The Trump Trials: All Rise

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump arrives at Manhattan criminal court with his legal team before the start of jury selection Monday.

Welcome back to the regular Sunday night edition of The Trump Trials newsletter. We’re bracing for a momentous week in two courtrooms – opening statements in Donald Trump’s first criminal trial, and Supreme Court arguments about his claims of presidential immunity. It may seem like a lot to keep track of, but that’s why we’re here.

Okay, court is almost back in session, so let’s get started.

What’s ahead

On Monday in Manhattan criminal court, a prosecutor and a defense attorney are set to offer their opening statements in Trump’s trial for allegedly falsifying business records to hide a hush money payment, and then the district attorney’s office will begin presenting witnesses and evidence to make its case for convicting the 45th president of the United States.

– On Tuesday, the judge will take a quick break from witnesses to hold a hearing on whether Trump – the presumptive Republican nominee for president – should be found in contempt of court for allegedly violating his gag order.

In a different New York courtroom, a court will weigh the state attorney general’s challenge to Trump’s $175 million bond on Monday. That’s important because the bond in question allows him to pursue an appeal and delay paying a nearly half a billion dollar civil judgment for misstating Trump company assets.

Thursday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about Trump’s claim that he cannot be prosecuted for allegedly trying to block the results of the 2020 presidential election. Whatever the outcome for Trump personally, the case may force the highest court in the land to draw new, clearer lines about the limits of presidential power.

Now, a recap of last week’s action.

New York: State hush money case

– The details: 34 charges connected to a 2016 hush money payment.

– Last week: We have a jury. In quick fashion (less than four days total), New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan picked a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates to sit in judgment over the former president. You can read about them here.

When court resumes Monday morning, those jurors will hear opening statements. The historic day will also be an abbreviated one, as court ends at 2 p.m. ahead of the Passover holiday.


The government accused Trump last week of 10 violations of Merchan’s gag order, which bars the former president from attacking witnesses, prosecutors or family members of the judge and the Manhattan district attorney. Trump’s lawyers argue he should be allowed to push back against political criticism even if it comes from witnesses in the case, like his former lawyer Michael Cohen.

Merchan seems dubious but has scheduled a hearing on prosecutors’ request to hold Trump in contempt of court and fine him $1,000 per violation.

That’s chump change for Trump, but he may have to pay another price as well. Typically during a trial, prosecutors tell defense lawyers who the next few witnesses will be, so everyone can prepare. But prosecutors have said they will only tell the defense team who the first witness is, and if Trump posts on social media about that person, it will be the last such notice they get.

If Trump’s lawyers don’t know which witnesses are coming next, that will put them at a significant disadvantage when it matters most.

On Saturday, Trump posted a link to an article about Merchan’s adult daughter – another possible breach of the gag.

Nerd word of the week

Cause: Juries are chosen through a process in which a judge removes potential jurors for “cause” – you could also say they are removed for good cause, such as when they say they cannot be impartial, or they don’t answer questions truthfully, or they have a prior relationship with a witness, lawyer, or investigator in the case.

Last week, Merchan removed some potential jurors for cause, including one who seemed to have written online years ago that Trump was “the devil.”

It’s easy to mock jury duty, but more often than not, the selection process is inspiring, as everyday Americans are called to stand up and serve the most important roles in the legal system.

Trump’s jury pool was no exception. Hour after hour, New Yorkers described their lives, from taking their kids to Knicks games to walking their dogs. A mother of four who once served prison time broke down crying, not tears of shame but of pride – pride in her new life, pride in her family, and pride in the face of what she feared (wrongly) would be harsh judgment from others in the courtroom.

If all people were always good, courts probably wouldn’t need to exist, but jury selection is a reminder that most people are good.

D.C.: Federal case on 2020 election

– The details: Four counts related to conspiring to obstruct the 2020 election results.

– Planned trial date: Unclear

– Last week: Trump’s legal team made their final written filing to the Supreme Court as they prepare for the arguments Thursday on his immunity claim.

On Tuesday, the high court heard arguments on an obstruction charge that has been used against hundreds of Jan. 6, 2021 rioters. The conservative majority voiced concern federal prosecutors had overcharged the law. If they rule broadly on that issue, that could undercut two of the counts Trump is facing in this case.

Florida: Federal classified documents case

– The details: Trump faces 40 federal charges over accusations that he kept top-secret government documents at Mar-a-Lago – his home and private club – and thwarted government demands to return them.

– Planned trial date: Unclear

– Last week: U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon denied requests by Trump’s co-defendants, Waltine “Walt” Nauta and Carlos De Oliveira, to have their charges dismissed based on alleged deficiencies in the indictment.

Georgia: State case on 2020 election

– The details: Trump faces 13 state charges for allegedly trying to undo the election results in that state. Four of his 18 co-defendants have pleaded guilty.

– Planned trial date: None yet

– Last week: That stage was dark.

Question Time

Q. Trump asked Merchan if the New York trial could adjourn for a day so he could attend his son’s high school graduation on May 17. Is it normal for a judge to work around a criminal defendant’s personal schedule?

A. It’s really up to the judge. In general, judges try to put trials on hold for a day to allow criminal defendants to attend big life events, according to Jeffrey M. Cohen, associate professor at Boston College Law School. He noted that criminal defendants have not yet been convicted and still have rights to live freely, but a judge also has to consider the rights of the jurors and prevent the trial from going longer than it needs to go.

“Once you are convicted, then your rights are severely curtailed,” Cohen said. “But he’s not a felon so there is good reason to let defendants go to major life events so long as it does not severely inconvenience jurors or disrupt the trial schedule.”

Merchan told Trump he would try to allow him to attend graduation if the trial is not running too far behind schedule. That’s typical, said Cohen.

“He is trying to be a human being as well as being a court administrator,” he said.