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Donald Trump’s historic hush-money trial to begin in New York

  • By Madeline Halpert
  • BBC News, New York

Image source, Getty Images

Donald Trump will enter a New York courthouse on Monday and become the first former US president to stand trial in a criminal case.

He is accused of falsifying his employment records to conceal a hush-money payment made to Stormy Daniels, a former adult film star, shortly before the 2016 election.

Mr Trump, 77, faces a maximum of four years in prison if convicted, but could avoid jail time and be fined.

He pleaded not guilty.

Mr Trump’s historic trial will take place against the backdrop of his presidential campaign and could ultimately see the presumptive Republican nominee become a convicted felon just months before voters go to the polls in November.

“This is unprecedented,” said Alex Keyssar, professor of history and public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. “There has been nothing like this.”

The trial, which begins Monday with jury selection, is expected to last six to eight weeks and will focus on the reimbursement Mr. Trump made to his former fixer Michael Cohen.

Cohen, 57, claims he was ordered to pay $130,000 (£104,000) to Ms Daniels in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair with Mr Trump, which prosecutors described as an attempt to “d ‘illegally influence’ the 2016 elections.

Hush money payments are not illegal. But the Manhattan district attorney’s office says Mr. Trump committed a crime by improperly recording the reimbursement to Cohen as a legal fee.

In total, he is charged with 34 counts of first-degree falsifying business records. To reach a verdict, all 12 jurors must agree on whether Mr. Trump is guilty of a specific charge.

The Manhattan trial is expected to include testimony from a group of colorful characters at the heart of the case, including Cohen, Ms. Daniels and Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer who was jailed in part because of the scandal.

Experts are divided on the strength of the prosecution’s case, which involves a newer legal approach to bringing criminal charges for falsifying business records.

Mr. Trump has made several unsuccessful attempts to delay the jury trial and move it from Manhattan, which is mostly staffed by Democrats.

His fiery remarks about the case, which he repeatedly called politically motivated, led the judge to impose a silence that bars him from making public comments about people connected to the case, including witnesses.

The order was extended after Mr. Trump launched his online attacks against the judge’s daughter, calling her a “rabid Trump hater.”

The Trump campaign said the silence was unconstitutional and violated his free speech rights.

This criminal case is just one of four cases Donald Trump is facing this year. But this could be the only trial to take place before his 2024 election rematch with President Joe Biden.

As a first-time offender, even if Mr. Trump is convicted, experts say it is unlikely he would go to prison. Even if he did, under US law he could still serve as president.

But his conviction would mark the first time a felon has run for president as a major party candidate, Mr. Keyssar said.

“What’s remarkable is that this doesn’t seem to bother a significant portion of the electorate,” Mr. Keyssar said, emphasizing that Mr. Trump’s popularity has not suffered from his criminal indictments.

But the potential legal drama will put him at the center of the news cycle just months before the election.

And that increased attention means that any small news from the court — good or bad for Mr. Trump — could play a role in the race between the former and current president, said Hans Noel, a government professor at Georgetown University .

“I expect it to be a very close election,” he said, “and so any little thing could matter.”

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