Updated: An Evolving Explainer of the Trump Hush Money Trial Features
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Updated: An Evolving Explainer of the Trump Hush Money Trial

The 2024 US presidential election will be historic on several fronts. It will be the first rematch between presidential candidates since Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower faced down Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1956. At 81 and 77 respectively, incumbent candidate Joe Biden and his adversary Donald Trump are the oldest major party frontrunners in the history of US presidential elections — a significant factor given that the majority of Americans think both candidates are too old to serve.

And then there are the legal issues.

In the leadup to these elections, Trump became the first former US president to be charged with a crime when he was indicted on 34 counts related to alleged hush money payments he is accused of having made to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The swarm of legal battles surrounding Trump in the leadup to the elections has already presented the US Supreme Court with several novel legal issues, from whether a party’s chosen candidate can be excluded from state primary ballots, to whether a former president can assert official immunity in criminal cases stemming from actions taken while they held office.

This explainer will evolve as substantive developments emerge from Trump’s New York hush money trial. Updates will be tracked at the bottom of this page.

As of the original publication on April 18, 2024, the explainer covers the following:

  1. What Trump stands accused of in this case;
  2. A timeline of key developments in the case thus far;
  3. How potential jurors are being screened for bias given the high-profile nature of the case;
  4. If Trump would still be able to run for president if convicted; and
  5. The other legal battles Trump is fighting ahead of the presidential election.

Editor’s note: In keeping with our goal of prioritizing meaningful developments with a rule of law impact, JURIST plans to cover all of these cases from a substantive perspective but will eschew more sensationalistic coverage.* As such, we will be refraining from covering less relevant details of Trump’s trials. We do, however, believe it is important to track the more consequential developments of the various legal proceedings that could have an impact on the 2024 vote.

What does Trump stand accused of in this case?

Trump is accused of falsifying business records to conceal information with the aim of unlawfully influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The case centers on 34 counts of business record falsification in the first degree, which is a felony.

Prosecutors claim Trump paid hush money to several individuals, including Trump Tower doorman Dino Sajudin, who was allegedly paid $30,000 to cover up details of a child born out of wedlock; Playboy model Karen McDougal, who was allegedly paid $150,000 to cover up details of an alleged romantic affair; and adult film star Stormy Daniels (Stephanie Clifford), who was paid $130,000, also allegedly to cover up an affair.

The 34 documents at issue in the case all pertain to the alleged payouts to Daniels. Trump’s team has endeavored, unsuccessfully, to preclude all testimony from the three individuals named above, due in part to the fact that the documents were all connected with the alleged wrongdoing related to Daniels. In overruling this request, the court reasoned that “the evidence and testimony surrounding these individuals is inextricably intertwined with the narrative of events and is necessary background for the jury.” It did, however, limit the testimony Sajudin and McDougal can provide given the lack of related documents.

The prosecutors claim this was part of a “Catch and Kill Scheme” aimed at suppressing negative information, whereby Trump and associates identified and suppressed potential negative news coverage. In particular, Trump and associates are accused of having worked with American Media, Inc (AMI), a media company that owns several tabloid publications, to pay sources for exclusive access to the stories, thereby preventing the sources from going public via other media outlets. By then refraining from publishing the stories themselves, AMI effectively killed the stories.

The plan crumbled when the Daniels story went public during Trump’s presidency.

A timeline of key developments in the case thus far:

March 30, 2023A New York Grand Jury indicted Trump, laying out 34 counts of business record falsification.
April 4, 2023Trump was arraigned; Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg issued a statement of facts, outlining the substance of the abovementioned 34 counts
February 15, 2024Judge Juan M. Merchan issued an order denying Trump’s motion to dismiss hush money charges
March 26, 2024Merchan issued a gag order restricting Trump from making extrajudicial statements that could sway jurors and witnesses ahead of trial
April 15, 2024Jury selection began
April 19, 2024Jury selection ends with a full 12-members and six alternates empaneled
April 30, 2024Judge Merchan holds Trump in contempt, fines him $9,000 for violating gag order
May 6, 2024Judge Merchan again holds Trump in contempt for violating gag order, fines him again, warns sternly that he could face jail time if violations persist

 Given the high-profile nature of the case, how are potential jurors being screened for bias?

Jury selection started on April 15, 2024, and unsurprisingly, bias has featured prominently in the process. Trump has been among the most divisive presidents in US history. His polarizing communication style and controversial policies have spawned bases of loyal supporters and inflamed detractors. This is compounded by the fact that with presidential election season upon us, media coverage smearing or lauding Trump is inescapable.

A week before selection started, the court released a letter explaining the judge’s protocol for weeding out bias, along with 42 questions potential jurors would be asked during voir dire. The former details the court’s plan to defer to potential jurors’ self-reported biases and to limit the scope of juror questions in order to avoid unnecessary intrusions into their political affiliations and other private matters. The latter includes questions related to news consumption and sources, affiliations with various fringe political groups, and reading preferences.

As of April 19, 2024, a full twelve-member jury with six alternates has been selected.

If convicted would Trump still be able to run for president?

Yes. Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the US Constitution lays out three requirements for would-be presidents:

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States. [Emphasis added]

A criminal conviction would not factor into the eligibility criteria for this office.

What other legal battles is Trump fighting ahead of the presidential election?  

The hush money case is but one of several cases currently pending against Trump in US courts and one of four pending criminal cases against the former president.

Trump was previously issued a gag order in his federal election interference criminal case, which he unsuccessfully challenged before the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. The former president was also given a gag order in his New York civil fraud trial, which a state appeals court also upheld.

This article was first published on April 18, 2024. It was most recently updated on May 7, 2024.

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