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A few questions as Trump’s first criminal trial begins

Former President Trump’s first criminal trial is set to begin Monday in New York.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. He denies all charges.

The underlying events revolve around hush money payments made to porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the closing days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Daniels and McDougal say they had sexual relationships with Trump, which he again denies.

Trump’s legal team has tried several times to postpone the trial further, but those efforts appear to have run out of road.

Here are the big questions that loom now.

How big a spectacle will Trump create?

New York law requires Trump to be present throughout the trial.

The proceedings are expected to last around six weeks, running every weekday except Wednesday. The trial will not be televised, and photographers will have only very brief access to the courtroom each day.

Trump is the first former president to be charged with a crime. He could calculate that his interests lie in creating as large and dramatic a spectacle as possible.

The former president has approached previous court appearances this way, on at least one occasion posting a video from his motorcade as he traveled to an arraignment in New York.

Trump is virtually certain to hold impromptu press conferences on a regular basis. He will assert — as he always does — that this case and the others he faces are part of a politicized effort to hobble his 2024 candidacy.

There is, of course, a market for this among Trump’s stalwart supporters in the MAGA movement.

But his fiery pronouncements, repeated over the weeks of the trial, might hold less appeal for uncommitted voters.

Will Team Trump seek further delay — or try to get it over with?

The schedule for the trial has one obvious impact on the presidential campaign — it curtails the amount of time Trump has available to hit the campaign trail.

Right now, that may not be a massive problem. Trump could still hold campaign rallies on weekends — and those events might engender even more interest than usual in the middle of his trial. The presidential race is not yet at a point where either he or President Biden would be expected to be on the stump seven days a week.

Still, once the trial process begins with jury selection Monday, Trump might want to get it all over without delay.

It’s true that he has tried to stall all his cases. But that effort’s been about trying to push all trials — and therefore all the verdicts — past the date of the election. The chances of him achieving that goal in New York appear very small at this point.

The choice then is a binary one: Trump will be found guilty or acquitted.

A guilty verdict would plainly be very damaging. But, from Trump’s perspective, it would be a bit less bad if such a verdict arrived months before voters were actually pulling the lever.

An acquittal could be used by Trump to suggest that all the cases against him are flimsy. 

Can prosecutors prove a felony?

The offense with which Trump is charged is usually a misdemeanor rather than a felony. But it can fall into the latter category when prosecutors contend, as they do here, that a defendant cooked the books as part of another crime.

The case being made by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) and his team is that Trump falsified business records in order to conceal breaches of state and federal election law.

Some facts are undisputed: Trump’s then-fixer and attorney Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 shortly before the 2016 election to keep her claims of having had sex with Trump a decade earlier out of the public domain.

Trump, through his company, then reimbursed Cohen with payments that were officially classified as a retainer for his legal services.

Bragg’s felony case, simply put, is that the $130,000 was paid in furtherance of Trump’s political campaign and should therefore have been declared as such.

But even legal experts who are broadly unsympathetic toward Trump have misgivings about Bragg’s strategy.

For a start, Trump has not been charged with any such election law violation.

Secondly, it’s not even entirely clear that the classification of the payments to Cohen was false. Hush money payments are not illegal. Trump could argue Cohen was indeed rendering a legal service.

Trump can also take hope from an unexpected quarter — the case of a once-prominent Democrat.

A dozen years ago, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) walked away unscathed from six federal charges over payments made to support a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair and with whom he had a child.

Those events took place against the backdrop of Edwards’s quest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

At trial, Edwards’s defense team argued the payments were not made for a political purpose but to conceal a personally embarrassing and sensitive episode.

The jury acquitted Edwards of one charge and deadlocked on the rest. The Justice Department dropped the case soon after.

Does Trump keep attacking the judge and his family?

Trump is under a gag order in the case thanks to public criticisms of Judge Juan Merchan and the judge’s daughter, Loren Merchan.

Trump recently accused Loren Merchan of being a “rabid Trump hater,” apparently alluding to her work for Democrats as a political consultant.

Trump has frequently attacked Merchan himself, who was not covered under his own initial order that prohibited Trump from attacking witnesses, prosecutors or jurors.

Merchan expanded the gag order after some of the attacks on his daughter, contending that Trump’s “pattern of attacking family members of presiding jurists … serves no legitimate purpose.”

Trump duly shot back on social media, complaining, “They can talk about me, but I can’t talk about them??? That sounds fair, doesn’t it?”

Trump will be loath to back down from his trademark attacks. But there could be real consequences if he continues, up to and including imprisonment.

Do President Biden and the Democrats weigh in?

Biden has for the most part stayed away from direct comment on Trump’s criminal cases. The last thing the incumbent president wants is to provide ammunition for Trump’s contention that the cases are politically motivated.

But Biden, in the midst of a tough campaign, has begun to mock Trump for conduct around the edges of his legal woes.

Late last month, as Trump struggled to raise a massive bond in order to appeal a $355 million civil fraud penalty, Biden told a fundraising crowd a tale about “this defeated looking man” who had come up to him asking for his help to escape “crushing debt.”

Biden’s punchline was that he had replied, “Donald, I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

There could be more of that as Trump’s criminal trial goes forward.

Even so, the sharper attacks are likely to come from Biden surrogates and other Democrats rather than the president himself.

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