Trump trial not a referendum on his presidency, prosecutor tells prospective jurors

Prosecutors ask judge to fine former US president for social media posts criticising witnesses in his trial

Donald Trump’s criminal trial on charges stemming from hush money paid to a porn actor is not a referendum on his presidency, a prosecutor told prospective jurors on Tuesday in asking whether they could put personal politics aside.

Mr Trump’s defence lawyer, in his opportunity to question prospective jurors, pressed them for their opinions on the former US president.

Jury selection for Mr Trump’s trial got under way on Monday. He faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election. Ms Daniels says she had a sexual encounter with Mr Trump about a decade beforehand.

Mr Trump has pleaded not guilty and denies an encounter took place. The Republican presidential candidate has called the case, brought by Democratic Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, a partisan witch hunt meant to interfere with his campaign to unseat President Joe Biden in the November 5th election.


Manhattan assistant district attorney Joshua Steinglass told the 18 prospective jurors who remained of an initial pool of 96 that the case had nothing to do with their personal politics.

“This case is really not about whether you like Donald Trump,” Mr Steinglass said. “This case is about the rule of law and whether Donald Trump broke it.”

The proceedings so far have underscored the challenges of choosing a jury of 12 residents of heavily Democratic Manhattan who can try the case fairly and impartially.

Roughly half of 96 potential jurors summoned on Monday were dismissed after saying they could not impartially judge the polarising businessman-turned-politician. Those who remained largely said they could put any opinions they had aside and be fair to both sides.

“I don’t think it matters what my political beliefs are, or in relation to the defendant,” said one woman, a high school teacher who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and enjoys reading and hiking.

Mr Trump’s defence lawyer Todd Blanche, in his chance to question jurors, said he did not care about jurors’ politics but wanted to get a sense of whether they could be fair to Mr Trump as an individual.

“It’s extraordinarily important to President Trump that we know that we’re going to get a fair shake,” Mr Blanche said.

Several prospective jurors said they did not have strong opinions about Mr Trump, or said their opinions were not relevant to the case.

“If we were sitting in a bar, I’d be happy to tell you,” said one jury candidate, a man who works at a bookstore and enjoys going to Broadway shows. “But in this room, what I feel about President Trump is not important.”

Mr Trump, wearing a blue tie, looked toward the panel gathered in the jury box as Mr Blanche questioned them.

The hush money case is one of four criminal indictments he faces, which stem from alleged mishandling classified information and trying to overturn his 2020 loss to Mr Biden. He has pleaded not guilty in those cases, which may not go to trial before the election.

Though the New York case is centred on events that took place more than seven years ago, prosecutors are trying to hold Mr Trump accountable for more recent conduct as well.

On Monday, they asked Justice Juan Merchan to fine Mr Trump $1,000 for each of three social media posts this month that criticised Ms Daniels and Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s former fixer who is expected to be a prominent witness in the trial.

Under a gag order imposed by Justice Merchan, Mr Trump is barred from making statements about witnesses, court staff and family members that are meant to interfere with the case.

Mr Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche said the former president was only responding to their criticism of him.

“A finding of criminal contempt, imposition of sanctions, and stark warnings from this court are the minimum remedies necessary to achieve this indispensable objective,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing made public on Tuesday.

Justice Merchan said he would consider the matter on April 23rd.

Jury selection is expected to continue for the rest of the week, and the trial is scheduled to last through at least May. – Reuters