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Sensational Trump trial moves to opening statements

By AFP

April 22, 2024 09:40 AM


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The unprecedented trial of Donald Trump moves to opening statements Monday, kickstarting weeks of embarrassing evidence centered on a porn star and alleged fraud that will overshadow the Republican presidential candidate's attempt to retake the White House.

The Manhattan trial poses a big risk for Trump less than seven months before election day.

Prosecution witnesses are expected to include porn performer and director Stormy Daniels and Trump's disgraced, longtime former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, guaranteeing a less-than-savory look at the 77-year-old tycoon's personal and business habits.

In a practice reminiscent of mafia boss or terrorist trials, the identities of the five women and seven men on the jury are being kept secret for their own protection.

Security will likely be exceptionally tight Monday -- three days after a man set himself on fire outside the courthouse in an unrelated but gruesome incident.

Trump faces 34 counts of business fraud in a scheme to pay off Daniels to make sure an account of his alleged extramarital sexual encounter with her did not get published on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, threatening his ultimately narrow victory over Hillary Clinton.

The alleged crime is less significant than the indictments in three other investigations revolving around Trump's attack on the 2020 election, which he lost to Joe Biden, and his hoarding of secret documents. Trump could face jail time, although a fine or probation is more likely, analysts say.

But the trial in a dingy courtroom under massive media scrutiny will keep Trump off the campaign trail for four days a week over a possibly six-to-eight-week period, while Biden hammers him from the White House and around the country.

Monday is expected to see opening statements -- a chance for each camp to lay out their case to jurors and mount preemptive attacks on the opposing side's witnesses.

"This is going to be the beginning of probably the most sensational trial in American history," former prosecutor Bennett Gershman, now a lecturer at Pace University, told AFP.

"The stakes are almost infinite in terms of what the consequences could be.... Every day we're going to be hearing testimony that's going to be damaging to Mr Trump."

- Contempt hearing -

Trump has railed against the case, particularly what he calls the "very unfair" partial gag order imposed by the judge to prevent him from using his powerful media presence to attack witnesses, prosecutors and relatives of court staff.

A hearing will be held Tuesday at which the Judge Juan Merchan will decide if Trump is already in contempt of court due to his outbursts during the jury selection process.

"We are still considering our options... as far as what sanctions we will be asking for," prosecutor Josh Steinglass said Thursday, raising the prospect they will seek Trump's imprisonment.

Merchan chastised Trump for apparently muttering and gesturing within earshot of prospective jurors last week.

"I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom," he said.

- 'Witch hunt'? -

Court hearings have already disrupted Trump's campaigning plans, forcing him to sit silently in the chilly Manhattan courthouse for hours. However, he has used the heavy media attention to amplify his claims of a "witch hunt" in impromptu statements outside the courtroom.

He had planned to resume some semblance of normal campaigning with a rally in North Carolina Saturday, but bad weather forced the outdoor gathering to be called off.

"It's a pretty big storm. So if you don't mind, I think we're going to have to just do a rain check. I'm so sad," Trump told attendees while en route, in a call broadcast to the crowd.

The Republican's other three criminal cases have been repeatedly delayed due to Trump's successful strategy of challenging every step.

However, Merchan has run the New York fraud trial on a tight schedule.

A huge pool of potential jurors was grilled last week by prosecutors and defense attorneys about their media habits, political donations, education and whether they have attended a pro- or anti-Trump rally.

Many potential panelists were excused after saying they could not be impartial, before lawyers and the judge could whittle down the group to 12 jurors with six alternates.

Merchan has ruled the jurors must remain anonymous for their own security, although so many personal details emerged during the selection process that the measure was quickly weakened. The judge later asked reporters to stop providing physical descriptions of jurors and not to identify where they work .

A unanimous verdict will be required to convict Trump, who has been ordered by the judge to attend each day of the trial.


AFP


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