Former President Donald Trump addresses the media outside of a hearing on his felony hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on Feb. 15, 2024.
Former President Donald Trump addresses the media outside of a hearing on his felony hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on Feb. 15, 2024.ANGELA WEISS/Getty Images
  • Prosecutors and Donald Trump's lawyers sparred over potential jury questions in his hush-money case.
  • Trump lawyers don't want prospective jurors asked if they think Trump won the 2020 election.
  • The former president appeared to bond with Jeffrey Toobin.

Lawyers for former President Donald Trump tried to shape the questions prospective jurors would be asked in advance of his Manhattan criminal case next month, asking a judge Thursday to omit questions about whether they believe the 2020 election was rigged and if they watch programs from far-right commentators including Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson.

Todd Blanche, the lead attorney representing Trump in the case, said that jurors should not be asked whether they believe the 2020 election — which Trump lost to now-President Joe Biden — was "stolen."

"Over half the population of this country believes the election was stolen," Blanche complained.

(A December 2023 poll found that about 30% of voters believe Trump really won the 2020 election.)

Joshua Steinglass, a lawyer at the Manhattan district attorney's office, said any prospective jurors who believe Biden didn't actually win the 2020 election should be excluded from serving on the jury.

Anyone who believes that Steinglass said, might "blindly follow" whatever Trump says in the case and may not follow the judge's instructions.

"An affirmative answer here demonstrates an unwillingness to follow the facts and kind of blindly follow statements that have been made by the defendant," Steinglass said.

New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, the judge who will preside over the trial, did not immediately say which questions jurors would ultimately be asked. He stressed that jurors couldn't be dismissed for cause because of their political affiliation.

"The issue is if the juror can be impartial and can reach a verdict consistent with the facts and the law," Merchan said.

The grand jury indictment from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg alleges Trump falsified business records related to hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels. Ahead of the 2016 election, Trump sought to keep Daniels — an adult film actor whose real name is Stephanie Clifford — quiet about an affair she says she had with him.

Thursday's hearing establishes the hush-money case as the first of Trump's four criminal cases to go to trial, with jury selection beginning on March 25. It will also be the first time a former president has ever sat for a criminal trial.

Blanche made a last-ditch attempt to push the trial back. He complained that Trump had a busy campaign schedule and too many other criminal trials to deal with. He also said that the media was "saturated" with reports following a jury verdict in Manhattan federal court last month ordering Trump to pay more than $80 million to E. Jean Carroll for defaming her when he called her a liar after she accused him of sexual abuse.

Merchan refused to move the trial date.

Some of the Manhattan district attorney's office proposals for juror questions were adapted from US District Judge Lewis Kaplan's questions in E. Jean Carroll's trial, Steinglass said, which would help eliminate unfair juror bias. Blanche asked Merchan to take a fresh look at the questions jurors should be asked.

"We do think the court should indeed reinvent the wheel to the extent that Judge Kaplan asked certain questions that we object to," Blanche said.

Former Pres. Donald Trump attends a hearing in his felony hush money case in Manhattan on Feb. 15, 2024.
Former Pres. Donald Trump attends a hearing in his felony hush money case in Manhattan on Feb. 15, 2024.Getty Images

Donald Trump winked at Jeffrey Toobin for some reason

Blanche and Steinglass wrestled over questions about the jurors' media diets as well. One draft of a question posed to jurors would ask them to identify which media outlets they watch, read, or listen to on a long list of publications and shows that span a wide ideological spectrum. Prosecutors wanted to include specific programs from Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, and Sean Hannity on the list. Blanche said prosecutors were just trying to add "some extraordinarily conservative shows" just to identify jurors who may be pro-Trump.

Steinglass also said prospective jurors should be asked if they were members of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Antifa, or another extremist group to eliminate anyone who opposed "the system" on "one side or the other," while Blanche said there was "no need to inject these names" into the proceedings.

In court Thursday, Trump addressed members of the media before hallway cameras, decrying the proceedings as politically motivated and illegitimate.

Walking into the courtroom, he seemed relatively upbeat. He wagged his finger at legal commentator Jeffrey Toobin — who left his jobs at the New Yorker and CNN after reportedly masturbating on camera during a Zoom call — who was sitting in an aisle seat.

During the two-hour hearing, Trump appealed calm, talking quietly to his lawyers Blanche and Susan Necheles as they made various arguments in the hearing. He didn't interrupt, make any loud declarations about unfairness, or mutter audibly as he did during the Carroll trial in January.

As he left the courtroom, Trump gave Toobin a wink. Toobin laughed.

Aside from the Manhattan indictment, Trump has three other pending criminal cases.

The Washington, DC-based case from Justice Department Special Counsel Jack Smith, over Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, was initially scheduled to go to trial in early March. Trump has argued that he is immune to prosecution, and the trial has been put on hold as the US Supreme Court weighs the question.

Trump's two other criminal cases — one from Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, also over election interference, and another one from Smith, in Florida, over his handling of government records — are expected to go to trial later in 2024 or in 2025.

Last year, Trump went through a three-month civil trial in Manhattan for a case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James. Her office had alleged that the Trump Organization misrepresented its property values to fraudulently obtain beneficial tax, loan, and insurance rates. New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron, who oversaw the bench trial, is expected to render a verdict in the case on Friday.

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