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Former U.S. president Donald Trump arrives on April 15 for the first day of his trial in New York for allegedly covering up hush-money payments linked to extramarital affairs.JEFFERSON SIEGEL/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s historic hush-money trial has opened in a Manhattan courtroom with a warning from the judge that the former president could be jailed if he disrupts the proceedings.

The criminal prosecution, the first ever of a former United States president, began Monday with a series of motions, followed by the start of what is likely to be a difficult jury-selection process.

Mr. Trump is accused of falsifying business records to cover up a payment to Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film actress who says Mr. Trump had extramarital sex with her in 2006. Prosecutors allege the 2016 payoff, which secured Ms. Daniels’s silence less than two weeks before that year’s election, was a violation of campaign-finance rules.

The state-level case is the least serious of Mr. Trump’s four indictments, but it may be the only one to go to trial before he attempts to recapture the White House in November’s election. He also faces state and federal prosecutions for trying to overturn his 2020 election loss, and federal prosecution for refusing to return classified documents after leaving office.

In the course of reading Mr. Trump his courtroom rights on Monday, Judge Juan Merchan cautioned him not to “disrupt” the trial, on pain of being arrested. The former president said he understood.

The prosecution on Monday asked that Mr. Trump be fined for violating a gag order meant to prevent him from intimidating witnesses. Last week on Truth Social, his social-media platform, he described Ms. Daniels and Michael Cohen – his former lawyer, who arranged the payment to her – as “two sleaze bags” telling “lies.” Both are expected to be major witnesses.

“It is important for the court to remind Mr. Trump” that he is “a criminal defendant,” prosecutor Christopher Conroy said. The former president’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, said Mr. Trump was simply “responding to salacious, repeated, vehement attacks” on his character. Judge Merchan set a date next week to argue the motion.

Mr. Trump’s outbursts in court, and his social-media targeting of witnesses and judicial officials, including in three civil lawsuits over the past year, have become a regular feature of his legal proceedings. He has even gone after Judge Merchan himself, because the judge’s daughter has worked for Democratic political candidates.

In the opening round of jury selection on Monday, at least 50 people in the first batch of 96 prospective jurors were almost immediately dismissed when they admitted by a show of hands that they could not be fair and impartial in the case.

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The moment could be a preview of the difficulty in finding a jury, a process that may last days if not weeks. One potential hurdle will be finding Americans who have no opinion on the polarizing former president. And jurors might fear being threatened over their role in the politically sensitive case.

Potential jurors must answer a 42-question survey that asks, among other things, about which media organizations they get their news from and whether they are supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

As the jury prospects filled the courtroom, many strained to catch a glimpse of Mr. Trump. When introduced as the defendant, he turned to the crowd and smirked.

At times during the proceedings, Mr. Trump closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair and appeared to doze off. As he left during one recess, the former president stared at District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the New York State official who decided to pursue the charges.

Speaking to reporters in the hallway, Mr. Trump described the trial as “an assault on America,” and laced into Judge Merchan, Mr. Bragg and President Joe Biden.

In a string of rulings on Monday, Judge Merchan denied a motion from Mr. Trump that called on the judge to recuse himself because of his daughter’s work with Democrats. Judge Merchan sided with the prosecution on a motion to introduce evidence of a different hush-money payment from Mr. Trump. He ruled in Mr. Trump’s favour, however, by excluding several pieces of prosecution evidence, including the Access Hollywood tape of Mr. Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals.

The facts in Mr. Trump’s case are largely undisputed. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2018 related to making the US$130,000 payment to Ms. Daniels and getting reimbursed by Mr. Trump under the guise of a legal retainer. The former president maintains the arrangement was legal.

As the proceedings unfolded on Monday, a few dozen pro- and anti-Trump protesters and hundreds of reporters gathered across the street from the courthouse, behind police barricades.

Jennifer Fischer, 64, said Mr. Trump’s trial is about more than covering up an extramarital affair. “If you’re trying to hide information from the voters, that’s election interference,” she said.

There is nothing to stop Mr. Trump running for or serving as president if he is convicted. So far, his legal troubles have not appeared to hinder his neck-and-neck race with Mr. Biden.

Dion Cini, 55, who waved an enormous Trump campaign flag, predicted that the trial would solidify the former president’s support. “He’s going to go up five to 10 points in the polls,” he said. “This trial is an insurrection against Donald Trump.”

This argument will probably figure in Mr. Trump’s defence, said Jennifer Rodgers, who teaches law at Columbia University. “It might appeal to some people: ‘Anyone who had an affair with a porn star would want to hide it because it’s embarrassing and their spouse would be angry. It isn’t a big deal.’”

If he returns to office, Mr. Trump is expected to try to use the power of the presidency to end at least the federal prosecutions against him. He also has an appeal before the Supreme Court in which he is arguing that a president should be immune from prosecution for any actions taken while in office. Judge Merchan rejected a request from Mr. Blanche that Mr. Trump be excused on April 25 to attend oral arguments in that case.

Because the hush-money actions took place mostly before Mr. Trump was elected, it may be the only case unaffected by the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Jury selection continues Tuesday.

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