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Trump Makes History Today as First Ex-President to Face Criminal Trial

After several failed attempts to delay, Trump is finally seeing the official start to one of his four criminal trials.

Former President Donald Trump arrives ahead of the start of jury selection at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 15, 2024 in New York City.

Donald Trump has become the first former president in United States history to face a criminal trial after leaving office, a distinction he tried but failed to avoid.

Monday is the official start of his New York state-based trial, with jury selection beginning this morning. It’s likely that the selection process will last one to two weeks, and that the remainder of the trial will last around six weeks total.

If no further delays come about during the trial, a verdict on Trump’s guilt or innocence might be rendered sometime around June at the earliest, several weeks before the Republican National Convention in July, where Trump is set to be named the GOP’s official 2024 presidential nominee, and months out from Election Day in November. If the verdict against him is guilty, he’ll become the first nominee of a major political party to be nominated for a presidential ticket after being convicted of a felony.

At several junctures last week, Trump’s team of lawyers attempted to delay the start of the trial, which deals primarily with his attempts to hide from the public “hush money” payments he made to women he allegedly had extramarital affairs with prior to the 2016 presidential race. However, his lawyers’ arguments in favor of delaying the trial fell apart in front of the judge overseeing the trial, Judge Juan Merchan, and by appellate judges affirming his rulings.

Trump’s legal team, for example, tried to argue that pre-trial publicity made it impossible to seat a jury from New York City — but Steven Wu, a lawyer for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, said in rebuttal to that claim that Trump was “trying to have it both ways,” as the former president was complaining about publicity while also holding news conferences before and after pre-trial hearings and frequently invoking the case during his political rallies and online.

Even though the trial has now begun, it’s likely Trump’s legal team will attempt to push for every delay possible during the main trial phase, questioning the introduction of evidence from the prosecution, demanding that unnecessary or unrelated evidence be included for their defense, and making other similar motions.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has charged Trump with violating 34 felony counts relating to his falsifying business records, which includes paying off adult film actress Stormy Daniels to the tune of $130,000, paying a Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000, and paying a doorman in New York City $30,000 after he had alleged that Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock. Prosecutors aim to showcase how these payments were part of a broader “catch-and-kill” plan, coordinated with former executives at The National Enquirer to hide unflattering news about Trump that could be published elsewhere.

The payments happened before the 2016 presidential election, to conceal from the voting public evidence of Trump’s extramarital affairs. Hush money payments are not inherently illegal — however, the way Trump paid for them might have been.

Trump is accused of instructing his then-“fixer” lawyer Michael Cohen to make the payments. He reimbursed Cohen through his company, the Trump Organization, and then falsified his business records by stating that the payments were for legal purposes.

It is a Class E felony in New York to fudge business records in this manner. If he’s eventually found guilty, Trump could face up to four years in prison for each of the 34 felony counts he’s charged with, although New York state sentencing laws limit his sentence to 20 years in these kinds of cases, and judges often give shorter sentences, including probation, for nonviolent offenders without prior criminal charges.

Still, a guilty verdict could have huge ramifications for the 2024 presidential election. Despite Trump claiming in March that such a verdict would help him attract more voters, polling shows the opposite is true, with numerous surveys over the past year or so demonstrating that a jury finding him guilty in this trial (or any of the other ones he faces) would hurt his polling numbers, not help them.

The trial will not be televised, though photos and video may be allowed in the courtroom before each day’s proceedings. Trump may also be required to attend every day of the trial — it’s more likely, however, given his stature as a presidential candidate, that Merchan will agree to allow him to be absent on most days.

Trump currently has a gag order enforced against him, limiting him from making disparaging comments about prosecutors, witnesses, court staff and their families, including Merchan’s family. On Truth Social Sunday night, Trump wrongly claimed that the gag order — which is an ordinary order that judges regularly employ when threats against participants in the trial get out of control — was an effort to interfere in the election.

“Tomorrow morning I’ll be in Criminal Court, before a totally conflicted Judge, a Corrupt Prosecutor, a Legal System in CHAOS, a State being overrun by violent crime and corruption, and Crooked Joe Biden’s henchmen ‘Rigging the System’ against his Political Opponent, ME!” Trump said in his rant.

On Monday morning, Trump falsely asserted that the gag order restricted his First Amendment speech rights, claiming that his “voice” was taken away from him and that it was “unconstitutional.”

Last fall, MSNBC columnist Jessica Levinson laid out the reasons why gag orders imposed on Trump (in this case and in others) aren’t unconstitutional:

Gag orders aren’t per se unconstitutional, and they are allowed when circumstances justify them, such as to prevent harassment of witnesses, prejudice of the jury or the publication of trade secrets or other confidential information.

While Trump and his supporters frame the gag order as silencing one man, this gag order would actually allow far more people to speak.

The New York state trial is just one of four cases Trump currently faces. In a state-based racketeering case in Georgia, Trump is accused of threatening elections officials to overturn the results of the 2020 race in that state. The former president is also facing criminal charges in two federal cases — one in which he’s accused of illegally removing classified documents from the White House after his term expired, and another involving his efforts to usurp the Electoral College on January 6, 2021, in an attempt to improperly remain in office.

In total, Trump faces 88 felony-level charges across those four cases. Although he has successfully delayed the other three cases, he has failed to delay the start of the New York state trial.