12 Jurors in Trump Hush Money Trial Will Decide a Former President’s Fate

At 4:34 p.m. on Thursday, a jury of 12 citizens was selected to determine the fate of an indicted former president for the first time in American history, a moment that could shape the nation’s political and legal landscapes for generations to come.

The dozen New Yorkers will sit in judgment of Donald J. Trump, the 45th president turned criminal defendant, who has been accused of falsifying records to cover up a sex scandal. If the jurors convict Mr. Trump, he could face up to four years in prison, even as he seeks to reclaim the White House as the presumptive Republican nominee.

“We have our jury,” Justice Juan M. Merchan proclaimed as the 12th juror was added.

He then swore the seven men and five women to an oath that they would render a fair and impartial verdict, which they accepted with sober expressions as Mr. Trump stared from the defense table. The jurors could hear opening arguments as soon as Monday.

The selection of the 12 capped a seesaw day in which the judge first excused two people who had been seated earlier in the week, and then hours later replaced them with two new faces and more.

The moment was both routine and never before seen, an act performed every day in courthouses around the country, but never for a former president, a symbol and source of the nation’s political divide.

Mr. Trump, under the Constitution, is entitled to a fair trial by a jury of his peers. And yet he is peerless, a singular force in American politics who was twice impeached and brought democracy to the brink when he refused to accept his election defeat.

Now, just as he bent the political world to his will, Mr. Trump is testing the limits of the American justice system, assailing the integrity of jury and judge alike. His attacks have emboldened his base, and might well resonate more broadly on the campaign trial.

But it will be the 12 men and women of the jury — in Mr. Trump’s hometown — who will first decide his fate, before millions more do so at the polls.

The jury’s makeup and the security of its members will be central to the landmark case. Mr. Trump claims he cannot receive a fair trial in one of the nation’s most Democratic counties, a place where he is deeply unpopular, though some of the jurors who ultimately landed on the panel praised him.

One man said during the selection that he believed the former president had done some good for the country, adding, “it goes both ways.” Another juror, in a possible first for the country, said he didn’t have an opinion on Mr. Trump.

The final 12 were a collection of Manhattanites as eclectic as the city itself. They are Black, Asian, white, male, female, middle-aged and young, including one woman in her first job out of college. They work in finance, education, health care and the law. And they live, among other places, in Harlem, Chelsea, the Upper East Side and Murray Hill.

One alternate was also picked before court adjourned. The judge plans to conclude jury selection on Friday, when the lawyers will select the remaining five alternates.

The long day got off to an inauspicious start as Justice Merchan excused the two jurors, including a woman who had developed concerns about her identity being revealed. That fear, she added, might compromise her fairness and “decision-making in the courtroom,” prompting the judge to excuse her.

The precise reason the judge dismissed the other juror was not clear, but prosecutors had raised concerns about the credibility of answers he had given to questions about himself. Asked outside the courthouse whether he believed he should have been dismissed, the man, who declined to give his name, replied, “Nope.”

The dismissals underscored the intense pressure of serving on this particular panel. Jurors are risking their safety and their privacy to sit in judgment of a former commander in chief who is now their fellow citizen, a heavy responsibility that could unnerve even the most seen-it-all New Yorkers.

During jury selection, prospective members are routinely excused by the dozens. And once a trial formally begins, it is not unheard-of to lose a juror for reasons such as illness or violating a judge’s order not to read about the proceeding. But losing two in one day, before opening arguments even began, was unusual — one of many small ways in which this trial will stand apart.

The ousters appeared to rankle the judge, who has striven to keep the trial on schedule. He said he thought the woman who declined to serve would have “been a very good juror.”

Although the judge has kept prospective jurors’ names private, they disclosed their employers and other identifying information in open court. But Justice Merchan instructed reporters to no longer divulge prospective jurors’ current or past employers, a decision that some media law experts questioned.

Inside a chilly courtroom on Thursday, as lawyers on both sides scrutinized a new round of prospective jurors, Mr. Trump stared intently at the jury box and prodded his lawyers, prompting one, Todd Blanche, to shake his head in response.

Already this week, the judge has admonished Mr. Trump for his comments about jurors, warning him not to intimidate anyone in the courtroom.

And the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which accused Mr. Trump of falsifying the records to hide a hush-money deal with a porn star, on Thursday renewed a request that Justice Merchan hold Mr. Trump in contempt of court after he recently reposted attacks on prospective jurors on social media.

The prosecutors have argued that Mr. Trump violated a gag order in the case 10 times, and the judge said he would consider the request next week, when he weighs a related effort to penalize the former president for attacks on witnesses in the case.

Mr. Trump constantly tests the boundaries of the gag order. His political allies, who are not covered by the order, routinely attack the judge and his family. And now, they are attacking the impartiality of the jury.

In early March, Justice Merchan issued an order prohibiting the public disclosure of jurors’ names, while allowing legal teams and the defendant to know their identities.

But before the trial, Mr. Trump’s lawyers requested that potential jurors not be told that the jury would be anonymous unless they expressed concerns. Justice Merchan said that he would “make every effort to not unnecessarily alert the jurors” to this secrecy, merely telling jurors that they would be identified in court by a number.

After the two jurors were excused Thursday, selection continued as lawyers on both sides vetted potential replacements in a courtroom so drafty that even the former president was compelled to acknowledge it, asking reporters, “Cold enough for you?”

Some prospective jurors opted out, acknowledging they might not be fair to Mr. Trump.

One potential juror who was dismissed said he was from Italy and noted that the Italian media had pushed comparisons between Mr. Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, the country’s former prime minister, a media magnate caught up in sex scandals.

“It would be a little hard for me to retain my impartiality and fairness,” he said.

The potential jurors were all questioned about their politics, media diets and views on Mr. Trump. The lawyers were then expected to scrutinize them for any signs of bias, including old social media posts about the former president.

One prospective juror, who had a long career in law enforcement, seemed unlikely to have made any problematic posts. He disclosed that he only had a flip phone.

“And therefore I do not watch any podcasts,” he says, eliciting laughter from the courtroom on an otherwise tense day.

The prosecution used one of its challenges to oust that juror, who “as a wannabe hockey player” had also complimented Mr. Trump on the skating rink his company used to operate in Central Park. It used another to dismiss a man who said he had been “impressed” with the path the former president forged.

The defense ousted several additional potential jurors, including a woman who once stayed overnight at the home of one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers. Justice Merchan had declined to remove her himself at the request of that lawyer, Susan Necheles, even though Ms. Necheles said the woman’s presence was “awkward.”

The judge removed a woman who had assailed Mr. Trump on social media as a “racist sexist narcissist.” When she reread the posts in court on Thursday, the potential juror added, “Oops. That sounds bad.” She later apologized for the tone of her posts.

One woman who expressed skepticism about Mr. Trump made it onto the jury. She said that she didn’t have strong opinions about Mr. Trump, but added, “I don’t like his persona. How he presents himself in public.”

She then went on, though, “I don’t like some of my co-workers, but I don’t try to sabotage their work,” drawing laughter from the jury box.

Nate Schweber, Maggie Haberman, Wesley Parnell and Matthew Haag contributed reporting.

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