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Jury selection begins at Donald Trump’s defamation trial

This is the penalty phase of a civil defamation trial stemming from columnist E. Jean Carroll’s claims he sexually attacked her in a department store dressing room

Protesters stand outside of the Federal court holding signs before the start of the second Civil Defamation Trial against former US president Donald J. Trump brought by journalist E. Jean Carroll in New York, New York, USA, 16 January 2024
Protesters stand outside of the Federal court before the start of the trial against former US president Donald Trump brought by journalist E. Jean Carroll in New York, January 16 2024.Peter Foley (EFE)

Jury selection began in a New York courtroom Tuesday after a judge denied Donald Trump’s request that a defamation trial stemming from a columnist’s claims that he sexually abused her in the 1990s be suspended on Thursday so he could attend the funeral of his mother-in-law.

The denial came during a combative exchange between lawyers for Trump and Judge Lewis A. Kaplan over evidence in the case, Trump’s desire to attend the Thursday funeral and whether the trial should occur at all.

This is the penalty phase of a civil defamation trial stemming from columnist E. Jean Carroll’s claims he sexually attacked her in a department store dressing room. A May trial found Trump sexually abused Carroll, awarding her $5 million. Trump did not attend that trial but he showed up Tuesday morning after his political victory at the Iowa caucus hours earlier.

After several dozen prospective jurors were sworn in, Trump shook his head as Kaplan described the case in general terms and explained that for purposes of the trial, it had already been determined that Trump “did sexually assault Ms. Carroll.”

Trump also twisted his body around in his chair to look at a prospective juror who said she had worked in a communications capacity for his daughter’s company in 2017 and 2018. Another prospective juror said he’s a lawyer who has worked on unrelated issues with the firm representing Carroll. Both said they could be fair and impartial and remained among prospective jurors.

In May, a different jury awarded Carroll $5 million after concluding that Trump sexually abused her in a department store dressing room in spring 1996, then defamed her in 2022 by claiming she made it up after she revealed it publicly in a 2019 memoir. The jury said Carroll hadn’t proven that Trump raped her.

Trump is appealing and hasn’t paid any of that award, though he placed $5.55 million in escrow to cover the verdict and other costs in the event he loses his appeal.

One issue that wasn’t decided in that first trial was how much Trump owed for comments he made about Carroll while he was still president. Determining that dollar amount will be the new jury’s only job.

Kaplan ruled last year that the new jury didn’t need to decide anew whether Carroll was sexually abused or whether Trump’s remarks about her were defamatory since those subjects were covered in the first trial.

Even before jurors were brought in to the courtroom Tuesday, Trump attorney Michael Madaio complained that the judge had made “inconsistent and unfair” rulings against Trump prior to the start of the trial.

Madaio said the rulings “drastically changed our ability to defend this case and largely stripped us of our defenses.”

He also argued that given Trump’s pending appeal of the first verdict, the trial should not proceed at all.

Another Trump attorney, Alina Habba, then requested that the trial be adjourned on Thursday for the funeral of former first lady Melania Trump’s mother, Amalija Knavs.

“I am not stopping him from being there,” the judge said, referring to the funeral. Habba responded: “No, you’re stopping him from being here.”

The judge, though, said the only accommodation he would make is that Trump can testify on Monday, even if the trial is otherwise finished by Thursday. Several days ago, Kaplan rejected Trump’s request to delay the trial a week.

Trump arrived for the trial in a motorcade shortly before 9 a.m., entering the building through a special entrance not usually used by the public. Opening arguments could take place by afternoon in what is essentially a second penalty phase of a legal fight Carroll has already won.

Trump arrived separately but at the same time as Carroll Tuesday. His plans for the rest of the week have become unclear because of his mother-in-law’s pending funeral. Prospective jurors were told the trial was likely to last three to five days.

Habba told the judge that Trump plans to testify. The judge has already set strict limits on what he can talk about. He did not attend last year’s trial, saying recently that his lawyer advised against it.

Because the trial is supposed to be focused only on how much Trump owes Carroll, the judge has warned Trump and his lawyers that they cannot say things to jurors that he has said on the campaign trail or elsewhere, like claiming she lied about him to promote her memoir.

Kaplan also banned them from saying anything about Carroll’s “past romantic relationships, sexual disposition, and prior sexual experiences,” from suggesting Trump didn’t sexually abuse Carroll or from implying she was motivated by “a political agenda, financial interests, mental illness, or otherwise.”

They are also banned, the judge said, from advancing any argument inconsistent with the court’s ruling that “Mr. Trump, with actual malice, lied about sexually assaulting Ms. Carroll.”

Those restrictions don’t apply outside of the presence of the jury. That has left Trump free to continue posting on social media about all of the above topics — something he has done repeatedly in recent days — although each fresh denial comes with the possibility of increasing damages he must pay.

Carroll, 80, plans to testify about the damage to her career and reputation that resulted from Trump’s public statements. She seeks $10 million in compensatory damages and millions more in punitive damages.

Trump, 77, is appealing the findings of last year’s jury and has continued to maintain that he doesn’t know Carroll, that he never met her at the Bergdorf Goodman store in midtown Manhattan in spring 1996 and that Carroll made up her claims to sell her book and for political reasons.

Regardless of his losses in court, Trump leads all Republicans in 2024 presidential primary polls and plans to spend plenty of time in court fighting the civil cases and four criminal cases against him, saying, “In a way, I guess you consider it part of the campaign.”

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