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A recap of Trump's trial in NYC, and why a delay in the Jan. 6 case is likely

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Another busy week in court for Donald Trump - a tabloid publisher told a New York jury about his efforts to pay off people to squash salacious stories about Trump before the 2016 election, and the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether Trump should get a legal shield for his actions, having to do with the Capitol riot three years ago. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us now. Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And let's begin with the U.S. Supreme Court. How do you read what happened there?

JOHNSON: Well, the justices are considering whether Trump should enjoy absolute immunity from criminal prosecution. This would be for his efforts to cling to power after the 2020 election. And Donald Trump's lawyer, John Sauer, took some heat this week for his extreme positions - things like arguing Trump might be able to use the military to mount a coup attempt or to kill a Trump rival.

But most of the conservative justices seemed a lot more concerned about tying a future president's hands than about violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Here's Justice Samuel Alito talking to the government lawyer, Michael Dreeben.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAMUEL ALITO: Presidents have to make a lot of tough decisions. You don't...

MICHAEL DREEBEN: But...

ALITO: ...Think he's in a special - a peculiarly precarious position?

DREEBEN: Making a mistake is not what lands you in a criminal prosecution.

JOHNSON: That's what the government lawyer said. But others, including the Chief Justice John Roberts, really seem worried about prosecutors hounding the future president, even though the lawyer for the Justice Department said the country hasn't faced these kinds of questions since Richard Nixon.

SIMON: That was the view from conservatives who were on the high court. What did some of the more liberal justices say?

JOHNSON: Justice Elena Kagan said the founders really knew how to write immunity for the president into the Constitution, but that they had decided not to do that because they didn't want some kind of all-powerful monarch. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said she feared giving a president too much power, giving him a get-out-of-jail-free card. Here's more from Justice Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KETANJI BROWN JACKSON: I'm trying to understand what the disincentive is from turning the Oval Office into the seat of criminal activity in this country.

JOHNSON: And she also tried to focus the court on the specific allegations against Donald Trump, who's charged with subverting the will of voters while he's running to return to the White House this year. Trump, of course, has pleaded not guilty.

SIMON: What the Supreme Court ultimately decides - and when - could make or break that federal January 6 case against Donald Trump. Carrie, can you venture any inferences from the questioning you heard this week?

JOHNSON: It's always dangerous, but it seemed like at least four of the conservative justices wanted to give the president some protection from criminal prosecution. And they may want to draw some lines between actions that a president takes as a part of his job and ones that are simply personal. Now, that kind of opinion could take a long time to write, especially if the justices want to send the case back to the lower courts for more fact-finding. The chances for a trial in Washington, D.C., for Donald Trump before the November election now seem pretty slim to none.

SIMON: Donald Trump couldn't make his own Supreme Court case 'cause, of course, he had to be in New York for his criminal trial. That jury in Manhattan's been hearing evidence in the case about accounting for hush money payments. What did they hear?

JOHNSON: Jurors heard from the first witness from the district attorney. That would be former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker. He described himself as a longtime friend to Trump, but he offered some pretty damaging testimony. He said he knew about or took part in payoffs to people who had stories to sell about Trump's personal behavior before the 2016 election. David Pecker said Trump was not worried about his family finding out, but he was worried about his political standing if stories about his alleged womanizing got published. Trump's lawyers tried to suggest Pecker was acting to benefit his own company, not Trump.

SIMON: Carrie, what are you going to be watching for this week?

JOHNSON: This week, the judge in New York, Juan Merchan, is considering whether Donald Trump should be fined for repeatedly violating a gag order and verbally attacking potential witnesses in the case. Right now, a money penalty seems to be on the table, but if Donald Trump does not stop posting negative information about his former lawyer Michael Cohen, this judge may have to consider harsher measures.

SIMON: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. 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.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.