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Former President Donald Trump's hush money trial began today

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The first criminal trial in U.S. history against a former president is now underway. Former President Trump faces 34 felony counts alleging that he falsified New York business records in order to conceal damaging information ahead of the 2016 presidential election. NPR's Andrea Bernstein was in the courthouse today and joins us now from outside that courthouse. Hey, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

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CHANG: So I saw that Trump appeared in court today. He took his seat at the defense table. I mean, what was that like to watch?

BERNSTEIN: So that image has by now become commonplace. But Trump's stature as a criminal defendant on trial was really thrown into relief when Judge Juan Merchan told him, quote, "you have the right to be present during the trial, but you can lose that right if you disrupt the proceedings in any way. The court permits me to expel you and send you to jail." Judge Merchan then asked Trump if this and two other - if he understood this and two other conditions. And Trump said quietly, yes. That was basically all he said in court today.

And just to underline this, Trump won't be out on the campaign trail during the day. On trial days, he'll be here in this kind of dingy courthouse in Lower Manhattan, listening to testimony about his alleged illegal effort to alter the outcome of the 2016 campaign by suppressing information about an extramarital sexual encounter. At the end of the day today, the judge told Trump he can't attend Supreme Court arguments next week in another case because he is a criminal defendant here.

CHANG: Right. OK. So jury selection started today. How did that go?

BERNSTEIN: So though the case was called for 9:30 in the morning, the first group of 96 potential jurors didn't even get through security and sworn in until about 2:30 this afternoon. When some of the jurors entered the courtroom, they seemed to be craning their necks to get a look at Trump. The questioning began with Judge Merchan asking the jurors if they could not be fair and impartial - more than half said they could not and were excused. Nine others said they couldn't serve for other reasons, leaving just a third of the initial group. Then jurors were asked questions about their lives and to say if they'd worked for or against Trump. Only nine jurors got through that initial vetting before a court was adjourned. They will be questioned further.

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CHANG: OK. So if jury selection didn't happen until well into the afternoon, what happened in the morning? Curious.

BERNSTEIN: So the two sides argued about what evidence could be introduced, and it was actually pretty enlightening. Quite a bit of information came to light about the case that the DA intends to present. Basically, the action takes place beginning in October of 2016. The Washington Post was getting ready to release the "Access Hollywood" tape, where Trump says he likes to grab women by the genitals. Trump's team called this - you probably remember locker room talk.

CHANG: Right.

BERNSTEIN: But we learned today the DA has internal Trump campaign emails that show a rising panic. And this is when Stormy Daniels begins to make noises about telling her story publicly. Assistant District Attorney Josh Steinglass said today Daniels was, quote, "living proof the defendant wasn't all talk."

CHANG: Well, you know, Andrea, in the last two Trump trials, I know that Trump had a bit of a hard time keeping quiet in the courtroom. I'm just wondering. How was he today?

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BERNSTEIN: He was mostly quiet, but there was also a great deal of discussion about intimidation of witnesses outside the courtroom, starting when he called Michael Cohen rat about five years ago and up into today, when Trump reposted a New York Post story calling Cohen, quote, "a serial perjurer." The DA alleged, actually, that Trump had violated his gag order three times by disparaging witnesses, and it wants a $1,000 fine for each incident. The judge said he'll hold a hearing on that next week. And the trial is expected to last probably until June.

CHANG: That is NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thank you, Andrea.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrea Bernstein
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