Trump deploys favorite political tool, social media, as legal cudgel

Donald Trump, whose social media posts contributed to his improbable rise to the presidency, has found a new use for his favorite political tool — as ammunition in his legal fight against charges of falsifying business records in New York.

That strategy became evident on the second day of jury selection on Tuesday, as Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, repeatedly used old social media posts by potential jurors to argue that the judge should remove them from the panel because of bias.

Behind the scenes, Trump’s defense team is scrambling to find and review the social media accounts of potential jurors, and when they find accounts critical of the former president and presumptive Republican presidential nominee, they race to get them before the judge to try to get those accounts. Expel people.

Time for such work is tight — attorneys in the case have been provided with lists of potential jurors, some of whom must begin questioning within hours, according to a person familiar with the work, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal processes.

The defense team is concerned that it will have to overcome long odds to win acquittal from liberal jurors in Manhattan, according to people familiar with their thinking who also spoke on condition of anonymity. On Wednesday, Trump issued a social media post calling it the “second worst place in the country.”

To respond to what it says is an inherently unfair jury pool, Trump’s defense team has hired a jury consulting firm that analyzes all jury entries, according to the person who declined to identify the firm.

This is not a particularly new strategy among wealthy defendants who can afford such work, but it is unique in that it is being applied In a case involving Trump, someone whom millions of Americans have gossiped about, joked about, criticized and praised for years — which means there’s a lot of potential social media material for his lawyers to exploit.

But this work, which explores potential jurors’ social media posts, is done under enormous time pressure.

New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan was focused on moving jury selection forward quickly — with seven jurors sworn in less than a day and a half after jury selection earlier this week. Ultimately, the process will select 12 jurors and six alternates.

“We had to rush to get all the research done, and we’re going to have to rush again” on Thursday, when jury selection resumes, said one person familiar with the effort.

This prospecting is made more difficult by the fact that Manhattan has a lot of people, which means it’s difficult to make sure they’re reviewing posts from the right person with any given name. In addition, a person may use multiple social media accounts under pseudonyms or aliases.

The jury in this case is partially anonymous — their names are known to the attorneys in the case but will not be made public.

Some on the defense team wonder whether some potential jurors, after demonstrating their tactic in open court, will begin deleting old online posts before court resumes Thursday, this person said.

Trump spokesman Stephen Cheung said the charges against the former president were unfair and were deliberately brought in jurisdictions more hostile to him.

“The deck has been stacked against President Trump in blatant violation of our legal system, as his persecutors have deliberately targeted some of the most democratic jurisdictions in the country to advance their bogus cases,” Cheung said.

Trump’s defense team used old social media posts to argue against the person sitting in the first seat on the jury.

Blanche said that woman “had a series of very aggressive posts on Facebook.”

Merchan seemed confused by Blanche’s assessment. The post in question was a Facebook video of a spontaneous street celebration of Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, with comments suggesting she was also happy with the result.

Attorney General Joshua Steinglass called the claim “ridiculous.”

When the woman was asked about this in court, she explained that she found herself witnessing a historical event near her home when she left the house to move her car that day, and stressed that she knew that she was still capable of being a fair juror.

If Merchan decides someone won’t be fair and impartial, he can excuse any potential juror. Otherwise, if either side objects, it can also strike some jurors from the panel — but each side only gets 10 so-called peremptory objections.

Regarding the potential juror’s old Facebook video, the judge refused to dismiss her for cause, so Blanche used one of Trump’s challenges to dismiss her. This discussion made clear that the defense was scrambling, even as its lawyers argued in court, to conduct cursory searches of people who seemed most likely to be chosen as jurors from a larger pool called for jury duty.

Trump’s defense team has taken the position that old critical or sarcastic online statements about him are evidence of bias and grounds for removal. In many cases, the age of the posts alone may make them largely irrelevant, not to mention that some of those raised in court appear to be Internet humor, Steinglass said.

On Tuesday, Merchan’s ruling on social media moved closer to prosecutors, but he agreed with the defense that an old comment crossed the line.

In that case, the potential juror had written “Lock him up” years ago in reference to Trump, who was president at the time.

“Everyone knows that if Mr. Trump is found guilty in this case, he will face a potential prison sentence, which would amount to incarceration,” Merchan said. “I don’t think I can let this juror stay.”

When Merchan mentioned the possibility of prison, Trump shook his head slightly in disgust.

So far, the judge has been mostly skeptical of the defense’s claims of serious bias shown by the old social media posts.

Jurors questioned in court about their old social media posts were often defensive and rejected the suggestion that the old posts revealed anything important about their opinions or their ability to be fair.

“If you look at my social media, you can see that there is very little of what I post now that has anything to do with politics, and it has become very vitriolic for people I have known for years,” said one woman who participated on social media. She posted political satire and humor in 2018 that the defense said showed she was anti-Trump. “I may have posted this, but I learned a good lesson from it.”

If the judge continues to disagree with the defense’s arguments about most of the jurors’ social media posts, Trump could quickly finish his allotted number of appeals and leave him little say over the remaining members of the panel. Trump is also allowed two peremptory objections per alternate juror.

In court Tuesday, Blanche suggested he might file future challenges to jury selections based on additional discoveries of social media posts related to his client.

Merchan said the pace of jury selection means opening statements could take place as soon as Monday, and if that timeline continues, Trump’s online sleuths will only have a few more days to try to influence the makeup of the jury.

Increasingly, courts have had to grapple with problematic social media posts that do not come to light until after the jury has been convened or after the verdict has been rendered.

This was the case in the trial of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, who tried to overturn his conviction for lying to Congress after discovering that the jury forewoman had posted on social media about his arrest and had posted again shortly after his conviction.

The bar for a court to overturn a conviction based on juror misconduct is extremely high, and Stone’s bid was unsuccessful, though he later received a pardon from Trump.

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