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At Trump’s N.Y. trial, the jury pool spoke, and he had to listen

NEW YORK — The retired police photographer in the jury pool on the second day of Donald Trump’s criminal trial was visibly nervous, at times meandering in his answers. But when a defense attorney asked if he had a strong opinion of Trump, the man offered an immediate response.

“Oh boy, here we go,” the man said. “Going back to Central Park, I knew some of the kids, their cousins.”

The reference had nothing to do with Trump’s divisive presidency. The man, who is Black, was instead alluding to a shocking 1989 New York City rape case. Shortly after five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested and identified as suspects in the brutal assault on a jogger, Trump paid for full-page newspaper ads calling for New York to reinstate the death penalty. The five teens were fully exonerated years later, but Trump has repeatedly suggested he still believes they were guilty.

The jury selection process for Trump’s hush money trial created something akin to a national focus group — albeit with a New York accent — giving ordinary Americans a chance to offer their opinions and reflections on the former president’s nearly five decades in the public spotlight.

As prosecutors and the defense team sought to weed out those with prejudiced views of Trump, one of the most polarizing figures in U.S. political history, a familiar dynamic was suddenly reversed. Ordinary New Yorkers who had for years listened to Trump talk about others were there to talk about him, and he was forced to listen — from a seat at the 15th-floor Manhattan courtroom’s defense table.

As prospective jurors criticized him, Trump sat, arms crossed, staring at them. When Trump muttered toward one female juror, New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan admonished him for trying to intimidate her.

The prospective jurors spanned a range of neighborhoods — West Village to Hell’s Kitchen to West Harlem — and professions — lawyers, nurses, municipal employees.

The most opinionated never got a chance to opine; roughly half of the nearly 200 prospective jurors called to the courtroom over the first week told Merchan that they could not be fair and impartial, and the judge excused them from the jury pool.

Some New Yorkers who stayed expressed strong opinions. A man who immigrated from Italy compared Trump to disgraced former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi — who was convicted of tax fraud in 2012 — before being excused from the jury pool.

“It would be a little hard for me to retain my impartiality and fairness,” the man said.

Others offered a range of impressions about Trump’s career, while insisting their views would not affect their ability to judge him fairly.

“I have got opinions. I’m born and raised in New York and I’ve kind of spent my whole life knowing about Donald Trump,” said a retired university administrator who told the court she once ran into Trump and then-wife Marla Maples as they shopped for baby supplies. The woman said her cousin once lived in Trump Tower in Midtown.

Though she professed to have heard positive things about Trump, she told Trump’s lawyers: “How I feel about him as a president is different.”

Some of the New Yorkers appeared to have nuanced views. Several had read, “The Art of the Deal,” Trump’s best-selling (and ghostwritten) first book about how to succeed in business, a tome that offered such nuggets as: “Bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells.”

“I found it entertaining,” a middle-aged man who works in real estate development said about the book. The same man told prosecutors that, although his firm had never done business deals with the Trump Organization, he was “sort of an admirer from afar of some of the work.”

A lifelong New Yorker who works in law enforcement said he had a fondness for Trump because “as a wannabe hockey player, I still thank him for fixing that Wollman Rink that nobody couldn’t fix.”

He was referring to a once-dilapidated Central Park ice skating rink that Trump’s company took over from the city and renovated into a popular attraction.

A man who had worked as an attorney said he has mixed views on Trump’s political opinions. But he expressed a more definitive view of Trump’s reality television career.

“I was a big fan of ‘The Apprentice’ when I was in middle school,” the man said, referring to the show that debuted two decades ago in which business people competed to impress Trump, who played a version of himself as a ruthless mogul for 14 seasons.

Trump’s celebrity raises the stakes of jury selection for both the prosecution and defense, jury consultants said. In cases with well-known defendants, even jurors who claim they can be impartial sometimes have ingrained views that can be difficult to overcome.

Nearly everyone in America knows Trump’s name, and his defense lawyers worry that many potential jurors in heavily Democratic Manhattan might be unwilling to express their full opinions of him in open court, a person familiar with the former president’s legal strategy who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Washington Post.

Trump’s early reputation as a larger-than-life New York personality was largely forged by his regular appearances in the tabloid gossip columns, the Rev. Al Sharpton, a fellow New Yorker, said in an interview. Trump’s business and dating exploits were closely chronicled, often through tips to reporters from Trump himself.

“A lot of it was made by the tabloids. He became a tabloid figure,” said Sharpton, who has battled with Trump on civic issues. “A guy once told me from one of the tabloids, if you get [former New York mayor] Ed Koch or Donald Trump or even me, someone controversial, that’s what sells papers.”

Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, who consulted for O.J. Simpson’s defense team during his 1995 murder trial, said a majority of potential jurors in that case held positive views of the former football star, who died this month. Simpson was ultimately acquitted in the highly publicized trial.

Some viewed Simpson negatively because he had been repeatedly accused of domestic violence, she said, but “by far the most vocalized opinion was, ‘I used to watch him play USC football games and thought he was a funny actor. He’s done so well for the football community.’”

In Trump’s case, Dimitrius said, those who will sit in judgment bring “a compendium of all the knowledge New Yorkers have about him.” She emphasized that the prosecution and defense must compare the prospective jurors’ answers in court with any past statements they made about Trump on social media “to ascertain, ‘Is this person being honest? Are they hiding something?’”

Trump’s defense team worked with a jury consultant to review the social media histories of potential jurors who made it to the question-and-answer portion of the selection process. Trump’s lawyers also paid close attention to potential jurors’ body language as they spoke about the former president, said the person with knowledge of the defense team’s strategy.

On Thursday, one woman professed that she didn’t have “strong opinions” about Trump and could be fair. But she later conceded under sharp questioning that she her views were, in fact, pronounced.

“He seems very selfish and self-serving,” the woman said during questioning by Trump’s lawyers. “I don’t really appreciate that from any public servant.”

Trump’s lead attorney, Todd Blanche, cited online posts, some dating back more than five years, to challenge potential jurors’ ability to be impartial.

In some instances, Blanche was successful, persuading Merchan to strike one man for a 2017 Facebook post in which he had written: “Good news!! Trump lost his court battle on his unlawful travel ban!!! Get him out and lock him up.”

Another prospective juror had posted an artificial intelligence-generated deepfake video in which Trump appears to repeatedly call himself “dumb as f—.” The man insisted he could be fair, saying it was “just something that I reposted. What I think of the defendant outside of this room has nothing to do with the merits of the case.”

Merchan dismissed him.

Another juror was presented with old social media posts she wrote, one calling Trump a “racist, sexist and narcissist.”

“Oops, that sounds bad,” she conceded after seeing the post, before promising to be fair. She was dismissed in what Merchan deemed a “close call.”

At other times, however, the judge rejected defense team arguments that anti-Trump posts from prospective jurors’ family members should reflect on them. Merchan said other posts amounted to political satire that does not connote bias.

Merchan denied a defense team’s challenge against one woman who had posted videos of New Yorkers celebrating Trump’s 2020 election loss to Joe Biden. The woman told the court she was documenting “a New York City celebratory moment.”

Other prospective jurors spoke approvingly of Trump’s bombastic rhetorical style. Though Trump has attacked Merchan and District Attorney Alvin Bragg, leading the judge to issue a partial gag order, some in the jury pool said they appreciated Trump’s lack of filter.

A Black woman who said she avoids political conversations told the court: “President Trump speaks his mind and I’d rather [have] that than someone who’s in office who you don’t know what they’re thinking.”

A grandfather who came to New York from Puerto Rico seemed intrigued by Trump, calling him “fascinating and mysterious.” Trump “walks into a room and he sets people off, one way or another,” the man said. “I find that really interesting.”

Blanche seemed at a loss over how to interpret his views. “All right, thank you,” he said.

The grandfather was later selected as one of 12 jurors for the trial.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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