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Oral statements in Trump's criminal trail begin this week

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A jury has been selected in the hush money trial of Donald Trump in New York. Opening statements are set to take place tomorrow. The jury of Trump's peers is a cross-section of people from Manhattan, from a former waiter to two people with MBAs. Joining us to discuss the historic first week of the first-ever criminal trial of a former president and what's next is NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Good morning.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: So what were your overall impressions of jury selection?

BERNSTEIN: There was a lot of talk last week in the courtroom about the criminal justice system in America, and how justice should be evenly meted out. But it quickly became apparent that this jury selection was unlike that for any other defendant. So normally, if you have a strong impression of a defendant, you're out. But everybody has a strong impression of Trump, pretty much. So in this case, because hundreds of people came forward right away and said they couldn't be impartial and those people were excused, people who had opinions of Trump did get on the jury. Both people who said they admired him and people who said they disagreed with some of his policies were seated. It was only the people who had really strong views who were excused. So for example, one juror who had called Trump in a social media post, quote, "the devil" was let go. So already, we're on a completely new playing field here.

RASCOE: So tell us a bit more about the jury. Who are they?

BERNSTEIN: So one thing that jumped out at me - many of these jurors are like New Yorkers in that they know Trump in a different way from the rest of the world, from before he was TV star and president and candidate, back from the days when he was a tabloid celebrity and a real estate mogul. So for example, one potential juror said they'd seen Donald Trump and his second wife, Marla Maples, shopping for baby items. One said he knew Trump from the real estate business. The jury is very much like Manhattan - MBAs, lawyers, people who work in fashion, health care, education. Some were not born in the U.S. And there was something kind of moving about this group of 12 citizens sitting in judgment of a former president.

But also, for them, it was clearly an awesome responsibility. This all came crashing down on one potential juror on Friday, who'd gotten pretty far in the process before she tearfully removed herself, saying it was so much more stressful than she thought to potentially sit on the jury of a former president. She just couldn't do it, and so she left.

RASCOE: So what are we looking for tomorrow?

BERNSTEIN: So this is all moving briskly. Jury selection took half the time we thought it would. Tomorrow will be a short day because of the Passover holiday, but still, it's expected that both sides will give their opening statements. And based on what we heard in court on Friday, at least one witness will start testifying. We don't know who that witness will be because the DA is refusing to extend its usual courtesy of alerting the defense because of Trump's propensity to post disparaging comments about some of the witnesses on social media.

Judge Juan Merchan said he will not order the DA to turn over the witness schedule, even only to Trump's lawyers because he doesn't trust the Trump team with that information. He pointed out there is a contempt hearing this week where the DA is accusing Trump of violating his existing gag order not to disparage the witnesses or their families on 10 separate occasions. The DA wants Trump to pay $1,000 for each infraction. So all that said, even though we don't know the order of the witnesses, we're getting a clearer idea of the DA's case.

RASCOE: What have we learned about that?

BERNSTEIN: Over the course of last week, it became sharper and sharper. Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. But in New York, for that to be a felony, there has to be an underlying crime. A year ago, when the Manhattan DA, Alvin Bragg indicted this case, we didn't know exactly what that was, but based on arguments last week, we can tell the DA is going to lay out a case that from the very beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, there was a plan in place to suppress negative stories about Trump.

And then in October of 2016, when the "Access Hollywood" tape was released, the one where Trump said he liked to grab women by the genitals, the campaign started to panic. And that's when the DA says Trump implemented the plan to pay the hush money to Stormy Daniels when she made noises about going public with her story of an extramarital affair. So illegally trying to influence the course of the election is the alleged underlying crime. The alleged cover-up was calling the payments as a legal retainer with Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen. Trump says he did what his lawyer, Cohen, told him to do. In the next six weeks, the jury is going to decide whether they buy that or the evidence the DA has amassed.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thank you so much.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Great to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Andrea Bernstein
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