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Trump accused of violating gag order as ‘hush money’ trial set to start

Manhattan prosecutors asked a judge to fine Donald Trump for his attacks on potential witnesses in the New York hush money case, as jury selection was set to begin in the first criminal trial against a former US president.

A lawyer for the district attorney Alvin Bragg, who brought the case, told the court on Monday morning that Trump had violated a gag order that had previously been imposed to limit what he could say about people involved in the trial, in at least three social media posts published in the last few days.

The district attorney’s team asked Justice Juan Merchan, who is overseeing the case, to fine Trump $1,000 per post, order the posts to be taken down, and warn the former president that “further violation could result in jail time”.

Trump’s lawyers said they believed the posts complied with the gag order, saying the witnesses in question were constantly “disparaging” the defendant.

“He is responding to salacious, repeated, vehement attacks by these witnesses,” Todd Blanche told the judge. Merchan said he would rule later, but he did not believe the gag order provided an exception to respond to attacks.

Trump had over the weekend again questioned the credibility of his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who is expected to be a crucial witness in the case, calling him a “disgraced attorney and felon”. He had earlier reposted a statement relating to Cohen and another potential witness, porn star Stormy Daniels, and thanked the original author for “revealing the truth about two sleaze bags”.

The move by prosecutors came as roughly 500 potential jurors were set to be questioned about their political views and media habits by the judge overseeing the so-called hush money case, marking the beginning of what is expected to be a six-week trial for the presumptive Republican nominee for the White House.

The case stems from the first criminal indictment brought against Trump, who was accused last year of falsifying records of payments made to buy Daniels’ silence in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Daniels had alleged that she had an affair with Trump years earlier, which the billionaire has denied.

The 77-year-old faces three other criminal cases, over his alleged attempt to thwart the results of the 2020 election and the retention of classified documents after his presidency. The Manhattan case, however, is increasingly likely to be the only one to go to trial before the presidential election in November.

Trump arrived at the courthouse just after 9am amid heavy security in downtown Manhattan. Hundreds of police lined the perimeter of the New York courthouse, and a small number of protesters — both for and against him — waved signs outside.

On his way into court, Trump spoke briefly to reporters in the hallway, saying that he was facing a “political persecution . . . like never before”, and falsely claiming the case was being orchestrated by President Joe Biden, who he is likely to face in the election.

Pro and anti-Trump protesters outside the courthouse in Manhattan © Reuters

“It’s an assault on America,” Trump said. “And that’s why I’m very proud to be here. This is an assault on our country. And it’s a country that’s failing. It’s a country that’s run by an incompetent man who’s very much involved in this case. This is really an attack on a political opponent.”

Lawyers for Trump had earlier engaged in another last-ditch effort to further postpone the trial, arguing that Merchan should recuse himself due to his daughter’s involvement in a consultancy that counts senior Democratic politicians among its clients. Merchan promptly declined the request.

“To say that these claims are attenuated is an understatement,” he said.

A pool of hundreds of potential jurors, all from the borough of Manhattan, will be asked a total of 42 questions by the court. They include queries on whether individuals get their news from left-leaning outlets such as MSNBC, or right-leaning media such as Fox News, and whether they have ever attended a Trump rally or been a supporter of fringe movements such as QAnon.

Lawyers for Trump get a certain number of “strikes” against potential jurors they do not want on the panel, as do counsel for the Manhattan district attorney. Ultimately, 12 jurors and a number of alternates will be selected.

Trump’s counsel did secure a series of small victories on Monday morning, after Merchan agreed that introducing a recording of the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape, in which the then-reality television star bragged about grabbing women by their genitals, would be prejudicial to the defendant.

Merchan similarly barred prosecutors from introducing a video of sworn testimony Trump gave in a civil case brought by E Jean Carroll, and other allegations of sexual assault against the former president, calling them “complete hearsay”.

The trial, which Trump must attend four days a week, comes just as campaigning for the presidential election kicks into high gear. Trump has used the proceedings to raise funds for his campaign, sending out an email to supporters even as he sat in court, urging them to donate.

In a press conference on Friday, Trump called the jury selection process “largely luck” and said it was “very unfair” that he was facing trial in a heavily Democratic district. He added that he would “absolutely” testify in his own defence at trial, saying “all I can do is tell the truth”.

Additional reporting by Steff Chávez in Washington

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