As trial of first US ex-President to face criminal charges opens, Trump under cloud ahead of election

New York: The historic trial of Donald Trump started on Monday, making him the first former President in US history to face a criminal case, throwing several questions over the November elections.

In a trial watched with interest around the world, Trump faces the possibility of criminal conviction and a prison term on charges of falsifying business records of his company to hide hush money payments to a porn actor to silence her allegations that they had sex.

Besides the cloud of conviction, the ability of Republican Trump, who has a slender lead in polls over Democrat President Joe Biden, to campaign will be seriously crimped by tying him down in the Manhattan courtroom four days a week over more than a month with less than seven months before the election.

Even if he is convicted, he may not be disqualified from running in the presidential election and being elected because the Constitution is silent on criminal conviction.

The Manhattan case will likely be the only criminal case to come to trial before the election as the other case alleging election interference in Georgia that appeared to be on a fast track has run aground because of allegations that the prosecutor had hired a boyfriend at a cost of $650,000 to taxpayers to help prosecute Trump creating a conflict of interest.

The federal criminal case against him alleging election interference as a fallout of the January 6, 2021 riots when his supporters broke into the Capitol to stop Congress from ratifying his election is also pending, with the Supreme Court likely having to decide on his claims of presidential immunity.

Another pending federal criminal case against him is over his handling of classified documents.

Before entering the courtroom, Trump said: “This is political persecution, this is a persecution like never before, nobody has ever seen anything like it”.

Prosecutors have said that the prosecution only shows that in a democracy, no one is above the law.

Outside, people supporting him and opposing him rallied with signs and shouts as he arrived in a sports utility vehicle with personal Secret Service guards, a privilege he gets as a former President.

Inside the courtroom, Trump sat at a table with his lawyers as they made a last-minute futile attempt to delay the trial by asking Judge Juan Merchan to recuse himself alleging he was biased.

Merchan, with whom Trump has had several skirmishes and was slapped with a gag order, turned down the demand and proceeded with the trial.

Manhattan Deputy Public Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass began recounting the case against Trump which has 34 charges. He parried with defence lawyers on what evidence could be introduced in the trial with Merchan ruling on the disputes.

The beginning phase of the trial under state procedures is the selection of 12 jurors – ordinary citizens who will make up the panel that will give the verdict – is set to begin. The prosecutors and the defence lawyers will closely examine the potential jurors looking for biases that could hurt their case and try to stop those they consider biased from sitting on the jury.

Manhattan is heavily Democratic so most potential jurors will be of that persuasion and the defence will try to winnow them down. The case brought by Manhattan Public Prosecutor Alvin Bragg, a Democrat elected to the position, centres on $130,000 that was paid to porn star Stormy Daniels through his former lawyer Michael Cohen during the 2016 election campaign to silence her and avoid another sex scandal.

The prosecution alleges that the payments were camouflaged as corporate legal expenses, a violation of state law that would make it a crime. Trump is also ensnared in civil cases.

New York State Attorney General, Letitia James, another Democrat elected to the office, successfully sued him in a civil fraud case over him overstating the value of his properties in applying for loans. He was ordered to pay a $454 million penalty, which the billionaire, whose assets are tied up in real estate, could not readily come up with. While his appeal against the judgment is on, he was required to post a bond to cover the amount, which he finally did with a lot of difficulty, aided in part by a windfall of billions from an online portal that he had invested in going public on a stock exchange.

In another civil case in a federal court, he was ordered to pay $83 million in damages for defaming a woman who accused him of molesting her by repeatedly denying her statements and criticising her.

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