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Trump's first criminal trial is set for March

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:

It's time for Trump's Trials.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) We love Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: This is a persecution.

DOMONOSKE: Last week, we saw developments in all four of the criminal cases facing former President Donald Trump and a nearly $355 million verdict in the New York civil fraud trial. We'll focus on one of the criminal cases today, the New York hush money case, which now has a trial date - March 25, meaning this will almost certainly be the first criminal case to go to trial. This is the one about hush money payments to bury alleged affairs, which Trump covered up by falsifying business records, and how all that affected the 2016 election. My colleague Miles Parks spoke with NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro and NYU law professor Melissa Murray. Miles started off by asking Professor Murray how significant it is that we have a firm start date.

MELISSA MURRAY: I think it's very significant. So there's at least one trial that's going to get going. And interestingly, this is a trial where the prosecutor bringing it is not a federal prosecutor, but a state prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan DA, which means that if he is able to secure a conviction here, this isn't something that Trump could pardon himself afterwards with if he were president. Nor is it a prosecution, if it continues beyond the scope of the election, that Trump could end if he becomes the president and has more power at the DOJ to determine prosecution priorities.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Talk us through how that intersects with the political calendar and then also how that could potentially affect some of these other cases.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Well, I'll start (ph). I think when Melissa says it's significant, I think that she's exactly right because it does sort of set the wheels in motion now for the first of these cases to go forward. A lot of people consider this New York case to be the weakest of the four to be going forward. You know, some people will say, well, maybe that's something that'll give Trump a chance to make an argument that these cases are biased or there's a witch hunt against him or whatever. But I kind of think that having that case go first means that you're setting up the cases that have some more serious implications for him going closer to the general election when you have a less friendly audience on his behalf. I think that actually potentially hurts Trump, especially when we've seen polling that shows that if he were convicted in any of these cases, that he would lose some support.

PARKS: Yeah, I've heard this a lot, this idea that the New York case is the weakest of the four. Melissa, can you comment on that? I mean, is that how you feel, or is there something more to this that we're missing?

MURRAY: Well, I want it to be really clear - part of the reason people are talking about it as the weakest case is that's how the media has presented it, talking about it as the hush money case. I think it's very notable that Alvin Bragg has made a very concerted effort to talk about this case as a species of the kind of election interference that we saw in full flower in the January 6 indictments. He's basically saying this is sort of a precursor, a dress rehearsal for that, where Donald Trump paid payments on falsified business records for the purpose of hiding a personal relationship from the American electorate.

And I don't think that this is the weakest of the cases. I think there are some challenging aspects to this case. For example, the crime with which Donald Trump has been charged is ordinarily a misdemeanor in New York state, but here it is being prosecuted as a felony because it is attached to or adjunct to the perpetration of another crime. Here, the apparent predicate crime is the fact of election interference, election fraud. And it may be a broader question as to what the predicate crime is, what statutes Alvin Bragg is relying on to bootstrap this into a felony-level charge. And, you know, those are definitely aspects of this indictment that may well be brought up by Donald Trump's lawyers as potential defenses going forward.

PARKS: Wondering, Melissa, can you walk us through what's actually going to happen on March 25 and where this case goes from here?

MURRAY: Well, we will begin jury selection on March 25. So, you know, there will be sort of a broad cross-section that's brought in, and from there, both sides will get an opportunity to select the jury that ultimately will hear this case and ultimately render a verdict. And, you know, I think one of the things that we'll look for is the bases on which both sides make requests to eliminate certain prospective jurors.

I think the Trump lawyers have already suggested that they are unlikely to get a, quote-unquote, "fair trial" in the borough of Manhattan on - pushed back on that, making clear that, you know, this is a national case with national implications and national attention. If you have difficulty here, you're going to have difficulty anywhere. And so, you know, this is the jury you have. This is the jury you get. So I think I'm going to be looking for the choices that both sides make as they make their selections, make their challenges to prospective jurors.

PARKS: OK. And finally, to you both, can you kind of give an overview on whether anything happened this week that fundamentally changed what's happening with either of these cases or with the election more broadly?

MONTANARO: What I thought was interesting was having the date for setting these cases in motion. I mean, March 25 sort of is the starting line now for all of these cases. And I thought it was notable that the judge in New York said that he had been coordinating with Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is a federal judge with another one of the Trump cases. They were also talking about whether there were firm dates in the Florida case with Judge Cannon and how that case wasn't necessarily firm, and that's why the judge in the case was able to set March 25. So notable here that we know that they are coordinating with each other. And they're going to have to because they have to also consider Trump's schedule as he's on the campaign trail.

MURRAY: So one of the things that I thought was really interesting about this week is that we had news about every single one of these criminal indictments, and these four criminal indictments essentially make clear that before, during and after his presidency, Donald Trump is accused of engaging in criminal activities. So, you know, the New York DA has brought charges around these hush money payments that were in service, apparently, of defrauding the electorate about the nature of Donald Trump's personal relationship with Stormy Daniels before he was president. The January 6 indictments in Georgia and in the district of the District of Columbia are about activities undertaken while he is president. And then, of course, the Mar-a-Lago documents indictment is about the retention of classified information after his presidency. I mean, we talk about the unprecedented nature of prosecuting a former president, but that is a kind of criminal tableau that really is extraordinary and I think something that ought to register more in the way we cover these cases.

PARKS: NYU law professor Melissa Murray and author of the forthcoming book "The Trump Indictments" and NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, thanks to you both.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome.

MURRAY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.