Out of sight jury selection begins for former president's first criminal trial

The jury is being whittled down for Donald Trump's criminal trial as the former president complains that the court judge is Trump hating' and a 'disgrace'

Words by Court Reporter Phil Hirschkorn

The first day of jury selection didn’t do much jury selecting for Donald Trump’s trial on 34 counts of falsifying business records allegedly to cover up hush money payments during his first campaign for president, in 2016, to conceal extramarital activities.

It wasn’t until the final hour of the day in New York Supreme Court that potential jurors began answering – out loud in front of all the parties, but their faces hidden from the public and journalists – 42 questions about their personal background, hobbies, news consumption, and ability to be objective about a most divisive political figure.

The first batch of 96 jury pool members – half of those summoned to court on Monday – entered Judge Juan Merchan’s 15th floor courtroom in Lower Manhattan after 3pm.

About 60 members of the pool went home with unchallenged hardship excuses that the eight-week trial would present.

Only 10 of the 18 potential jurors seated in the jury box for voir dire completed the first round, which will resume Tuesday morning.

In the overflow court room down the hall where I sat, about 115 journalists packed every row and watched the proceedings on a closed circuit transmission screen that avoided showing the faces of any jury pool members.

Donald Trump arrives at a Manhattan criminal court in New York on Monday. Credit: AP

The prospective jurors must be at least 18-years-old, US citizens, and residents of Manhattan.

The pool was randomly picked from lists of New York registered voters, state driver’s license holders, New York state income tax filers. Their identities will remain anonymous.

Almost all who talked the first day were career professionals - a creative director, a communications director, book seller, a nurse, a lawyer.

One question asked if they have relatives in finance. A few did.

A Bronx prosecutor said: "My girlfriend is in finance for a bank, but honestly I don’t know what she does.”

One man willing to be a juror said his son was getting married in early June; though the trial is expected to be over by them, the judge and the potential juror did not want to take a chance of conflict, so he went home.

One woman answered YES to question 34 -- Do you have any strong opinions or firmly held beliefs about former President Donald Trump, or the fact that he is a current candidate for president that would interfere with your ability to be a fair and impartial juror?

At that moment, the judge interjected, asking if anyone objected to her being excused. Nobody did.

The most widely read news sources cited were the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN. A few said they watched Fox News. One reads the New York Post, and another, The Daily Mail.

The bookseller, who also watches MSNBC, blurted out a long answer to this question -- Do you have any strong opinions or firmly held beliefs about whether a former president may be criminally charged in state court?

He said: “I think nobody is above the law whether that be a former president, a sitting president or a janitor.”

You can foresee Trump’s defense team wanting to follow-up. After the potential jurors complete their verbal answers to the questionnaire, they may be questioned by the lawyers on both sides.

So far, those not excused have vowed to be impartial and avoid stereotypes. None had attended rallies for or against Trump or read books about the case by people on the witness list, such as former Trump fixer turned tormenter Michael Cohen.

The only one of four pending Trump criminal cases on track to conclude before Election Day centers around Cohen paying pornographic film actress Storm Daniels $130,000 in hush money to keep quiet about the sexual tryst she says she had with Trump in 2006, when future First Lady Melania Trump was pregnant with their child, Barron.

Judge Merchan decided Monday the jury may also hear testimony from Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who says she has a long affair with Trump – overruling defense objections that her only value is to offer salacious material to embarrass Trump.

Prosecutors said the deal made via The National Enquirer in 2016 to buy her silence shows the length Trump will go to conceal his misbehavior while running for office.

As the start of the jury selection session, Judge Merchan read a long list of possible witnesses for both sides that included Trumpworld figures Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway - her ex-husband and Never Trumper, George, was in the overflow room - Rudy Giuliani, former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, her husband, Jared Kushner, convicted Trump Organization CFO Alan Weisselberg, and ex-Trump Org security director Keith Schiller.

Another 100 jurors who came the courthouse Monday never saw the courtroom. Judge Merchan said another 300 people were in the pool.

“This case is nonsense. It should have never been brought,” Trump told reporters in the courthouse hallway on Monday.

“This is political persecution.” His words last Friday, at home in Palm Beach, before coming to New York, may prove more prophetic.

He said: “Jury selection is largely luck. It depends who you get.”

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