NEW YORK (AP) — It’s taken just three days to seat a jury of 12 people in the tax fraud trial of Donald Trump’s company — surprising even some people involved in the case who thought it would take at least a week to find an impartial panel in heavily Democratic New York City.
Five of the jurors were sworn in Thursday, joining seven who were picked Tuesday. Six alternates still need to be seated. That process is beginning anew Thursday and Friday with a second pool of potential jurors, but lawyers say they’re on track for opening statements on Monday.
The four men and eight women selected so far emerged from an exacting process, including a 32-part questionnaire and one-on-one questioning, designed to sift out candidates with immutable opinions about the Republican former president and his company, the Trump Organization.
The selected jurors were among the least vocal about Trump. Some admitted that they had opinions about him and his leadership, but vowed to set aside any personal thoughts and consider only evidence presented during the trial, which is taking place in state court in Manhattan.
Judge Juan Manuel Merchan has said the case — involving allegations that the Trump Organization helped some top executives avoid income taxes on compensation they got in addition to their salaries — will likely take about six weeks, meaning it could end in December.
Trump himself isn’t on trial and he isn’t expected to testify, but his name is sure to come up a lot.
Trump signed some checks at issue in the case. His name appears on memos and other evidence. Another company lawyer, Alan Futerfas, said he expected some witnesses will testify about conversations they’ve had with Trump.
Trump Organization lawyer William J. Brennan referred to the absent Trump as the “mist in the room.”
Prosecutors have said they do not need to prove Trump knew about the compensation scheme to get a conviction.
They argue the Trump Organization is liable in part because former finance chief Allen Weisselberg, who has pleaded guilty to taking $1.7 million in off-the-books compensation, was a “high managerial agent” entrusted to act on the company’s behalf.
Weisselberg, whose perks included apartment rent, luxury cars and school tuition for his grandchildren, has agreed to testify as part of a plea deal that also includes several months in jail.
“This case is not about Donald Trump,” lead prosecutor Susan Hoffinger said.
As swift as jury selection has been, the process has also underscored just how tough it is to find anyone without at least something to say about Trump — especially in Manhattan, where 87% of voters in the 2020 election went with his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
The challenge for defense lawyers, prosecutors and Merchan has been in figuring out which opinions are innocuous, which are disqualifying, and where to draw the line.
One juror made the cut after saying he thought Trump had been “acting a little crazy” and narcissistic as president.
Merchan reasoned that the man’s negative opinions of Trump were limited to his presidency and did not involve issues relevant to the case, such as his work as a businessman and his company. He denied a defense’s request to strike the man for cause, and the defense elected not use one of its limited number of peremptory challenges.
Other decisions were more clear cut.
A woman who said “Trump continues to lie to the American people that he won the 2020 election” and another woman who gave glowing endorsements of Trump and his company were both removed from consideration.
Then there was Noah Passer, a worker’s compensation lawyer, whose brutal honesty in revealing how he views Trump led to quick agreement amongst prosecutors and Trump Organization lawyers that he wasn’t right for the jury.
“I absolutely hate him. I think he’s a liar and a scam artist and a bully. He’s a danger to our democracy, international stability and potentially humanity with his environmental policies,” Passer said during questioning in open court. “I think his university was a scam. His charity was a scam. He has problems with the truth.”
Brennan, the Trump Organization lawyer, was so amped to send Passer home that he mixed up his notes and started arguing against him when a different juror was still being considered. By the time they got to Passer, the sides had agreed on the 12 jurors who were seated, meaning he was up for consideration as first alternate.
Brennan called Passer the “most seething, openly hostile prospective juror” in the pool and said that it was a “no brainer” that he be removed.
Michael R. Sisak, The Associated Press