Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
June is Men's Health Month!

Jurors for Trump's hush money trial have been selected. Now they have to be kept safe

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There was a disturbing scene outside the Manhattan courthouse today, where the hush money trial of former President Trump is being held. A person reportedly self-immolated in a park. So far, there is no suggestion of a motive directly related to the trial.

But inside the courthouse, jury selection did conclude. Twelve jurors have been picked, along with six alternates. And as the high-profile case moves forward, the court is grappling with an issue that has become a regular and concerning feature of Trump's many trials, and that is the safety of the jury. For more, we're joined now by NPR domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef and NPR political reporter Ximena Bustillo, who has been in the courthouse today. Hi to both of you.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Hey there.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, Ximena, I want to start with you. Now that the jury has been selected, what can you tell us about what it was like inside the courtroom?

BUSTILLO: Well, it's really such an unusual sight. You have everyday New Yorkers in the same room as a former U.S. president, waiting to see if they're going to be responsible for his fate. The first thing that the judge has been asking is if they believe that they cannot be fair and impartial, and if they raise their hands, they're then excused.

The jurors then go one by one, reading out their answers to a lengthy questionnaire about their history, education, occupation and their potential connections to Trump, such as attending a campaign event. These get really specific. Jurors have disclosed prior criminal history, family traumas and favorite pastimes in front of Trump and everyone else. Throughout this process, Trump turns to look at the jurors, and he's often leaning over to talk to his lawyers in this process, too.

CHANG: Wow. What a fascinating dynamic there. And the lawyers are not allowed to ask about things that are not covered on the questionnaire, right?

BUSTILLO: Well, actually they are. The Trump...

CHANG: Oh.

BUSTILLO: ...Legal team has been spending time...

CHANG: OK.

BUSTILLO: ...Asking prospective jurors about their social media histories. One was dismissed because her husband's posts about Trump dating back to 2016 were critical of the former president. And another was asked to read social media posts from also years ago that called Trump a racist, sexist narcissist, again, in front of the former president. These were not selected.

Trump's lawyer also asked jurors to detail their opinions and literal feelings about him. And again, this is a more intimate dynamic with a very incredibly powerful man. The questioning process has gotten emotional, as potential jurors can be heard tearing up as they admit that they're nervous and don't know if they can be impartial even after agreeing so earlier in the process.

CHANG: Sounds so stressful. Odette, you've looked at what it can mean to serve on a jury for a Trump trial, like the safety concerns, the repercussions personally. Tell us what you're finding.

YOUSEF: So, Ailsa, the challenge here is that, you know, jurors need to feel that their privacy and safety are not at risk when they serve. But the court also needs to maintain some transparency to court proceedings so that there's public faith in the process. And finding that sweet spot is challenging, and it's been especially hard in the Trump trials. And that's because Donald Trump owns a social media platform, Ailsa. And so, you know, we've seen this pattern, a correlation, where, when he posts criticism about specific people or processes, what follows are threats.

And this has already been happening in this case. Judge Merchan's own daughter has been at the receiving end of harassment. And I've spoken to some people, including a former juror on a trial involving a Trump affiliate, who've been just stunned that there haven't been more protective measures set up at the outset of this trial, given what's happened in the past.

Here is Juliette Kayyem. She's a former national security official. She says at this point, courts should be expecting Trump to complain about the proceedings and that some of his followers may respond in violent ways.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: It feels like we're sort of sleepwalking into 2024. It's just our democratic institutions that used to have these norms, but, well, those norms no longer are holding. And we have to accept that and prepare with the expectation that violence or the threat of violence is going to be part of our democratic processes, at least for the short term.

CHANG: Well, Ximena, is the court doing anything to protect these jurors?

BUSTILLO: Well, this is supposed to be an anonymous jury. They're largely only identified by numbers. And I stood in the hallway for the first two days to keep an eye on when former President Trump would come out to talk. And every time, security required us to cover up cameras and point them at walls when the jury was coming through.

CHANG: OK.

BUSTILLO: And I had to be careful that I wasn't angling my phone in a way that could be perceived as me taking a photo. But there are still highly detailed questions being asked - right? - about things like current and prior employers. And those answers were not sealed at the time.

So on Thursday, one selected juror actually said that reports in the media revealed enough identifying information about her that she said some friends and family knew it was her, and she was dismissed after originally being selected. Another juror, who was also excused Thursday morning after being selected, voiced, quote, "annoyance" at how much information had been publicized about him, though we don't know exactly why he was excused. Judge Juan Merchan requested that members of the press not publish potentially identifying information such as physical characteristics or personal information.

CHANG: Well, I am curious, Odette - if these so-called norms don't seem to be holding right now, how are you seeing that play out?

YOUSEF: You know, there was a policy paper, Ailsa, released earlier this year by the National Conference of State Court Administrators that identified juror safety and well-being among the top issues that need to be addressed these days. And that's not just for the Trump trials. You know, someone with the organization mentioned the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, Derek Chauvin's trial...

CHANG: Yeah.

YOUSEF: ...Trials of people in Trump's orbit. We are in a moment now in the U.S. where norms have shifted. People who are civically involved, whether it be in trials, in election administration, on school boards, you name it, are now increasingly targeted with violence or the threat of violence. And that's a reality that won't reverse itself overnight, and it chills democratic participation. So people who can should be thinking about safety of these people in ways they may not have had to consider before.

CHANG: That is NPR's Odette Yousef and Ximena Bustillo. Thank you to both of you.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. 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.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.