Friday, May 17, 2024

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Trump’s Historic Criminal Trial Begins in Manhattan: A Reckoning for the ‘Autocrat-In-Chief’?

As jury selection begins, judge warns Trump of potential jail time if he disrupts proceedings in high-stakes criminal case.

Trump trial
Photo: Gage Skidmore

The first historic criminal trial of former President Donald Trump has finally begun in Manhattan, marking a significant moment in American history. 

Trump, who is currently the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for the 2024 election, faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to hush money payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels in the days leading up to the 2016 presidential election. 

The ex-president’s laundry list of alleged crimes is staggering. Beyond the hush money payments at the heart of this case, Trump is also accused of orchestrating an effort to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, stealing classified documents from the White House, and inciting the deadly January 6th insurrection in a last-ditch attempt to cling to power. Viewed in this context, the current trial could almost be considered the least awful of Trump’s many despicable acts.

Prosecutors face a delicate task in this trial, as their mandate is not to bring down Trump the politician, but rather to hold accountable the individual who committed criminal acts. The 34 counts against Trump relate to the hush money payments made to Daniels, which were recorded as legal expenses within the Trump Organization. While such record-keeping violations are typically misdemeanors, they can be charged as felonies when committed in furtherance of another crime, in this case the alleged violation of New York’s election laws.

The First Trial Begins in Manhattan

As Trump entered the courtroom on the first day of the trial, he wore his trademark red tie and an American flag pin, accompanied by a pronounced scowl. In a brief address outside the court, he denounced the trial as a politically motivated “persecution like never before” and an “assault on America.” However, once inside the courtroom, Trump appeared less vocal, whispering to his lawyers and seeming unhappy to be there, even appearing to fall asleep at one point.

The atmosphere outside the courthouse was electric, with crowds of protesters chanting and holding signs. Anti-Trump demonstrators held handmade signs with the words “Loser” and “Convict Trump Already,” while Trump’s supporters gathered, adorned with red Trump hats and flags, including one that read “Trump or Death.”

The charges against Trump stem from his alleged role in concealing his connection to payments made to Stormy Daniels to keep her from going public about a sexual encounter she claims they had in 2006. Prosecutors assert that records of the Trump Organization were falsified as part of a scheme to violate election laws. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denied the affair, characterizing the trial as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, a Democrat.

The payment to Stormy Daniels was made shortly after the Washington Post published the Access Hollywood recording in October 2016. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, learned that Daniels was threatening to go public with her story and sent her $130,000 through a shell entity to her lawyer in exchange for her silence. Cohen later claimed that he made the payment at Trump’s direction and to influence the 2016 election.

Trump has repeatedly attacked the judge in the case, Juan Merchan, accusing him of bias because of his daughter’s work as a Democratic political consultant. However, Judge Merchan dismissed an effort by Trump’s lawyers to force him to recuse himself from the case. The judge also ruled that Trump’s comments on the infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which he bragged about committing sexual assault, could be introduced as evidence, although the actual tape will not be played in court.

As the trial got underway, the judge repeatedly warned Trump he faced potential jail time if he disrupted the proceedings, a stark reminder of the legal jeopardy the former president finds himself in. Trump, for his part, remained uncharacteristically subdued, nodding along as the judge outlined the consequences of any misbehavior.

The search for jurors began in the afternoon, with the first group of 96 potential jurors filing into the courtroom. Many of them stretched their necks to get a look at Trump. After an introduction by the judge, several dozen potential jurors indicated that they couldn’t be fair and were excused. The remaining prospective jurors answered questions from a lengthy questionnaire, covering topics such as their educational backgrounds, news preferences, and opinions about Trump’s prosecution.

Yet the broader implications of this trial extend far beyond the specific charges. As Trump continues his campaign for the presidency, a felony conviction could significantly complicate his path to the White House, even if it does not outright disqualify him. More importantly, it would represent a repudiation of the norm-shattering, anti-democratic behavior that has defined the Trump era. A conviction would be a crucial affirmation that the former president’s efforts to undermine the rule of law and subvert the will of the voters will not be tolerated.

One of Trump’s Many Alleged Crimes

The stakes of this trial are heightened by the fact that it is only one piece of a broader mosaic of Trump’s alleged crimes. While the hush money payment may be the first case to reach the trial stage, it pales in comparison to the significance of the ex-president’s other alleged offenses. His attempts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, his mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, and his incitement relating to the January 6th insurrection all represent far more heinous crimes against the people of the United States.

In that sense, the current trial could be seen as a sort of “appetizer” before the main course of Trump’s reckoning. Should he be convicted, the former president will face the potential of a prison sentence or, more likely, home confinement. But this outcome will only serve to further inflame his desire to cling to power, potentially leading him to take desperate measures to avoid accountability.

The danger, then, is that a conviction in this trial could push Trump to do whatever it takes to regain the presidency, even if it means destroying American democracy in the process. Whether that means attempting to hold on to the office past the expiration of his term, or seeking to destroy his enemies in New York in other ways, the country will be plunged into a crisis the likes of which it has never seen.

This is the true gravity of the situation. The stakes of this case about hush money payments could not be any higher. If Trump is allowed to escape consequences yet again, it will embolden him to continue his relentless assault on the rule of law and the very foundations of our democratic system. But if he is held accountable, even in this relatively minor case, it could mark a crucial turning point in the fight to preserve the integrity of American institutions.

As the trial progresses, the American public will be closely watching to see if justice can prevail, or if Trump’s wealth and power will once again insulate him from the consequences of his actions. The outcome will reverberate far beyond the walls of the Manhattan courtroom and will forever be inscribed in American history books. So the least we can demand is that the scales of justice be balanced, no matter how high the stakes or how mighty the defendant.