Trump: The first president to face criminal prosecution - GulfToday

Trump: The first president to face criminal prosecution

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Former President Donald Trump leaves Manhattan criminal court, on Feb.15, 2024, in New York. File/Associated Press

Donald Trump’s fraud trial opens today in an uncongenial, cold Manhattan court room. The trial was delayed from March 25th, but his request for further postponement was denied. It had been expected that the trial might not begin for another week or two because a jury of 12 men and women and six alternates had to be empanelled before proceedings could advance but this took only one week. The jurors selected out of nearly 100 who presented themselves had to fill out a detailed questionnaire and gain approval by both prosecution and defence.

The seven men and five women chosen had both positive and negative opinions of Trump but pledged to treat him fairly.  They all come from the Manhattan borough where Trump’s rival for the presidency Joe Biden won 67 per cent of the votes.

Controversial, divisive Trump is the first US president to face criminal prosecution but New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan has made it clear he is a defendant  with the same rights and restrictions enjoyed by anyone in the State of New York.  Unused to being ordered about, Trump must be present at every session, but one through June. Justice Merchan has also commanded him to remain silent and follow traditional procedures in court, including rising when the judge enters and leaves. Merchan issued a gag order to counter his voiced and social media criticisms of the prosecutor Alvin Bragg, the judge, his daughter who is a Democrat party organiser, jurors, and witnesses.

Trump violated the gag order seven times last week.  For each infraction he could be fined $1,000.  The indictment prepared by Bragg says that Trump “fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal crimes that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.”  This refers to $130,000 in a “hush money” payment during the 2016 presidential election campaign to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. He feared potential voters would be alienated if she revealed a brief extramarital affair with him in 2006.  Trump called on his lawyer Michael Cohen to transfer the sum from his own accounts and bill it as legal expenses to the Trump Organisation.

This arrangement has produced, inter alia, charges of conspiracy, failing to include the sum in campaign expenditures, and breaking campaign funding laws.  Trump faces 34 felony charges, each carrying a maximum sentence of four years in prison for each proven accusation.   It is predicted, however, that if Trump is found guilty, Merchan could opt for a maximum sentence of four years or less, a period of house arrest or probation and fines. Trump is certain to appeal, drawing out the legal process while he campaigns for re-election. During his appearance at jury selection, Trump failed to acknowledge those accepted by standing, risking alienation. 

His lawyers were not given the identities of witnesses set to appear today because Trump’s team would have 48 hours to build cases against them before they could testify.  Among the potential 41 witnesses set to appear, the most prominent are Daniels (known as Stephanie Clifford), former lawyer Michael Cohen, publisher David Pecker, model Karen McDougal, and ex-aide Hope Hicks. Cohen served as vice president of the Trump Organisation and Trump’s lawyer from 2006-2018 when he pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations, tax fraud, and bank fraud. Cohen claimed Trump had told him to breach campaign-finance laws “for the principal purpose of influencing” the 2016 election.  He was sentenced to three years in prison, served time,  and left prison in 2021.

Pecker practiced “catch and kill” when dealing with articles critical of Trump by purchasing exclusive stories he wanted to disappear and refusing to print them in The National Enquirer, Sun, Weekly World News and Globe. The National Enquirer purchased for $150,000 and killed the story of model Karen McDougal who claimed she had an affair with Trump from 2007  to  2007. Cohen revealed that he and Trump had discussed reimbursing the paper, but this did not take place. Trump’s communications manager during the campaign and his residence at the White House, Hicks has denied she was privy to his hush-money payments. Documents, however, apparently reveal that she was involved in discussions with Trump, Cohen, and Pecker.

The sole day Trump has been given leave of absence by Justice Marchan is Thursday this week when he is set to appear before the US Supreme Court on his application to be granted immunity from prosecution. Charges have been levelled against him for his role in inciting the January 6th, 2021, riot at the Capitol while Congress was confirming Joe Biden as the winner of the US presidential election. He is also accused of trying to overturn the result of the 2020 election in the state of Georgia, which opted for Biden and for illegally retaining and mishandling classified documents after leaving office.

Meanwhile, during his re-election campaign, Trump has followed his natural bent by staging bombastic rallies where he pledges to restore the power of the state and enhance the authority of the national executive.  He leads Republican contenders by 50 points in polls although he continues to claim he was the winner in 2020 and that election was “stolen.” This falsehood reinforces his appeal to his loyal base of supporters. However, he is $75 million behind Biden in raising money for his campaign and has spent at least $16.7 million of these funds on legal fees and more on financing faltering businesses.  The total of his legal costs since launching his bid for the presidency amounts to about $86 million The Washington Post reports. Nevertheless, according to an Emerson College opinion poll released on April 18th, Trump is leading Biden 46 to 43 per cent.

Biden lost two points since the beginning of this month while Trump remained at 46 per cent.  Among undecided urged to choose between them,  Trump received 51 per cent and Biden 48 per cent. When independent candidates were counted, Trump secured 44 per cent and Biden 40 per cent.  Robert Kennedy received 8 per cent, largely deducted from Biden’s share.  Multiple other polls show Biden with a narrow lead over Trump. The main issues are the economy and immigration although Israel’s Gaza war has attracted some voter attention.

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