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As hush money trial begins, Trump’s sex life emerges as key theme

NEW YORK — The opening day of Donald Trump’s criminal trial delved deep into his tabloid fodder sex life, as lawyers and the judge debated how many salacious details jurors should eventually hear as they decide whether he broke the law to cover up hush money payments.

The historic first trial of a former U.S. president began Monday in a storied courthouse that has seen a host of high-profile cases over the years, from rap stars to movie moguls, but never one with such potential consequences for the nation and the world.

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The dry rituals of court only made the proceedings more surreal, as New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan warned Trump he could be removed or sent to jail if he disrupted the trial or failed to appear, and prosecutors said they would seek to hold Trump in contempt even before a single potential juror had been questioned.

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was openly contemptuous of the trial when he spoke to reporters at the end of the day in the courthouse hallway. “We are not going to be given a fair trial,” he said, calling the prosecution “a scam.”

Inside the courtroom, however, Trump was anything but disruptive. He frequently appeared bored or uninterested in the legal jousting that took up the entire morning session, but was mostly attentive once jurors began to be questioned.

Shortly after the lunch break, as Merchan read a lengthy series of instructions to prospective jurors, Trump closed his eyes and at times appeared to nod off. He then would abruptly catch himself and stiffen his posture.

The former president’s most animated moments in court came when the judge was not on the bench. Trump chatted with his lawyers at the defense table, sometimes making them laugh or smile.

While hundreds of potential jurors waited on another floor of the courthouse, lawyers sparred for hours Monday morning over what evidence should be shared with them, and a host of other legal issues large and small.

It wasn’t until midafternoon that the first batch of 96 potential jurors entered the courtroom to begin the voir dire screening process. Almost immediately, half of them were gone, having raised their hands when asked who could not be fair or impartial in a case involving Trump.

One prospective juror who stayed to be questioned said during that process that she did have strong feelings about Trump that could interfere with her ability to be fair. A Harlem resident who recently started working at Bloomingdale’s, she said in her free time she liked to sing, watch TV and “go to the club.”

She was excused from jury duty after lawyers conferred with the judge. Walking out, she told a court officer, “I just couldn’t do it.”

Just 10 prospective jurors had been questioned by the time the trial adjourned for the day at 4:30 p.m. The proceedings will resume Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., with hundreds more people waiting with their jury summonses. Lawyers must agree on 12 jurors and a handful of alternates — a process that could take weeks.

Merchan tried to keep the high-profile case on an even keel, at one point urging prosecutors and defense lawyers to “sit down, relax” while he laid out the issues yet to be decided.

But he also angered Trump by ruling that he could not be excused from the trial to attend Supreme Court arguments next week over Trump’s claims of immunity in one of his three other pending criminal cases. And Merchan was noncommittal when Trump asked for a day off next month to attend his son Barron’s high school graduation.

The former president has used the many criminal and civil trials he faces as a rallying cry for his Republican base, and has successfully managed to turn some of his court appearances into campaign fodder. He is not required to attend the April 25 Supreme Court argument in the immunity case, and did not attend a February oral argument in a different case — about whether he could be barred from the ballot in Colorado — that also had the potential to reshape his candidacy.

Trump has repeatedly criticized Merchan as biased against him and tried — without success — to remove the judge from the case.

On Monday, Merchan signaled his displeasure with Trump over recent public statements attacking Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, a key witness in the case, after the judge had issued a gag order explicitly barring such comments.

Prosecutors argued Trump had made three social media posts in the last two weeks that violated the judge’s order. They asked that he be fined a total of $3,000, found in contempt and warned he could be sent to jail if he keeps making such comments.

When Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche responded that his client had to be able to respond to political and public attacks from Cohen and others, Merchan archly asked the lawyer to point out where in his gag order he’d made an exception like that. The judge scheduled a hearing on the matter next week.

Trump’s unique status as a defendant who also happens to be a former and potential future president arose frequently in the opening hours of the trial — the first of four that Trump faces, and the only one that has not been significantly delayed by pretrial proceedings and appeals.

Criminal defendants, Merchan noted, have a right to participate in private sidebar questioning of potential jurors, but if Trump were to do that, he would be joined by Secret Service agents, creating logistical hurdles for court officials.

Prosecutors have charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records — part of what they say was a criminal scheme to cover up Cohen’s 2016 payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels so she would keep quiet about her alleged tryst with Trump years earlier.

Cohen was reimbursed for those payments after Trump won the 2016 presidential election, but those payments were categorized as a legal retainer. Concealing the true purpose of the payments amounts to a crime, prosecutors charge.

In a case so closely tied to an alleged sexual liaison, lawyers spent much of Monday arguing over what a jury can be told about other purported indiscretions in Trump’s life.

Prosecutors wanted to tell the jury that he also had an affair with Karen McDougal, a Playboy model, at a time when his wife, Melania Trump, was pregnant with his child.

Blanche argued that would poison the jury against his client, for something that was not a crime and has no bearing on the charges he is facing.

“The risk of unfair prejudice is through the roof,” Blanche said, “from salacious details about a completely different situation.”

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass argued that the details of the McDougal affair were important to show Trump’s state of mind and behavior when allegations of sexual impropriety surfaced against him.

The judge said the jury could be told about the affair, but not the additional detail that at the time Melania Trump was pregnant. That detail, he said, was prejudicial, although he reserved the right to change his thinking on that matter as other evidence is introduced during the trial.

Since the 1980s, Trump’s fame and notoriety have been fueled partly by the tabloid press, and prosecutors made clear they aim to use that back-scratching relationship against him to show that he made the hush money payment to keep voters from learning about his embarrassing peccadilloes.

Merchan agreed to allow prosecutors to tell the jury about a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Trump, Cohen and National Enquirer executive David Pecker, who allegedly tried to help Trump’s presidential campaign. Prosecutors say the three men discussed publishing positive stories about the real estate mogul turned candidate, and negative pieces about his political opponents.

Prosecutors are expected to use that type of information to support their argument that Trump intended to help his campaign image when he covered up the $130,000 payment to Daniels. That money allegedly kept her quiet during the campaign about a sexual encounter she says she’d had with Trump 10 years earlier.

“The entire point of the Trump Tower meeting was to control the flow of information that reached the electorate to accentuate the positive, hide the negative and exaggerate information that would be harmful to Trump’s opponents,” Steinglass argued.

Blanche countered that the meeting was not part of any charged criminal conduct, and said such sessions are common for candidates.

While they lost that argument, Trump’s lawyers convinced Merchan that jurors should not be told about a number of women who came forward in late 2016 to accuse Trump of sexual misconduct in the wake of an “Access Hollywood” recording in which he bragged about grabbing women.

Merchan called those accusations “very, very prejudicial,” adding that they are “just a rumor, just gossip, complete hearsay. Did it happen? There’s nothing to prove that. For me to allow the defendant to be prejudiced based just on a rumor is not fair.”

Steinglass had argued that his team should be allowed to mention, in general terms, those claims to the jury, to show how Trump reacted to them.

Trump “became almost obsessed with addressing these allegations,” the prosecutor said, because the candidate worried the stories would hurt him with women voters.

“This is really the key, specifically with female voters,” Steinglass argued.

Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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