A jury that will decide Trump’s fate begins to take shape as first criminal trial powers ahead

There are two Donald Trump criminal trials now taking place.

There’s the one in a Manhattan courtroom, where a judge, attorneys for both sides and prospective jurors are making strenuous efforts to lay the foundation of the fair trial to which the ex-president and every other citizen is entitled.

And there’s the imaginary trial that exists in Trump’s rhetoric, led by “heartless thugs” and a “very conflicted judge” who is “rushing the trial” that the presumptive GOP nominee claims is a “Biden inspired witch-hunt.”

In court on Tuesday, Trump made eye contact with potential jurors and was admonished by Judge Juan Merchan for muttering while one was questioned. But the surprisingly snappy pace of the process confounded initial expectations that putting on trial possibly the most famous man on Earth would be a laborious and prolonged process. While there were occasional moments of levity in the court and reminders that Trump’s status make him a defendant like none other, conversations that members of the jury pool had with the judge and defense lawyers and prosecutors hinted at the gravity of what will unfold in the coming weeks. One potential juror, for instance, noted: “This is real. This man’s life is on the line, the country’s on the line, this is serious.”

As Trump’s hush money trial quickened on its second, compelling day — with seven jurors seated — Trump stepped up efforts to discredit the proceedings and the legal system itself. He bolstered the argument that is both his primary defense and his main campaign message — that he’s a persecuted victim being prosecuted because he’s on course to win back the White House in November. The former president’s strategy encapsulates one of the most consequential challenges to the American courts system in modern memory — one that is likely to leave it tarnished in the eyes of tens of millions of his supporters whatever the jury decides. And it exemplifies the unprecedented circumstances of the first former president going on trial in the middle of an election campaign that is now running more through multiple court rooms than swing states.

But outside the courtroom, the former president raged, offering a skewed commentary on the good faith efforts inside.

When the search for 12 jurors plus alternates paused for the day, Trump motorcaded to a bodega uptown, to highlight what he says is rising crime faced by the owners of small stores that are often open all night and especially serve immigrant communities. Trump was in his element, waving to a crowd that chanted “Four more years” and “We love Trump,” as he belted out quotes that dripped with falsehoods about foreign nations emptying their prisons and asylums to send a tide of migrants to American cities.

In a rowdy event in which he looked more like a mayoral candidate than a presumptive presidential nominee, he made two points. First that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg should be going after ‘real’ criminals and not him, and that his obligation to attend the trial was keeping him off the campaign trail, as his rival, President Joe Biden, sweeps this week through swing-state Pennsylvania.

“It’s Alvin Bragg’s fault, he goes after people like Trump, who did nothing wrong,” the former president said standing under a sign for an ATM, in a scene the long-time master self-publicist seemed to be offering up for a front page in the New York Post. “It makes me campaign locally and that’s OK,” Trump said, wrapping up his spot of street politicking in the city that made his name and that will send forth 12 jurors with his legal destiny, and potentially even his liberty, in their hands.

For his part, Biden offered his first comments on Trump’s legal challenges since the trial proceedings began, saying in an interview with Nexstar, “His lack of ethics has nothing to do with me.”

An unusual defendant faces the conventions of the court

Trump is accused of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who alleged she had an affair with Trump before he became president. Bragg’s theory of the case is that this alleged conduct resulted in Trump keeping vital information from voters ahead of the 2016 election. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denies having a sexual relationship with Daniels. This is only one of four trials looming over Trump; the others focus on his attempts to overturn the 2020 election and his hoarding of classified documents.

The current trial is not televised, meaning that Trump is deprived of a platform. But that restriction does allow him to mount a misleading daily commentary on what is taking place inside the courtroom that is likely to be the most that many viewers of conservative media learn about the case.

In line with the four-day-a-week schedule for the trial, proceedings will halt on Wednesday. Trump is expected to have dinner with Polish President Andrzej Duda, a nationalist who was one of the ex-president’s favorite foreign leaders during his term. Criminal defendants don’t generally take a break from their trials to sup with visiting presidents. The visit will be another reminder of the extraordinary circumstances of an election entangled with Trump’s legal fate and may be seen as a highly symbolic endorsement by Duda of his friend during his hour of need.

As the trial reaches its first break, two things are already becoming clear.

First, the conventions of the criminal trial – like those in thousands of courtrooms every day – mean this case will grind on relentlessly. There’s little the former president can do to stop it, despite the pre-trial delaying tactics and complex litigation common to all his cases. This sense of order was reflected in the solid progress in seating jurors on Tuesday.

“It is remarkable how normal it is in this situation,” Mimi Rocah, a former division chief at the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, told CNN’s Erin Burnett. “The criminal justice system, the jury system, is working the way it’s supposed to work.”

The second major takeaway two days in is that Trump – who carved a public persona as a ruthless real estate shark, told victims “You’re fired” on “The Apprentice,” sees himself as a strongman president and has his own Boeing that can take him where he wants, when he wants – must cede total control when court is in session. He can’t act out and is being forced by a gag order not to attack witnesses or family members of officers of the court.

When he was muttering in court on Tuesday, Merchan told the ex-president’s lawyer, “I will not have any jurors intimidated in the courtroom.” The incident was likely just a taste of clashes to come between Trump and the judge. In previous civil trials, Trump challenged the dignity of the rule of the court and feuded with other judges. The fact that his time is not his own is also highlighted by his complaints that he’s unable to attend a US Supreme Court hearing arising from his federal election interference trial next week. And he’s also complaining the judge won’t let him attend his son Barron’s high school graduation – even though Merchan is yet to rule on the issue.

A swift jury selection process

For anyone wondering whether a former Republican president who alienates his opponents could get a free trial in New York, Tuesday’s jury selection process might prove something of a relief. There is great debate among legal scholars and partisans on whether Bragg’s case is a legal stretch and whether Trump is guilty of the alleged conduct. But potential jurors appeared to take their obligation deeply seriously. It was notable that a large group admitted that they couldn’t honestly say they could judge Trump fairly – testimony to the extreme reactions that the former president evokes.

“I don’t think I can be as impartial and unbiased as I thought I could be,” said one man who was excused.

But other potential jurors said they’d be able to put any political feelings about Trump to one side and focus on the evidence and the law. “I feel that politically, we have big disagreements, your client and myself,” one person said. “There are certain things he’s said that I don’t care for. But lots of people say things I don’t care for.” She added: “But when I’m coming here, that can’t count, that has to go away.”

In a sign of the times, the judge and lawyers spent hours combing through social media postings of potential jurors and family members, seeking evidence of bias. And in another revealing trend that hinted at the ex-president’s political appeal, some potential jurors mentioned that they viewed his rhetorical eruptions as those of someone who speaks his mind, unlike conventional politicians.

When one potential juror asked Merchan if attendance at her sister’s wedding in September could be a reason not to serve, the judge sparked laughter in court by replying: “If we were still here in September that would be a big problem.”

Jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn told CNN’s Burnett that Trump should be happy with the process so far. “It’s a mixed group, that’s exactly what you want.” He added: “The former president caught himself some pretty good jurors today.”

Trump has asked the Supreme Court to agree with his expansive claim of presidential immunity in a bid to derail his trials. But so far, his hush money trial suggests that despite the former president’s undiluted craving for power, every American remains equal under the law.

Courtroom artist Christine Cornell has sketched some of the most notorious defendants in modern history, including crime family boss John Gotti and financier Bernie Madoff, and has been drawing Trump for years. She conjured up Trump’s new reality best when she told CNN Tuesday: “It’s just another human being. He’s just a guy in a pinch.”

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