9 min read

Trump on trial

Everything you need to know about Donald Trump’s historic criminal trial as jury selection gets underway in New York.
Trump on trial
(Photo by the White House)

Good morning! It’s Monday, April 15, 2024. Election Day is 204 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Donald Trump was the first president to be elected without any prior political or military service. He was the first president to be impeached not once, but twice. He was the first president since Nixon to skip his successor’s swearing-in; he is the first since Cleveland to try to reclaim the office after losing it.

Today, he will once again launch himself into the history books. At 9:30 a.m. this morning, Donald Trump will become the first American president to go on trial.

By way of summarizing the charges against him, allow me to reproduce the case summary that will be read aloud to prospective jurors today by New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan:

The Defendant, Donald Trump, is charged with 34 counts of Falsifying Business Records in the First Degree. 

The allegations are in substance, that Donald Trump falsified business records to conceal an agreement with others to unlawfully influence the 2016 presidential election. Specifically, it is alleged that Donald Trump made or caused false business records to hide the true nature of payments made to Michael Cohen, by characterizing them as payment for legal services rendered pursuant to a retainer agreement. The People allege that in fact, the payments were intended to reimburse Michael Cohen for money he paid to Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, in the weeks before the presidential election to prevent her from publicly revealing details about a past sexual encounter with Donald Trump. 

Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty and denies the allegations.

That just about sums it up. Of the four indictments against Trump (two state, two federal), these charges — brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat — were the first, and they are the first to go to trial. (Trump tried repeatedly to postpone the proceedings, as he has done with his other trials, but his delay tactics were dismissed by New York courts.)

The relevant facts have been largely known for years: Porn star Stormy Daniels alleges that she and Trump had an affair in 2006. In October 2016, just before the presidential election, his then-fixer Michael Cohen paid her $130,000 to keep the story quiet. After the payment was discovered by reporters, Trump initially said he was unaware of it and Cohen said he was never paid back for it — but, in fact, Trump wrote several checks to Cohen throughout 2017 as reimbursement. In total, Trump paid Cohen $420,000 — the amount was doubled to account for taxes and then expanded to include a bonus — which was paid out in 12 monthly installments of $35,000.

In a statement of facts accompanying their indictment against Trump, filed just over a year ago, prosecutors allege that for each monthly payment, Cohen sent an invoice to the Trump Organization “falsely requesting payment of $35,000 for legal services rendered in a given month of 2017 pursuant to a retainer agreement.” The prosecutors add: “At no point did [Cohen] have a retainer agreement with the Defendant or the Trump Organization.” Each payment was also logged as a “legal expense” in the Trump Organization’s internal accounting system. These are the business records prosecutors are accusing Trump of falsifying, as the “legal expense” payments were actually reimbursement for the Daniels payment.

In New York, falsification of business records would normally be considered a misdemeanor, but the charge can be elevated to a felony if the falsification was done with the “intent to commit another crime or to aid or conceal the commission thereof.” In this case, Bragg is accusing Trump of falsifying the records in service of committing federal and state campaign finance violations, which is why Trump is being charged with a felony. (Cohen was previously convicted for violating federal campaign finance laws with the Daniels payment, as it was declared an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign that exceeded the federal campaign donation limits. Trump was famously named as “Individual One” in that indictment.)

Trump does not deny reimbursing Cohen for the Daniels payment, but is expected to argue that he did not intend to use the business records to commit a crime. According to Trump’s lawyers, he will not mount a formal “advice of counsel defense” — which would argue that he should not be punished for simply acting on the advice of lawyers — but his attorneys will argue that Trump “lacked the requisite intent to commit the conduct charged in the Indictment because of his awareness that various lawyers were involved in the underlying conduct giving rise to the charges.”

Trump’s lawyers are also expected to paint the prosecution as political and to attack the credibility of the prosecution’s key witnesses, including Cohen, who has previously been convicted of lying in congressional testimony. In addition to Cohen, potential witnesses include Stormy Daniels; Hope Hicks, the former Trump aide; and David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer (who first told Cohen that Daniels was looking to sell her story).

Justice Merchan, who will be overseeing the case, has imposed a gag order prohibiting Trump from making public statements about “known or reasonably forseeable witnesses concerning their potential participation in the investigation or in this criminal proceeding.” Despite the gag order, Trump wrote on Truth Social last week that Cohen and Daniels are “two sleaze bags who have, with their lies and misrepresentations, cost our Country dearly!”

Before we get to defense arguments or witnesses, though, a jury of Trump’s peers must be selected. That is the process that will begin today, and could take more than a week, considering the challenge of finding 12 New Yorkers without strong opinions about Donald Trump, who has been a domineering presence in the city for decades.

Per CBS News, more than 500 Manhattanites are set to be brought in as potential jurors. According to a questionnaire prepared by Merchan, each one will be asked 42 questions until the pool is narrowed to 12 citizens who will be able to consider the case impartially. Here’s a sampling:

  • “Have you ever attended a rally of campaign event for Donald Trump?”
  • “Do you currently follow Donald Trump on any social media site or have you done so in the past?”
  • “Do you have any strong opinions or firmly held beliefs about whether a former president may be criminally charged in state court?”
  • “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?

Once the jury is selected, the trial’s formal arguments will begin. In total, the proceedings are expected to last six to eight weeks. If Trump is convicted, he will face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. There is no mandatory minimum sentence, so the judge could also choose to sentence him with a fine or probation. Even if he is sentenced prison, Trump would still be fully eligible to run for president.

While only 12 New Yorkers will have a say as to whether the former president is convicted, the court of public opinion will decide whether they want to return Trump to the White House.

It is the latter court that he is expected to focus on in the coming weeks, as the rollicking Trump circus — which has mostly remained behind the scenes in recent months — will return to the public eye with its full gusto. As opposed to hiding from his prosecutions, Trump has made them a centerpiece of his campaign, gambling they will have the same effect in the general election as they did in the Republican primaries: rallying voters behind him and against the prosecutors.

“Just four years ago I was a very popular and successful President of the United States, getting more votes than any sitting President in history,” Trump wrote last night on Truth Social. “Tomorrow morning I’ll be in Criminal Court, before a totally conflicted Judge, a Corrupt Prosecutor, a Legal System in CHAOS, a State being overrun by violent crime and corruption, and Crooked Joe Biden’s ‘Rigging the System’ against his Political Opponent, ME! I will be fighting for myself but, much more importantly, I will be fighting for our Country.”

Trump is expected to attend each day of the trial, which he will balance with in-person and virtual campaign events. During previous court appearances, he has held daily hallway gaggles with reporters, a practice his lawyers are reportedly urging him not to continue. Trump has previously said he plans to testify in his defense at the trial.

It remains unclear how much of an effect the trial will have on the campaign. Heading into the proceedings, the presidential is as close as it could get: Trump 45.6%, Biden 45.4%, according to the RealClearPolitics national polling average.

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More news to know.

Israel is deciding how to respond after Iran’s aerial attack this weekend. In the country’s first-ever direct assault on Israel, Iran launched more than 300 missiles and drones toward Israeli territory on Saturday, in response to an Israeli attack killed that killed top Iranian officers in Syria. Almost all of the drones and missiles were intercepted by Israel and its allies, including the U.S.

In a phone call Saturday night, President Biden reportedly urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to exercise caution in his response, warning him that the U.S. would not support a counterattack against Iran. The Iranian attack has increased pressure on House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) to hold a vote this week on the Senate-passed Israel/Ukraine aid bill.

More headlines:

The day ahead.

President Biden will hold separate meetings with two foreign leaders at the White House: Prime Minister Mohammed Shyaa Al-Sudani of Iraq and Prime Minister Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic.

Vice President Harris will travel to Las Vegas for events on gun control and abortion rights.

The Senate will hold a procedural vote to advance the nomination of Ramona Villagomez Manglona to be a U.S. district court judge in the Northern Mariana Islands.

The House is set to vote on five bills under “suspension of the rules,” a fast-track process that requires each bill to receive two-thirds support:

Donald Trump will attend the first day of his criminal trial in New York.

Before I go...

On this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln died after being assassinated by John Wilkes Booth the night before. Take a look at how the Associated Press reported the news at the time:

WASHINGTON, APRIL 14 — President Lincoln and wife visited Ford’s Theatre this evening for the purpose of witnessing the performance of ‘The American Cousin.’ It was announced in the papers that Gen. Grant would also be present, but that gentleman took the late train of cars for New Jersey.

The theatre was densely crowded, and everybody seemed delighted with the scene before them. During the third act and while there was a temporary pause for one of the actors to enter, a sharp report of a pistol was heard, which merely attracted attention, but suggested nothing serious until a man rushed to the front of the President’s box, waving a long dagger in his right hand, exclaiming, ‘Sic semper tyrannis,’ and immediately leaped from the box, which was in the second tier, to the stage beneath, and ran across to the opposite side, made his escape amid the bewilderment of the audience from the rear of the theatre, and mounted a horse and fled.

Talk about burying the lede, huh? (h/t Alex Griswold)

Another fun Lincoln assassination fact: The D.C. boarding house where Booth and his co-conspirators planned Lincoln’s murder is now a Chinese restaurant and karaoke bar called “Wok and Roll,” right around the corner from Ford’s Theatre.

As the bar is frequented by Georgetown students, I can personally confirm that the karaoke is a good time — and the food isn’t bad either.

Photo by Gabe Fleisher

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