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Opening statements set for Monday in Trump hush money trial

Opening arguments are scheduled to begin Monday in former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial. AP File Photo

NEW YORK — The final jurors were seated Friday in Donald Trump’s hush money trial , and an appellate judge rejected the former president’s latest bid to halt the case as a hectic day in court set the stage for opening statements to begin Monday.

The panel of New Yorkers who will decide the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president took final shape after lawyers spent days quizzing dozens of potential jurors on whether they can impartially judge Trump in the city where he built his real estate empire before being elected in 2016.

The trial thrusts Trump's legal problems into the heart of his hotly contested race against President Joe Biden, with Trump's opponent likely to seize on unflattering and salacious testimony to make the case that the presumptive Republican nominee is unfit to return as commander in chief.

Trump, meanwhile, is using the prosecution as a political rallying cry, casting himself as a victim while juggling his dual role as criminal defendant and presidential candidate.

Judge Juan Merchan said lawyers will present opening statements Monday morning before prosecutors begin laying out their case alleging a scheme to cover up negative stories Trump feared would hurt his 2016 campaign. He has pleaded not guilty and says the stories were false.

Despite the failure of repeated previous attempts to delay the trial, a Trump attorney was in an appeals court hours after the jury was seated, arguing that Merchan rushed through jury selection and that Trump cannot get a fair trial in Manhattan.

“To think an impartial jury could be found in that period of time, I would respectfully submit, is untenable,” attorney Clifford Robert said.

Justice Marsha Michael denied the request just minutes after a brief hearing.

Back in the trial court, Merchan expressed frustration as Trump's lawyers pressed to revisit a litany of pretrial rulings.

“At some point, you need to accept the court's rulings,” Merchan said. "There’s nothing else to clarify. There’s nothing else to reargue. We’re going to have opening statements on Monday morning. This trial is starting.”

Just after the jury was seated, emergency crews responded to a park outside the courthouse, where a man had set himself on fire. The man took out pamphlets espousing conspiracy theories and spread them around the park before dousing himself in a flammable substance and setting himself aflame, officials said. He was in critical condition Friday afternoon.

Trump has spent the week sitting quietly in the courtroom as lawyers pressed potential jurors on their views about him in a search for any bias that would preclude them from hearing the case. During breaks in the proceedings, he has railed against the case on social media or to TV cameras in the hallway, calling it a politically motivated “witch hunt.”

"This Trial is a Long, Rigged, Endurance Contest, dealing with Nasty, Crooked People, who want to DESTROY OUR COUNTRY,” he wrote Friday on social media.

Over five days of jury selection, dozens of people were dismissed from the jury pool after saying they didn't believe they could be fair. Others expressed anxiety about having to decide such a consequential case with outsized media attention, even though the judge has ruled that jurors' names will be known only to prosecutors, Trump and their legal teams.

One woman who had been chosen to serve on the jury was dismissed Thursday after she raised concerns over messages she said she got from friends and family when aspects of her identity became public. On Friday, another woman broke down in tears while being questioned by a prosecutor about her ability to decide the case based only on evidence presented in court.

“I feel so nervous and anxious right now,” the woman said. “I’m so sorry. I wouldn’t want someone who feels like this to judge my case either. I don’t want to waste the court’s time.”

As more potential jurors were questioned Friday, Trump appeared to lean over at the defense table, scribbling on some papers and exchanging notes with one of his lawyers. He occasionally perked up and gazed at the jury box, including when one would-be juror said he had volunteered in a “get out the vote” effort for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. That man was later excused.

Trump spoke to reporters before Friday's proceedings got underway, lambasting a gag order that prosecutors have accused him of violating. Merchan has scheduled arguments for next week on prosecutors' request to hold Trump in contempt of court and fine him for social media posts they say defy limits on what he can say about potential witnesses.

“The gag order has to come off. People are allowed to speak about me, and I have a gag order,” Trump said.

Merchan also heard arguments Friday on prosecutors' request to bring up Trump’s prior legal entanglements if he takes the witness stand in the hush money case. Trump has said he wants to testify, but he is not required to and can always change his mind.

Manhattan prosecutors have said they want to question Trump about, among other cases, his recent civil fraud trial that resulted in a $454 million judgment after a judge found Trump had lied about his wealth for years. He is appealing that verdict. Merchan said he would rule on the matter in the coming days.

The trial centers on a $130,000 payment that Michael Cohen , Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer, made to porn actor Stormy Daniels to prevent her claims of a sexual encounter with Trump from becoming public in the final days of the 2016 race.

Prosecutors say Trump obscured the true nature of the payments in internal records when his company reimbursed Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2018 and is expected to be a star witness for the prosecution.

Trump has denied having a sexual encounter with Daniels, and his lawyers argue that the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. He could get up to four years in prison if convicted, though it’s not clear that the judge would opt to put him behind bars. Trump would almost certainly appeal any conviction.

Trump is involved in four criminal cases , but it’s not clear that any others will reach trial before the November election. Appeals and legal wrangling have caused delays in the other three cases charging Trump with plotting to overturn the 2020 election results and with illegally hoarding classified documents.

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