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Former US president Donald Trump at the Manhattan court in New York, the US, April 15 2024. Picture: JENNAH MOON/REUTERS
Former US president Donald Trump at the Manhattan court in New York, the US, April 15 2024. Picture: JENNAH MOON/REUTERS

New York — New York prosecutors asked a judge at the start of Donald Trump’s criminal hush money trial on Monday to fine him and remind him he could go to jail for violating a gag order about potential witnesses.

They spoke on the start of a historic trial, the first of a former US president, which stems from a 2016 hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels.

With Trump seated at the defence table, prosecutors cited Trump’s criticism of witnesses, court officials and others over the years.

Prosecutors asked justice Juan Merchan to fine Trump $1,000 each for each of three social-media posts this month about Daniels and Trump’s former fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen.

“The defendant has demonstrated his willingness to flout the order. He has attacked witnesses in the case, in the past he has attacked grand jurors in the case,” prosecutor Christopher Conroy said.

Under Merchan’s gag order, Trump is barred from making public statements about witnesses concerning their potential testimony and about prosecutors, court staff and their family members if the statements are meant to interfere with the case.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche said Trump did not violate the gag order because he was responding to witnesses’ public statements. “The two witnesses themselves have been talking about their testimony in this case, president Trump’s ongoing re-election, and just generally disparaging President Trump constantly,” Blanche said.

Merchan said he would consider prosecutors’ request over the lunch hour.

New York state prosecutors accuse Trump of falsifying records to cover up a $130,000 payment in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign to buy the silence of Daniels about a 2006 sexual encounter she has said they had.

Trump has denied any such relationship. He pleaded not guilty last year to 34 counts of falsification of business records in the case brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, in New York state court.

If convicted, Trump could still hold office but Reuters/Ipsos polling shows a guilty verdict could hobble his prospects.

Cohen has testified that he made the payments to buy Daniels’ silence ahead of the 2016 election, in which Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton. Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to violating campaign finance law, though the federal prosecutors who brought that case did not charge Trump.

Trump has called Cohen a “serial liar” and his lawyers are expected to attack his credibility at trial.

Trump, 77, is required to attend the trial, which is expected to last through May and could complicate his bid to win back the White House as the Republican 2024 candidate.

The selection of 12 jurors and six alternates from a pool of Manhattan residents is expected to take about a week, followed by witness testimony.

Wearing his signature blue suit and red tie, Trump watched while Merchan set limits on witnesses and evidence to be presented at trial and denied a motion by Trump's lawyers to have the judge recuse himself.

The judge said some 500 potential jurors were waiting while legal arguments took place.

Police stand guard

Police stood guard in front of the courthouse amid a maze of barricades, and helicopters shadowed the motorcade of black SUVs that ferried Trump from his Trump Tower apartment.

A handful of protesters, gathered in the plaza across the street, carried hand-painted signs reading “LOSER” and “convict Trump already.”

Though the case is regarded by some legal experts as the least consequential of the four criminal prosecutions he faces, it is the only one guaranteed to go to trial before the November 5 election.

The businessman-turned-politician, who served as president from 2017 to 2021, has used past court appearances to rally his supporters and claim he is being targeted by his political enemies.

“This is an outrage,” Trump said before entering the courtroom. “This is political persecution.”

In his three other criminal cases, Trump stands accused of mishandling classified information and trying to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. He has pleaded not guilty in all of those cases and painted them as a plot by Democrats to undermine his presidential campaign.

Bragg has argued that the case concerns an unlawful scheme to corrupt the 2016 election by burying a scandalous story that would have harmed Trump’s campaign. Trump's lawyers have said the payment to Daniels did not amount to an illegal campaign contribution.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll published last week found that nearly two in three voters found the charges in the case at least somewhat serious. One in four of his fellow Republicans and half of independents said they would not vote for Trump if he were convicted of a felony.

Choosing a jury from a pool of people from heavily Democratic Manhattan could take several days, to be followed by opening statements and testimony from a parade of potentially riveting witnesses, including Cohen and Daniels.

David Pecker, the former head of the National Enquirer tabloid, will also testify that he ran stories in the tabloid to boost Trump’s 2016 campaign, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said.

Also due on the witness box is Karen McDougal, a former nude model for Playboy magazine who prosecutors say was paid by the National Enquirer to keep quiet about an affair she says she had with Trump.

Merchan said he would not permit witnesses or prosecutors to tell the jury that the affair took place while Trump’s wife Melania was pregnant with their child.

Trump, who has said he plans to testify in his own defence, is accused of falsely recording reimbursements to Cohen as monthly legal retainer fees in his New York-based real estate company's books.

Falsifying business records in New York is a felony punishable by up to four years in prison, though many defendants convicted of that charge have been sentenced to fines or probation.


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