Trump’s criminal hush-money trial concludes jury selection after difficulties

<span>Donald Trump outside court in New York on Friday.</span><span>Photograph: Sarah Yenesel/Reuters</span>
Donald Trump outside court in New York on Friday.Photograph: Sarah Yenesel/Reuters

Donald Trump’s hush-money trial gained momentum on Friday afternoon with the conclusion of jury selection.

Five alternate jurors were chosen on Friday, following Thursday’s proceedings when the 12 jurors and one alternate juror were picked.

With the panel selected, Trump’s trial can enter its next stage, with opening arguments expected on Monday. The court held a so-called Sandoval hearing – where Trump will be informed of the scope of questions prosecutors can ask him if he takes the stand as a witness – on Friday afternoon.

Just as the full panel was established, a man set himself on fire in the park outside the courthouse, causing a frenzy before court broke for lunch. The man, whose motives are still unclear, was in critical condition.

Related: Trump’s hush-money trial: here’s what’s happened so far

In an afternoon session it was discussed what sort of evidence might be brought into the case if Trump were to testify. Prosecutors previously submitted documents indicating that they wanted the ability to ask Trump about a variety of past legal travails should he testify, to challenge his credibility as a witness.

These include sexual assault accuser E Jean Carroll’s successful defamation cases against him. As the hearing progressed, Trump attorney Emil Bove said prosecutors’ asking Trump about the verdict in Carroll’s cases on cross-examination would be “unacceptable”.

Bove, who reiterated Trump’s denial of Carroll’s sexual assault claim and said it “very much did not happen,” said the claimed incident was “too far back in time” to be used in any potential challenge to Trump’s credibility.

More, Bove argued, “to bring up Ms Carroll’s allegations at this trial sort of pushes the salaciousness on to another level. This is a case about documents.” Prosecutors insisted they should be able to ask him about the defamation verdicts against him, as they showed that a jury determined his statements about Carroll were untrue.

“That’s critical, critical evidence that the jury ought to be able to consider … if he testifies,” the prosecution also said.

Earlier in the morning, questioning of potential alternate jurors got under way after Trump arrived and looked as if recent events had taken a toll on him, with his trademark brassy hair more messy than normal, but outside the courtroom the ex-president did what he typically does when facing scrutiny: he complained. He doubled down on his claims that the trial was rigged and derided the intelligence of Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, saying he was “not smart enough to represent himself … like Letitia James”, according to a pool report.

Trump insisted he should be on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina rather than inside court, and called for Juan Merchan, the judge, to free him from the gag order which bars him from commenting on witnesses, jurors, court staff and parties’ family members in this case,

The process of choosing jurors had proved complicated because of the polarizing and high-profile defendant. Prospective jurors had been grilled on their political leanings, their social media posts and many other facets of their lives.

During the questioning of more potential alternates, prosecutor Susan Hoffinger told would-be panelists: “This is not about Mr Trump being a former president. It’s not about his being a candidate for the presidency. It’s not about his popularity. And it’s not about who you vote for or who you might vote for in the fall.”

Several potential alternates were excused after citing their extreme nervousness about serving. One would-be alternate sounded as if she broke into tears when Hoffinger started to question her. “I feel so nervous and anxious right now, I’m sorry. I thought I could do this, but I wouldn’t want someone who feels this way to judge my case, either. This is so much more stressful than I thought it would be.” Merchan decided to excuse her.

Trump’s criminal hush-money trial: what to know

On Thursday one juror raised concerns that her identity had been discovered, especially after she had been described in the media. She was excused, and Judge Merchan ruled that some identifying characteristics – such as a juror’s place of employment – could not be made public.

Trump has been present throughout, sitting largely impassively in court, but his Truth Social media account has been posting up a storm, leading to multiple accusations by prosecutors that the former US president had violated a gag order and should be held in contempt of court. A hearing is set to be held on that issue on 23 April.

The case centers on a $130,000 payment that Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, made during the 2016 election campaign to Stormy Daniels to prevent her claims of an affair with Trump from becoming public.

Prosecutors say Trump obscured the true nature of the payments in internal records when his company reimbursed Cohen, who pleaded guilty in 2018 and is set to be a star witness for the prosecution. Trump has denied an affair with Daniels, and his lawyers argue that the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

Related: The jurors: who is on the Trump trial jury?

The trial is the first criminal trial of a former US president to hit an American courtroom. Three other cases – on Trump’s conduct during the January 6 insurrection, his treatment of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago home, and his attempt to subvert the 2020 election in Georgia – are also playing out, but Trump’s lawyers have so far successfully delayed them.

Despite his legal problems, Trump remains virtually guaranteed to win the Republican nomination for president and face off against Joe Biden in November once again. Trump tends to be narrowly ahead of Biden in head-to-head polling, particularly in the key swing states that will help determine who gains the White House.