Takeaways From Week 1 of Trump New York Trial

Week one of case against the former president was marked disputes over his gag order.
Takeaways From Week 1 of Trump New York Trial
Former President Donald Trump sits at the defendant's table during his criminal trial as jury selection continues at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on April 19, 2024. (Sarah Yenesel/Pool via Getty Images)
Catherine Yang
Michael Washburn
4/19/2024
Updated:
4/21/2024
0:00

When former President Donald Trump’s “hush-money” trial begins next week, his attorneys won’t even know what witnesses prosecutors will call to the stand until they enter the courtroom. Prosecutors declined to share that information, citing President Trump’s social media posts about witnesses and others involved in the case.

Week one of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case against the former president was marked with debate over whether President Trump has violated his gag order with his references to witnesses, and the judge declined to intervene.

Opening arguments are scheduled for April 22, and New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan has scheduled a hearing for April 23 over the gag order violation allegations. Also next week is a Supreme Court hearing on presidential immunity that President Trump will have to miss as he has been ordered to be present at his trial in New York.

After interviewing three 96-person panels, 12 jurors and six alternates have been seated.

Gag Order Issues

Prosecutors began the week by accusing President Trump of violating a court-issued gag order, requesting a fine of $3,000 for three social media posts. Later in the week, they claimed President Trump had again flouted the gag order by posting on social media and including campaign website links to commentary about Michael Cohen, the key witness in the case, bringing the total number of violations to seven. They asked Justice Merchan to hold President Trump in contempt of the court.

The gag order prohibits President Trump from making statements or directing others to make statements about witnesses, jurors, court staff, counsel, and the families of court staff and counsel if it interferes with the case.

Defense attorneys argued that the posts did not violate the gag order, pointing to the fact that the order expressly allows President Trump to defend himself against political attacks.

They also noted that they have challenged the gag order as they believe it is overly broad and encroaches on President Trump’s constitutional rights.

Heading into court, President Trump told reporters that they can speak about him but the gag order prevents him from doing the same. High-profile witnesses such as Mr. Cohen and adult actress Stephanie Clifford, known by her stage name, Stormy Daniels, whom Mr. Cohen alleges he was paid to bribe, have spoken publicly about the case and made claims about President Trump related to the case. Mr. Cohen makes frequent media appearances and is the host of a podcast that comments on the news and often President Trump. Ms. Clifford was the subject of an NBC Universal documentary that was released just before the original trial date in March.

The defense has opened an Article 78 proceeding, a lawsuit challenging the actions of a judge, questioning Justice Merchan’s gag order and his refusal to recuse himself. An appeals court declined to stay the trial days ahead of jury selection but will still hear the appeals later this month. A brief for one of the appeals will be due next week, on the same day as opening arguments.

The defense also argued that prosecutors should be following proper procedure by first showing that the gag order was not ambiguous enough to allow President Trump to make these statements.

Justice Merchan withheld his decision on the fines and scheduled an April 23 hearing over the alleged violations.

Guardrails

During week one, Justice Merchan also finalized and clarified limitations on what arguments and evidence can be presented in court after having ruled weeks ago on motions in limine, or decided by the judge outside of the presence of the jury.

Prosecutors have warned jurors that some of the evidence presented and testimony they will hear will be from years ago, even as far back as 2015. Jurors will not be allowed to speculate why charges were not brought until years later or why the case is happening right now.

Defense attorneys have been prohibited from arguing that the case was timed with political motivations for the purpose of election interference.

The defense had also made several bids to exclude testimony from Mr. Cohen and to block prosecutors from presenting evidence of alleged instances of bribery that are not part of the charges. Prosecutors had argued that those instances provide important context to tie the falsifying business records charge, normally a misdemeanor, to a larger scheme to kill negative news stories in the 2016 election cycle, which would bump the charges up to a low-class felony.

Defense attorneys had argued that Mr. Cohen has a track record of lying under oath, and the judge ruled that this was not a valid reason to prevent testimony but could be established as a foundation to impeach him as a witness.

Trump Tied Up in Court

Speaking to reporters before and after court appearances, President Trump said he should be campaigning in Pennsylvania, Georgia, or one of several other states at the height of election season but will instead be stuck in a courtroom for the next six weeks.

The Trump campaign has taken pains to schedule events on Wednesdays, when President Trump will not be required to be in court.

The New York trial presents a challenge for prosecutors in other cases too—recently, special counsel Jack Smith complained that the trial, which “only” requires President Trump’s presence four days a week, should not keep another case from going to trial.

Mr. Smith is prosecuting two cases against President Trump. One, in Washington, has already been on hold and will be reviewed by the Supreme Court next week, and the other, in Florida, was originally scheduled for May 20.

President Trump’s legal teams in Florida and New York have significant overlap, and the Florida case focuses on classified information that can only be viewed and discussed in a special location in Florida, adding complications to scheduling.

U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon is presiding over the Florida case and has yet to set a new deadline. Prosecutors have proposed a July trial, President Trump an August trial, and his codefendants a September trial.

Catherine Yang is a reporter for The Epoch Times based in New York.