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The First Criminal Trial of a United States President: Trump’s Hush Money Case

This month marks the first time in United States history that a United States President will be tried in a criminal case. Former President Donald J. Trump was indicted on 34 felony counts in March of 2023 regarding secret payments made to Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 presidential election, and now more than a full year later, his trial has finally begun. But what is this case even on? What felonies are the former president being charged with? And what is a “hush money” payment?


First, let’s start with some essential background information in order to understand this case. All the way back in 2006, it is alleged that Donald Trump had an affair with adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford. These claims are “alleged” since Trump denies the affair with Daniels. Fast forwarding to October right before the 2016 presidential election, Trump’s lawyer at the time, Michael Cohen, paid $130,000 to Daniels in exchange for an agreement to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) regarding her past relationships with the former president. This act is known as a “hush money” payment. The motive behind this hush money payment was to prevent any damaging information regarding Trump’s past relationships from getting leaked to the public and to preserve his reputation all before the 2016 election. 

Cohen’s Reimbursement:

Michael Cohen paid out of his own pocket to fund this payment to Daniels in an effort to conceal the truth behind it. He then expected to be reimbursed and he was reimbursed. Cohen received 12 monthly installments totaling $420,000 from The Trump Organization during the first year of Trump’s presidency. Trump falsely logged these payments as “ongoing legal services” in the continued effort to hide the payments’ real purpose. 


In November 2021, Alvin Bragg was elected Manhattan’s new district attorney and took office on January 1, 2022. The previous district attorney Cyrus Vance had begun to look into hush money payments made to Stormy Daniels in 2018 but failed to bring charges against Trump by the time his term ended. As soon as Bragg took office, he immediately started investigations into Trump and his businesses. In the beginning of 2023, a grand jury had been hearing testimony about the hush money payment and soon after in late March, as stated previously, Donald Trump was indicted on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records stemming from his payment to Daniels. Prosecutors alleged that he had engaged in a “scheme” to boost his election chances during the 2016 presidential race through a series of hush money payments made by others to help his campaign, and then “repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records” to conceal that criminal conduct. Juan Merchan, an acting justice of the New York State Supreme Court in New York County, was set to oversee this case.


In the period of time between the indictment and the start of the trial, Trump and his legal team successfully pushed back the start date of the trial multiple times. After getting it pushed all the way to April 2024, Trump’s lawyers continued to make numerous efforts to delay the start date, which was set for April 15. However, all of these attempts failed as they were blocked by Judge Merchan and multiple appellate courts. Additionally in this time period, Donald Trump had a gag order placed on him by Judge Merchan before the trial began. This gag order prohibited the former president from attacking witnesses, jurors, and others involved in the case. Nonetheless, the order has been proven ineffective as Trump continues to openly violate it. 


The People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump officially began on April 15, 2024. Proceedings are held four days a week, on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. The general rule is that the defendant must be personally present during the trial, which Judge Merchan is upholding for Trump. This expectation differs from Trump’s previous civil fraud case in which he was not required to be in attendance. Legal experts expect this trial to last anywhere from six to eight weeks. The trial’s third week is coming to an end so here’s what has happened so far. Jury selection took up the overwhelming majority of the trial’s first week as 12 jurors and 6 reserve jurors needed to be questioned, examined, and finally approved upon in order to be seated. Although this might seem like it would be a straightforward process, there were, however, a few hiccups along the way. Multiple already-seated jurors were excused for posing conflicts of interest, which set the case back slightly. The trial’s second week began with opening arguments from both sides and saw key witnesses being called up to the stand for questioning. Now in the third week, Judge Merchan has held Trump in contempt of court for the multiple violations of his gag order. Trump has been fined a total of $9,000, $1,000 per violation. Merchan then threatened him with jail time if the violations continued. Specialists in this legal field predict that even if found guilty, Trump would not receive prison time, or at least not the time that accompanies the felonies, considering he is a first-time offender and the former president of the United States. 

As the trial unfolds, the eyes of the nation remain fixed on this unprecedented and crucial moment in American history.