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Jury selection has begun in the Trump Organization's tax evasion trial

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In a New York City courtroom, the trial of the Trump Organization is getting underway.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Donald Trump's family business is charged with a scheme to avoid paying taxes through off-the-books benefits paid to top employees.

INSKEEP: Ilya Marritz was on the scene for NPR for the first day of jury selection. Good morning.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What was the spectacle like?

MARRITZ: First off, this is state court in downtown Manhattan, so grandeur mixed with grime, echoey hallways - think television legal dramas.

INSKEEP: (Mimicking chime). Sorry. I was doing the "Law & Order" signal there.

MARRITZ: That's right. All kinds of criminal defendants and their lawyers pass through in an average day. Stepping inside Judge Juan Merchan's courtroom, something you might notice is there is no one to sit in the defendant's chair. And that's because this trial is of two Trump business entities and not a person.

INSKEEP: Because Donald Trump himself is not in any way charged.

MARRITZ: Correct. But there are a bunch of lawyers there who are representing the Trump businesses. And what we saw Monday in court was a group of about 130 Manhattanites who are potential jurors. There were people from all walks of life filling every bench, every square inch of every seat in the room. And maybe the size of the jury pool says something about how laborious it's going to be to whittle this group down to 12 jurors plus alternates. Donald Trump is not popular in New York, but he is famous.

INSKEEP: Oh, the idea is to try to find a dozen people who don't already have some strong opinion about Donald Trump. How close did the judge get to finding 12?

MARRITZ: Not close. The court got through an initial round of general questions with 18 possible jurors. They included a bartender, a hospital administrator and an unemployed person. And they were asked if they consume a lot of news and what kind. Tuesday - today, we will pick up with that same group of 18. And each legal team is going to have a chance to question them more closely. They'll be looking for anything they might not like in these jurors' history or their personal views. Judge Juan Merchan said he's hopeful we could get this whole process done by the end of the week and start opening statements next week. We will see.

INSKEEP: Whenever the opening statements come, what do you watch for?

MARRITZ: Any and every mention of Donald Trump the person, even though he is not a defendant. For instance, prosecutors say they can prove that Trump personally signed tuition checks as a form of unreported compensation for his chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. Weisselberg's grandkids were in private school. And Weisselberg is going to be a star witness. I was in court in August when Weisselberg pled guilty to his role in this scheme. He was a co-defendant. And I left the courthouse really wondering what the upshot of that agreement was going to be.

Weisselberg pledged at the time to testify truthfully. And if he doesn't, he might get a hefty jail sentence. But at the same time, he has stayed loyal to Trump. He didn't flip on the former president. In fact, he's still collecting a paycheck from the Trump Organization. And I think both the defense and prosecution may see Weisselberg in some way as their witness and someone who can help them. So for Weisselberg, that will be a thin rope to walk.

INSKEEP: OK. So hopefully, they're taking taxes out of the paycheck he's still getting from the Trump Organization. But what kind of secrets might he have?

MARRITZ: He knows the Trump Organization inside out. He's worked there for decades. He could really decode a lot of the documents that are the basis for this case. And I should just add, we know that Donald Trump is paying close attention. He posted about this proceeding twice on Monday, calling it - what else? - a highly partisan Democrat witch hunt.

INSKEEP: Ilya Marritz, thanks so much.

MARRITZ: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ilya Marritz