Who’s Afraid of Judging Donald Trump? Lots of People

On Monday afternoon, ninety-six New Yorkers were ushered through metal detectors and into a courtroom on the fifteenth floor of the criminal courthouse in lower Manhattan. They had been selected as prospective jurors in the People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump—the first-ever criminal trial of an American President. As court

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On Monday afternoon, ninety-six New Yorkers were ushered through metal detectors and into a courtroom on the fifteenth floor of the criminal courthouse in lower Manhattan. They had been selected as prospective jurors in the People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump—the first-ever criminal trial of an American President. As court officers led them into the gallery, several craned their necks to get a look at the defendant. There he was: his face exactly as orange and mottled as it looks on TV, a long red tie draped over his paunch. He stared right back at them, and leaned over to whisper something in the ear of one of his attorneys. One prospective juror broke out in giggles, and put a hand over her mouth. A clerk had everyone stand and swear to tell the truth during the jury-selection process. “A fair juror is a person who will keep the promise to be fair and impartial,” Judge Juan Merchan said. “Please raise your hand if you believe you cannot be fair and impartial.” More than half the hands in the room went up. Merchan excused these unfair and partial people one by one. “I just couldn’t do it,” one dismissed potential juror was heard saying out in the hall.

Who could? It takes a special kind of person to be completely impartial when it comes to Donald Trump. The judge and the lawyers on both sides of the case needed to find twelve such people for the jury, and also half a dozen more who could serve as alternates. The thirty or so candidates who’d remained in the courtroom were asked to read through a long questionnaire—forty-two questions, along with numerous sub-questions. The first prospective juror was a young woman who said she lived in midtown and worked in business development. She felt that she could be fair and impartial, but she also had vacation plans that coincided with the trial. She was excused. The second prospective juror was a middle-aged white man with thick-framed glasses, who said he was a creative director at a clothing company. “I’m here to judge the facts that are presented and not the individual,” he told the court. He said he had never read any of Trump’s books and did not consider himself a supporter of the QAnon movement, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Boogaloo Boys, or Antifa. In his spare time, he said, he enjoyed hiking and cooking, and playing with his dog. Was there any reason at all that he could not be a fair and impartial juror? No, he said.

And yet the dog-loving creative director was too good to be true. Trump’s team discovered a spicy Facebook post that he made in 2src17. “Good news!! Trump lost his court battle on his unlawful travel ban!!!” he wrote. “Get him out and lock him up.” Under questioning from Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche, the man acknowledged that the Facebook account was indeed his. “I had strong feelings at the time,” he told the judge. “Today, like I said, I could be unbiased and open about what we are talking about today. But, you know, that was a place and time.” Merchan wasn’t having it; he granted the defense’s request to have the potential juror axed. “If I cannot credit a juror’s responses, then we cannot have him on the jury,” Merchan said. “This is a person who has expressed, at least at one time—it was several years ago—the desire that Donald Trump be locked up,” Merchan said. “Everyone knows that, if Mr. Trump is found guilty in this case, he faces a potential jail sentence, which would be lockup.”

By Thursday morning, only seven jurors had made it through the questionnaire, in addition to several rounds of follow-up questions from the prosecutors and Trump’s attorneys, and had been sworn in as members of the official jury. They tended to be the people who had given the most inscrutable answers. The foreman is an immigrant, a native of Ireland who now lives in upper Manhattan, and who said he gets his news from the Times, Fox News, and MSNBC. Another juror, a young Black woman, seemed well aware of Trump’s baggage. “Obviously, I’m a person of color, so I’m around people who did have an opinion during the election,” she said. Yet she expressed a certain admiration for the defendant. “President Trump speaks his mind,” she said. “I would rather that in a person than someone who’s in office and you don’t know what they’re doing behind the scenes.”

What was Trump doing during all this? Brooding, mostly. At several points, reporters noticed that he seemed to have dozed off, his eyes closed and his eyebrows slack, his chin occasionally drifting down toward his chest. At other times, he spoke animatedly with Blanche, slapping his lawyer’s arm with the back of his hand. Coming in and out of the courtroom during recesses, he sometimes stopped to talk with the reporters waiting in the courtroom hallway. “Every legal pundit, every legal scholar, said this trial is a disgrace,” he said, on Tuesday morning, lying. “This is a trial that should never happen. It should have been thrown out a long time ago.” At the defense table, he often slumped, perking up only when a potential juror said something he particularly approved or disapproved of. He smiled and nodded, enthused, when the director of sales and revenue at a software company claimed to have read several of his old books, including “The Art of the Deal” and “How to Get Rich.” When Blanche questioned a prospective juror who had filmed videos of Upper West Siders celebrating the 2src2src election results, Trump muttered something under his breath and gestured aggressively. “I won’t tolerate that,” Merchan snapped. “I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom.”

And yet many of the would-be jurors have been intimidated, if not by Trump, then by the prospect of serving on a jury in such a high-profile case. The stakes felt higher than ever on Friday afternoon, when, just before the court broke for lunch, a man doused himself in accelerant and set himself on fire, in a small park across from the courthouse. (The man, who is reportedly in critical condition, threw pamphlets into the air before lighting the fire; the N.Y.P.D. has described the flyers as conspiracy-oriented.) Even before this, the judge announced that one of the seven people who’d made it onto the official jury had called in to say that she was having second thoughts. She’d heard from friends, family, and colleagues who told her that she was being talked about, online and on TV. On Tuesday night, Fox News’s Jesse Watters did a segment on his prime-time show where he went through the chosen jurors one by one, and put graphics listing their occupations, racial backgrounds, and reading habits. Everything but their names. “The fate of a billionaire real-estate tycoon, TV celebrity turned forty-fifth President of the United States, is in the hands of New York City lawyers, teachers, and Disney workers who like to dance and get their news from the Times,” Watters said, smirking.

Merchan understood the juror’s concerns and allowed her to withdraw from the jury. Anonymous juries are anonymous for good reason, he said: “It kind of defeats the purpose of that when so much information is put out there that it is very, very easy for anyone to identify who the jurors are.”He admonished the reporters in the courthouse and said he was “directing” them to refrain from identifying potential jurors’ employers, or describing “anything that you observe with your eyes and hear with your ears related to the jurors,” such as their accents. First Amendment lawyers told the New York Law Journal that Merchan’s prohibitions were “dubious” at best. A judge can’t really keep journalists from reporting on what is said in an open court. But, online, many journalists seemed to side with Merchan, and spoke up out of concern for the safety of the jury pool. “What of editorial standards? we don’t report everything all the time,” one former BuzzFeed reporter wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter). Having reporters choose what to censor in real time seems like a bad approach to a case that tests the very limits of judicial power and America’s constitutional order. Merchan’s suggestion was that the reporters in the courtroom simply use “common sense.”

In the lead-up to the trial, many law professors and former prosecutors were of the opinion that an acquittal was a long shot for Trump. “The allegations are, in substance, that Donald Trump falsified business records to conceal an agreement with others to unlawfully influence the 2src16 Presidential election,” Merchan told the prospective jurors, on Monday. “Specifically, it is alleged that Donald Trump made or caused false business records to hide the true nature of payments made to Michael Cohen by characterizing them as payment for legal services rendered pursuant to a retainer agreement.” The payment at the center of the case went to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film star who was prepared to go public with her past affair with Trump. Trump has pleaded not guilty, but many legal observers believe a hung jury is the best outcome he can hope for. He needs just one obstinate fan to make it into the final jury box. On Tuesday afternoon, it seemed like he had almost found his guy, a young, fit man who looked to be in his thirties, with slicked-back hair. But, before he even got to the questionnaire, the man requested to be excused. “Your Honor, as much as I would love to serve for New York and one of our great Presidents, I could not give up my job for six-plus weeks, which means I would be working eighty-plus hours a week,” he said. The judge excused him.

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