Published On: Sun, Apr 14th, 2024

8 things to know as Trump becomes 1st president to face criminal trial | Politics | News

Donald Trump

Donald Trump is set to become the first president to face a criminal trial on Monday. (Image: Getty)

In the dingy New York courthouse, where John Lennon’s killer pleaded guilty to murder, Donald Trump is today (Mon) set to become the first president to face a criminal trial.

In a case set to shake the foundations of not only American politics but its history too, jury selection will get underway in the businessman’s alleged hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Trump is accused of paying off the women who claim they slept with the millionaire as his wife, Melania, was at home recovering from giving birth to their son.

The landmark legal battle brought by New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg thrusts the former US leader and his tumultuous presidency back into the spotlight.

In doing so, it raises deep questions about presidential accountability, the rule of law, and the enduring legacy of the Trump era.

As the trial gets underway, all eyes will be on the courtroom, where the fate of one of the most polarising figures in modern history hangs in the balance.

His trial is the culmination of a case that has been hotly contested since it was unveiled last spring.

After months of legal scheming, including three long-shot appeal attempts last week, the level of media scrutiny is likened to that of the O.J. Simpson trial nearly three decades ago.

This is no murder trial, but it still has sensational elements.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to try to hide a sexual encounter he is alleged to have had with Daniels, who he met in 2006.

The former President denies the charges and having had sex with her, but at stake is his freedom, for if found guilty, he could be jailed for up to five years.

Here, we look at the trial’s major players and what a conviction could bring.

The allegations and what’s at stake

At the heart of the prosecution’s case are allegations that Trump and his associates engaged in a conspiracy to pay hush money to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. The payments, which were allegedly made by the National Enquirer tabloid magazine on behalf of Trump to suppress damaging information that could have jeopardised his 2016 election campaign, and are alleged to have violated campaign finance laws.

Jury selection and the weight of History

As jury selection, from a pool of some 500 New Yorkers, gets underway, the gravity of the moment is palpable.

Trump, the 45th President of the United States, stands as the first commander-in-chief to ever face criminal charges.

Accused of orchestrating a scheme to silence two women who claimed to have had affairs with him, Trump will be adjudged by 12 jurors.

Before selection, they will each have been asked about their personal lives, knowledge of Trump and political persuasion. They will also be forced to answer “Have you ever considered yourself a supporter of or belonged to any of the following: the QAnon movement, Proud Boys, Oathkeepers, Three Percenters, Boogaloo Boys, Antifa.”

The trial is expected to last around six weeks.

The prosecution’s star witnesses

As the trial unfolds, a cast of key witnesses is poised to take the stand, each offering crucial testimony that could sway the jury’s verdict. Among the prosecution’s star witnesses are Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal themselves, who are expected to provide highly embarrassing firsthand accounts of their alleged affairs with Trump and the subsequent efforts to cover them up.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, a year after he married his wife Melania and more than a decade before he became president.

She was paid the $130,000 shortly before the 2016 election in return for keeping publicly silent about the alleged encounter.

Trump, denying any such relationship, has said the payment was made to stop her “false and extortionist accusations.”

McDougal is an ex-Playboy model and, like Daniels, claimed she had an affair with Trump.

She has said they saw each other “a minimum five times a month” beginning in 2006. McDougal described the relationship to CNN as loving and consensual.

She said it lasted 10 months.

Like Daniels, Trump has denied it ever happened.

Michael Cohen: From insider to informant

In addition to the two women, Trump’s former pit bull attorney, Michael Cohen, is slated to testify, offering insight into his role in facilitating the alleged hush money payments and the extent of Trump’s involvement in the scheme. Cohen’s cooperation with federal investigators has already yielded damning revelations about Trump’s business dealings and personal conduct, making his testimony a potential game-changer in the trial. Once Trump’s most loyal employee, he was his personal attorney, fixer and confidant, famously proclaiming that he would “take a bullet for the president” and “never walk away.”

But over the first two years of Trump’s administration, as investigators targeted Cohen’s personal finances, he flipped on his former boss. He cooperated in multiple investigations, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. In December 2018, Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for various crimes, including campaign finance violations, tax evasion and lying to Congress.

Inside the tabloid machine: Pecker, Howard, and the National Enquirer

Cohen is not the only insider poised to spill the beans. David Pecker, the former CEO of American Media Inc, which owned the Enquirer, and Dylan Howard, the company’s chief content officer, are expected to testify about their involvement in the hush money scheme and their efforts to bury negative stories about Trump in the tabloid press in a scheme known as “catch and kill”.

Their testimony could shed light on the extent to which Trump’s allies went to protect him from damaging revelations.

Other key witnesses

Rounding out the list of expected witnesses are Keith Davidson, the attorney who negotiated the hush money deals on behalf of Daniels and McDougal, as well as former Trump aides Madeline Westerhout and Hope Hicks. Their evidence will place them in prosecutors’ direct line of fire, providing valuable insight into Trump’s state of mind and any involvement in the alleged cover-up.

In the hot seat: Judge Juan Merchan

His caseload has featured charges against former Donald Trump’s company and some of Trump’s closest associates in business and politics.

Now Judge Juan Manuel Merchan is poised to take the historic hush-money prosecution of the former president himself.

Merchan, a former prosecutor with 16 years on the bench, has already imposed a strict gag order against Trump after the businessman openly attacked those involved in his trial, leading to death threats being made against him by his MAGA supporters.

Trump, who is running for the White House again, says he’s “completely innocent” and has called the case a “political persecution.”

He has repeatedly seized on Merchan’s involvement.

The judge “HATES ME,” Trump railed on his social media platform.

Implications for presidential accountability

Perhaps most significantly, the trial has far-reaching implications for presidential accountability and the integrity of the office. By subjecting a former president to criminal prosecution, the trial sends a powerful message that no one is above the law, not even those who hold the highest office in the land. It reaffirms the principle that public officials must be held to account for their actions, regardless of their status or standing. The Trump trial represents a pivotal moment in American history – a test of the nation’s commitment to the rule of law, the principles of democracy, and the ideals of justice and accountability. As the trial unfolds, the eyes of the nation will be fixed on the courtroom, watching to see whether justice will be served and whether the rule of law will prevail.

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