Trump’s historic trial starts this month. Here’s what will happen

This is the month Donald Trump goes to trial. As far as criminal trials before the November presidential election, this could be it.

With his other cases engulfed in uncertainty, this single criminal trial, the first in history of a former U.S. president, might saddle Trump with an unwanted label entering the election: convicted felon.

It’s an unanticipated twist for a case routinely described as the least serious among the four confronting Trump.

He’s accused here of falsifying business records to hide payments to silence a porn star about their affair, and the felony charges hinge on a key accusation: that the scheme violated state and federal election laws in 2016.

Suddenly, it could become the most politically salient case in American history. His trial on 34 New York state felony charges begins April 15.

While polls are not prophecy, several surveys suggest a criminal conviction could hurt Trump in a close election, costing him at least a few percentage points.

“The irony is this is the smallest charge — the most insignificant charge against President Trump,” said Tim Bakken, a law professor at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point.

To get a sense of what lies ahead, CBC News spoke with five experts on New York’s criminal justice system, some of whom have dealt personally with Juan Merchan, the judge in Trump’s case, and who know the lawyers involved.

The bottom line? 

A verdict by summer is highly likely; a conviction is possible. But don’t count on jail time, most say, and the appeals process could last well into the next presidency.

Police set up metal barriers outside columned building
Selecting a jury will take days. The challenge: Finding 12 jurors and several alternates capable of remaining impartial toward Donald Trump. Seen here, police set up barriers before Trump’s civil fraud trial in New York last year. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Jury selection

The court will hear pre-trial motions. For instance, Trump could try moving the trial to the suburbs to get a more conservative jury pool outside deep blue Manhattan

That gambit wouldn’t work, predicts Cynthia Godsoe, a Canadian American professor at Brooklyn Law School who was on Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg’s transition team. Manhattan is where Trump lived and where the alleged events happened.

The court will then face an unusual challenge: finding a jury capable of being impartial when it comes to Donald Trump.

“Everybody’s got an opinion on the guy,” said Mark Cohen, who has been a criminal prosecution and defence lawyer since 1985, at the federal and state level.

“Can you be fair and impartial?” That’s what matters, he said. 

However, in his view, that won’t be too hard to find.

Jury selection will take a week or less, he said. Julie Rendelman, another criminal defence lawyer, put it at one or two weeks.

New York’s rules will keep the process from dragging on. For a low-level felony, like this one, each side can only veto 10 jurors without cause.

Jurors would be asked for their feelings about Trump and the 2020 election, and how much they’ve already read about the case. They could also get a written questionnaire.

Scores of potential jurors will be invited into the courtroom, questioned in batches and ultimately whittled down to 12, with up to six alternates. 

Trump talking in hallway
Trump has been allowed to hold news conferences outside his other court appearances where he insults New York legal authorities. Will this get him in trouble during the trial? (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The trial

The trial is expected to last about six weeks, and will not be televised. So no inside-the-court scenes of the likely witnesses, including Trump’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, and his one-time paramour, Stormy Daniels.

Trump has insulted those witnesses, and the judge. Last week, the judge issued a gag order preventing him from commenting on witnesses, jurors and court staff.

Then Trump blasted the gag order, and the judge.

If he keeps this up, analysts say he could draw penalties — for himself or even his lawyers.

The punishment for contempt of court is anything from a fine to jail time, said Godsoe; to avoid making Trump a martyr, the judge might opt to fine or censure his lawyers, who are ultimately responsible for controlling their client.

“There’s a reason so many lawyers have quit working for [Trump],” she said. “He’s really a problematic client.”

It’s been gobsmacking to lawyers who practise in that Manhattan courthouse, Cohen said, watching Trump be allowed to trash the justice system during his civil trials. 

“We’re sort of scratching our heads,” Cohen said. “There’s not another defendant in the world that [court administrators] would allow to stand there and pontificate. It’s unprecedented.”

Trump will be dealing with a tough judge. Cohen said he’s butted heads with Merchan in the past.

“He’s got a prosecutorial bent,” he said. “They’re up against a judge who doesn’t play.”

Rendelman concurred: “He demands respect. Merchan is not going to tolerate bad behaviour inside the court.”

There should be a verdict by mid-June.

Man with dark glasses, grey hair, in shirtsleeves and turquoise tie
Juan Merchan is the judge presiding over Trump’s case. The Colombian-born jurist has been described as tough. He has already issued a gag order, ordering Trump not to insult parties in the case. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Assuming the jury reaches a verdict, a former New York state prosecutor predicts a guilty one.

“In my opinion, it looks like a slam dunk for the prosecutor,” said Bennett Gershman, now a law professor at New York’s Pace University.

Some legal analysts disagree on the case’s strength. Some call it unfair to base the felony charges on the idea that Trump was concealing election-disclosure crimes, when he was never charged with those election crimes.

Trump is expected to argue two things: One, that his motive for paying Daniels was to avoid personal embarrassment, not to help him get elected. Second, that he left it up to his assistants to work out the details of the hush-money payments. 

“The charges are surprising,” Bakken said.

New York authorities cast the charge as standard, saying they’ve applied this falsification-of-records crime hundreds of times

Cohen knows the statute well. He’s both prosecuted and defended people for it. His take: it’s a legitimate charge.

“[Trump’s] in peril over it,” he said. “And I think the way he’s acting tells you he knows that.”

Man in Trump mask and orange prison jumpsuit, behind makeshift bars
Trump in prison? Highly unlikely in this case, say most legal analysts. Seen here: a protester outside the Manhattan courthouse in 2021. (Angus Mordant/Reuters)

The sentence

If he’s found guilty, Trump will report for an interview with a probation officer, who will write a pre-sentencing report. 

The range of potential penalties is vast — anything from probation, to a maximum four-year sentence for each of the 34 charges. 

Sometime in the summer or fall, usually 30 to 90 days after the verdict, the judge would render a sentence.

Trump would almost certainly be free during this period. In fact, he’s very unlikely to receive jail time at all, most analysts believe.

“He is not Bernie Madoff,” Godsoe said, referring to the Ponzi scheme swindler.

Bakken and Rendelman also predicted a non-prison sentence, based on Trump’s age, his lack of a record and the severity of the crime.

There’s a caveat. If Trump decides to testify, and lies, or if he lies to the probation officer, that could influence the judge, the analysts said. 

“[Jail is] highly unlikely. But possible,” Cohen said. Trump could be given what Cohen called “a taste of jail” — a short sentence.

Even then, he said, the sentence could be held in obeisance. Meaning delayed, until after the next presidential term ends in 2029. 

Breaking with the majority view, Gershman said, “I would predict he’ll be sent for some time in prison.”

Scene of Trump taking the oath of office in 2017, with hand held aloft as he swears on a bible
If Trump wins the election, the appeals process would be dragging on well after his swearing-in on Jan. 20, 2025. Here he is taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The appeal

If convicted, Trump would have 30 days to appeal. By that point, it would be close to election day. And the appeals process could drag on. And on. Past the election, and well into the next presidential term.

“You could grow Rip Van Winkle’s beard in the time an appeals process is done in New York,” Cohen said. 

He says it could take a couple of years. The appellate court could speed things up a bit, as it did just recently in handling Trump’s fine in a civil fraud case.

But the standard timeline, Bakken said, is a year-long process in an intermediate appellate court, then another year in the higher appellate court. He could also try appealing on constitutional grounds at the federal level, up to the Supreme Court. 

If Trump is elected president, his term would likely be over by then. 

People clashing at US Capitol
Trump faces other, more serious charges, in three other cases. All three face uncertain timelines. Two are federal cases. One is based in Georgia. Two involve his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, which culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Is this it?

Whatever happens, we’re about to witness history.

Gershman called it a momentous test for the American political system. He worries about possible violence in the street. 

“We may be facing a catastrophic moment in our country’s history,” he said. “We’re in a time the framers of our Constitution, never in their wildest nightmares, ever conceived of.”

As for the other cases, Cohen is more bullish than some that a federal trial will happen this year. He doubts Trump will succeed at delaying both federal cases — one involving efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and the other for hoarding public documents. 

“At some point, one’s luck does run out.”

But a former U.S. attorney general appeared to downplay the idea. It will be up to ordinary voters, not the legal system, to decide Trump’s political fate, said Eric Holder, who served under Barack Obama.

After the Supreme Court appeared to slow down Trump’s 2020 election-overturning case, potentially imperilling it, he tweeted this.

“There is no cavalry coming. No miracle solution.

“We are the cavalry.”

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