Questions about Trump’s hush money criminal trial, answered

The Hill’s reporters covering former President Trump’s hush money criminal case answered questions about the ongoing trial in New York.

Trump is standing trial on 34 counts of falsifying business records connected to hush money deals negotiated during his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump pleaded not guilty and has denied any wrongdoing.

Zach Schonfeld and Ella Lee discussed everything from the atmosphere in the courtroom to the storylines that underpin the case.

Selected answers from the “Ask me anything” are below:

Question: Did [Stormy Daniels’s] testimony actually hurt Trump’s defense?

Answer: Hi this is Ella, Stormy Daniels’s testimony could have helped or hindered Trump’s defense.

A couple moments stood out as potentially harmful. Daniels testified that she decided to sell her story in 2016 because, with Trump running for public office, she hoped the money trail would serve as protection.

Her comment linked the hush money plot to Trump’s 2016 election bid, which is what prosecutors must do to bring the typically misdemeanor business record falsification charges to the felony level Trump is charged with.

Her testimony also generally painted Trump in a negative light. If jurors are convinced Trump needed to cover up his conduct to win the 2016 election, that could also help the district attorney’s case.

It’s also possible that her testimony could help Trump’s cause. Defense attorneys sought to portray her as driven by money and inconsistent in her story. Throughout her testimony, jurors seemed less entranced than with previous witnesses — which may be a sign they weren’t as convinced, or swayed, by what she had to say.

Bottom line: It comes down to the jury’s perception of her credibility as a witness.

For more analysis on Day 1 of Stormy Daniels’s first bout on the witness stand:

Question: If Trump were jailed, would the Secret Service be obligated to protect him inside? What would his incarceration look like? Has this ever happened before?

Answer:  Hi, it’s Zach! This hasn’t happened before where a sitting or former U.S. president has been imprisoned. So, in short, we would be in uncharted territory, and no one exactly knows.

It certainly would be an extraordinary situation. There has been a trickling of reports from various outlets suggesting that the Secret Service and other agencies have had some discussions about what that would look like, but there’s no defined plan that we know of. There’s no operation like with Queen Elizabeth’s secret funeral plans aka “London Bridge,” however, we’re not entirely sure yet on potential plans if this were to happen.

Trump gets Secret Service protection for life, even if he’s convicted. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who chaired the House Jan. 6 committee, recently introduced a bill that would strip Secret Service protection from convicted felons (click here for more reporting on this from my colleague, National Security Reporter Rebecca Beitsch!). I imagine this won’t get very far with Republicans controlling the House.

I’ll also note that New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) was asked this week if Rikers Island was ready in case Trump was imprisoned.

“In this business, particularly around law enforcement, we have to adjust to whatever comes our way,” Adams said. But we don’t want to deal with a hypothetical. But they’re professionals, they’ll be ready.”

Question: Did you hear Trump cursing during the Stormy Daniels testimony? If so, what did he say?

Answer: Hello, it’s Ella! I was seated about four rows behind where Trump was sitting; I did not hear him cursing during Daniels’s testimony. However, I don’t doubt it to be true.

The courtroom is about the size of a basketball court, and Trump sits with his back to reporters. Also in between reporters and the former president are several law enforcement officers and members of his entourage, which this week has included his son, Eric, and his legal spokeswoman Alina Habba.

The judge pulled Trump’s lawyers to his bench to discuss the matter privately, so he certainly heard Trump’s remarks. We don’t know if the jury — or Daniels — heard them, too.

I can say that at previous trials I’ve covered where Trump was in attendance, it was not uncommon for him to mutter remarks under his breath or shake his head in disapproval. He was admonished by both his civil fraud trial Judge Arthur Engoron and Judge Lewis Kaplan overseeing writer E. Jean Carroll’s case for behaving similarly.

Question: Why do you and others who publish about it keep calling this a “hush money” trial when it’s really about election interference? Could that many people be trying to make it sound less serious than it is, or do news outlets have small imaginations and vocabularies?

Answer: Hi this is Zach, I’ve tended to refer to this case as the “hush money case” in headlines and the beginning of stories because when I’ve heard from readers (as well as when friends ask me about it), that’s the name they know it by.

When I say “election interference” case, people usually assume I’m talking about Trump’s indictments in D.C. or Georgia. That being said, as you allude to, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) in recent months has tried to shift the narrative to election interference.

Some of that seems to be a realization that Trump’s other criminal cases are unlikely to go to trial before the election, so Bragg’s case is now jumping out in front. But Trump, unlike in those other cases, isn’t actually charged with any election law violations here. So we’ve kept with “hush money” to use as shorthand in headlines and then explain Bragg’s “election interference” narrative throughout our stories.

Question: How many more stern warnings do you think Merchan will issue before Trump wins the presidential election?

Answer: Ella here — I think you’re referring to Judge Juan Merchan’s remarks regarding Trump’s repeated violations of the gag order. Trump is barred from making public comments about witnesses, prosecutors, court staff or the judge’s family, but can still attack Merchan and Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg.

Last time Merchan warned Trump, he was pretty clear about where he stands. The judge said that the “last thing” he wants to do is put Trump in jail and noted his standing as the former president. However, he also said that, at the end of the day, he has a “job to do” and that continued attacks would constitute a “direct attack on the rule of law”.

I was in the courtroom when Merchan admonished Trump and his attorneys, and the impression I got was that this was a final warning. But, ultimately, the decision of whether to keep just admonishing and fining Trump versus putting him in jail is one that only Merchan can make.

Question: Did Trump post and then delete his tweet about Stormy Daniels before or after this last, really very stern warning? Was it brought up in court at all, or ignored since he immediately deleted it, which is now being talked about at least as much as had he not deleted it?

Answer: Hi, this is Zach! Just to start off with some context for anyone not aware of the post, Trump the morning of Stormy Daniels’s testimony posted something on Truth Social that was quickly deleted. Here’s the post:

“I have just recently been told who the witness is today. This is unprecedented, no time for lawyers to prepare. No Judge has ever run a trial in such a biased and partisan way. He is CROOKED & HIGHLY CONFLICTED, even taking away my First Amendment Rights. Now he’s threatening me with JAIL, & THEY HAVE NO CASE – This according to virtually all Legal Scholars & Experts! Why isn’t the Fake News Media reporting his conflict?”

As for your question: it was the morning after the stern warning. The now-deleted post has not been brought up in court yet, but it’s possible prosecutors will raise an issue with it later this week.

If they do, I imagine Trump’s lawyers will argue that his post doesn’t actually mention Daniels by name and that he isn’t actually attacking her (compared to some of his past gag order violations where he outright called her a sleazebag, etc.).

It’s certainly something we’re watching for when the court reconvenes on Thursday and Friday.

Question: Do you believe that of all Trump’s antics are paving the way for appeal on the basis of inadequate defense provided by his attorneys? I can absolutely believe that Trump is actually that much of a malignant narcissist and idiot to believe the whole legal system is out to get him, that a gag order prohibits him from testifying and that simply calling something a “legal expense” nonstop actually makes it so. But I can also see it is very likely that he’ll blame his attorneys as he always does and claim they failed to provide adequate counsel.

Answer: Hi! This is Zach, thanks for the question. A lot to unpack here, so a few thoughts:

Trump does have some well-respected attorneys in this case. Susan Necheles, one of them, is a longtime defense lawyer who at one point served as president of the New York Council of Defense Lawyers. Even the legal observers/commentators I speak to who constantly criticize Trump generally give Necheles praise. Todd Blanche, Trump’s other lead attorney, is a former federal prosecutor. He left a large international law firm to represent Trump, so he’s pretty much staking his career on representing the former president.

It’s a high bar to claim inadequate defense, particularly when you’re talking about lawyers with their backgrounds, so it’s hard to see that working out

That being said, Trump is not afraid to blame his lawyers after a major loss, and sometimes make shifts in his team at key moments. Three recent examples I’d highlight, with links to a deeper dive on each:

(1) Trump replaced his top Georgia lawyer the day of his surrender
(2) one of Trump’s lawyers left after the former president grew frustrated with his handling of the E. Jean Carroll civil lawsuits
(3) Trump shook up his classified documents team after being charged

So now the question becomes, will Blanche and Necheles remain if things don’t go well for Trump in this trial?

Question: What has security been like in and around the courthouse while the trial is going on?

Answer: This is Ella! Security is tight in and around the courthouse.

To get into the courthouse, reporters who plan to be in the courtroom have to arrive a few hours before the trial begins to wait in a line where they sign in with law enforcement and court staff before heading in. Reporters and members of the public attempting to get into the overflow room — or, if there are extra seats, the courtroom — wait in a separate line to go through a similar process.

Everyone goes through two security checkpoints, where we walk through metal detectors, bags are examined and drinks that aren’t water are tossed out. The screening process takes about 20 minutes on a good day.

Inside the courtroom, the gallery is lined with law enforcement officers and secret secret service sit near the front, behind where Trump sits. Phones are prohibited in the courtroom, but reporters can have computers out to do their work.

Outside the courtroom, the streets are blocked by gates and law enforcement. Passersby are asked to walk around the barricaded area, though the park outside where everyone enters is open to the public.

Question:  I haven’t seen anyone break down how prosecutors used their preemptive jury strikes, even though they clearly used all of their available strikes. Without giving identifying information on any jury members, can you help us understand who the prosecution thought it was worth striking from the jury, even if the judge thought they were fit to serve?

For instance, it seems like the defense used their strikes on people who they’d found posted anti-Trump jokes on Facebook. Did the prosecution go for people who had posted pro-Trump content?

Answer: Hi, it’s Zach! I sat in for the week of jury selection. As each prospective juror was being questioned, Trump’s lawyers in rapid fashion were reviewing their social media profiles to try to find any opinionated posts about Trump. So, yes, they were clearly trying to weed out anyone who posted anti-Trump content.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, weren’t really pulling up old social media posts. They seemed to be trying to get rid of people who appeared prone to be a likely holdout in the deliberations. Remember, all 12 jurors must unanimously agree to convict Trump, so prosecutors’ fear is not just that they’ll vote to acquit, but also a lone holdout will cause a hung jury.

Two examples to illustrate this, one from each side:
Trump’s team struck a prospective juror who they found posted videos on Facebook of cars honking in celebration in New York City upon the 2020 election being called for Joe Biden.

Prosecutors struck a prospective juror who works in law enforcement and spoke very loudly and forcefully in the courtroom. He made clear he only gets his news from the NY Daily News and the New York Post (he also told the lawyers he still uses a flip phone).

Question: I’m also curious how Trump’s demeanor was in the court room. Did he seem worried? Was he smug? Did roll his eyes? Like give us some color.
Did he actually fall asleep?

Answer: Hi, this is Ella! More than anything, Trump seems annoyed to be there and, at times, pretty angry about it. He’s perfected a stony mug he wears when entering the courtroom, usually looking straight ahead but sometimes watching reporters or sketch artists. I saw him smile at one artist’s sketch as he was coming in earlier this week. On his way out, he’s usually scanning the gallery, sometimes locking eyes with reporters.

During testimony, his behavior varies. Sometimes he seems sleepy and thumbs through printed-out articles that seem intended to keep him engaged. Other times, he’s on high alert, watching testimony intently and whispering about it with his lawyers. Yesterday, when Stormy Daniels was on the stand, was one of those days.

As for his reported courtroom naps, Trump has denied falling asleep. But he does spend a lot of court time with his eyes closed.

Question: This case has been going on for weeks now and it seems like little progress has been made. How much longer do you think the case will continue? How many more witnesses are expected to testify? Is Trump going to take the stand?

Answer: Hi, It’s Ella. Believe it or not, things are actually moving along at a solid pace. Stormy Daniels is the 13th witness to testify in the trial, and all parties agree that they’re on schedule — if not ahead of it. Prosecutors said yesterday they have about two weeks left in their case, and then it’s just a matter of Trump’s team putting on their defense, if they choose to.

That puts the case on track to reach the jury toward the end of May or beginning of June.
With regards to how many more witnesses are expected to testify? No formal witness list has been released, so it’s hard to know exactly. But we can make some educated guesses.

Potential witnesses including Gina Rodriguez, Stormy Daniels’s manager, and Madeleine Westerhout, Trump’s director of Oval Office operations at the White House, could take the stand before the state’s case is over. Michael Cohen is expected to testify, too, and will likely be on the witness stand for several days.

In Trump’s defense case, family members, business associates and White House aides could take the stand.

As for him possibly taking the stand, it would be a rare move for a criminal defendant to testify in their own defense, and jurors have sworn not to hold it against Trump if he chooses not to. Legal experts are also wary of the former president testifying, though the decision is ultimately Trump’s to make.

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