressful than I thought it was going to be.” A couple of hours later, a man who had been protesting outside the courthouse all week in opposition to both Trump and President Biden set himself on fire; he was hospitalized in critical condition.

Through questions designed to root out bias among the jury pool, both sides have started to signal their trial strategies.

Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass told prospective jurors that the government would prove not just bank fraud but an implicit conspiracy to “commit election fraud” and “pull the wool over the eyes of the American voters.” In prosecutors’ formulation, Trump skirted campaign finance laws by funneling a $130,000 payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels though Michael Cohen, his attorney and fixer, then falsely claiming the money used to repay Cohen was for legal work.

Defense attorney Susan Necheles laid the groundwork for impeaching the testimony of Cohen, a convicted perjurer, by asking potential jurors if they could “use your common sense” and “understand that if two witnesses … say two diametrically opposed things, someone is lying.”

She added that jurors should agree that “if somebody tells a story a number of different ways over time and changes the details, that might be a sign that they are lying.”

The first of four criminal prosecutions Trump faces, the New York state case is generally seen as the weakest in part because of the players involved. Cohen admits he has lied to Congress as well as federal tax and election officials. Daniels, who is also known as Stephanie Clifford, previously denied she had an affair with Trump; she has said she felt she had no choice because of the nondisclosure agreement she signed.

Another prosecutor suggested the government would try to compensate for those potential weaknesses by presenting paperwork in court that would back up their accounts. “Documents don’t lie,” Assistant District Attorney Susan Hoffinger told the group. “They corroborate testimony.”

Before leaving court Friday, the 12 jurors and six alternates were admonished not to read, listen to or watch anything about the case, or discuss it with anyone. That will be a particular challenge in what may become the most closely-covered case in American history, featuring a presidential candidate and reality television star who speaks to the television cameras daily from a hallway inside the courthouse.

On Friday, Trump engaged in the same kind of vitriol that many potential jurors said had colored their views of him, declaring that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D), who graduated from Harvard for college and law school, was “probably not smart enough to” handle the trial himself.

In fact, elected leaders of prosecutors’ offices rarely appear in court, and it is almost always assistant district attorneys like Steinglass and Hoffinger who present the case to jurors.

One member of the jury pool said Friday that growing up in New Jersey, Trump was his image of big city success. He told himself that one day he would live in Trump Tower, the Fifth Avenue landmark Trump built in the early 1980s: “That was a powerful symbol for me.”

Now, the man said, he associated Trump with “harmful” and “divisive” politics. Worse, he said, he did not think Trump really believed the biased things he said — “I think he just pushes it to stay in power.”

The man was eliminated from the group after it came out that he had referred to Trump on social media as “the devil.” So was a woman who said Trump’s rise had “emboldened” homophobic, racist and sexist commentary at the gym where she used to box.

Others were excluded for reasons having nothing to do with the famous defendant. One woman was overwhelmed with emotion when she explained she could not serve on the jury because of a past felony conviction, the details of which she shared with the judge. A man teared up when he said he had been the victim of a crime.

Trump’s team has been scouring social media for evidence that jurors are biased against him. But many of those picked said they did not engage on such platforms or follow politics closely, preferring news about sports, technology and business. Along with the mainstream news publications the president routinely disparages, multiple prospective jurors said they read the conservative New York Post and watch Fox News. And many of the people screened said they would have no problem judging the former president.

“He is a New Yorker, I am a New Yorker,” a professional chef said. “We don’t really get star-stuck or really care about anything like that.” Trump, he said, “is just a normal person like me.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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