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Can Trump Get a Fair Trial in D.C.? Juror Transcripts Give a Clue.

NOTUS examined trial transcripts of jury selections in high-profile politically-charged federal cases held in D.C. The results often aren’t what you might expect.

Donald Trump AP-23341655176589
“You aren’t entitled to a jury of people who share your politics, you’re just entitled to an impartial jury.” Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

Donald Trump has now spent years complaining about Washington, D.C., insisting there’s no chance he could get a fair trial in the district on the federal charges related to his alleged attempts to change the 2020 election results.

He may have half a point.

A NOTUS review of jury selection transcripts for other politically sensitive cases in Washington, along with interviews with former federal prosecutors and defense attorneys who have represented high-profile D.C. clients, found that, indeed, Republicans rarely find a particularly friendly jury in D.C. — but it has still been possible to put together an open-minded panel of jurors who say they are willing to listen to the defense, a cornerstone of the legal process.

“You aren’t entitled to a jury of people who share your politics, you’re just entitled to an impartial jury,” said Shanlon Wu, former federal prosecutor and current defense attorney whose clients have included onetime Trump campaign aide Rick Gates.

Washington — which votes overwhelmingly Democratic and is stuffed full of the government bureaucrats Trump loves to loathe — has become a punching bag for the former president as the court cases against him move closer to trial. Trump’s lawyers have even floated West Virginia as a possible alternate venue for the trial, a request that legal experts say the judge presiding over the case is likely to deny.

NOTUS examined trial transcripts of jury selections in numerous high-profile federal cases held in Washington, D.C., with a political nexus dating back two decades — including the trial of then-Sen. Ted Stevens, Bush White House official Scooter Libby, former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig and Trump confidants Roger Stone and Steve Bannon. Juries ultimately convicted each man except Craig, the only one connected to Democrats.

Transcripts of lawyers and judges working to select a jury show the city tries to stay deeply informed, and potential jurors have myriad personal connections to politics and government that one would expect in the district — yet they are also sometimes more idiosyncratic or politically apathetic than voter rolls show.

At the outset of Bannon’s 2022 trial on charges of contempt of Congress, one potential juror — whose news sources included The New York Times, PBS and Fox News — said they’d watched the Jan. 6 hearings on television and remembered mention of Bannon. But the potential juror, a former union employee, also waxed poetic about their two prior jury duty experiences.

“I found the experience and the interaction a very important civic duty,” the potential juror told the judge. They were qualified for jury service.

“I would say juries in D.C. are quite sophisticated regardless of what they do for a living. Whether they’re young, in college, working class or government workers,” said Wu. “And they will see through lawyers who are just posturing and don’t really have anything to say.”

Indeed, one potential juror in Bannon’s case who was not chosen for the jury said they had formed deep opinions on Jan. 6 while listening to the news at their barber shop.

“I have the news on. We talk politics,” the potential juror told the judge. “I knew Steve Bannon was on trial. Court was coming up. I knew he was in contempt of Congress on two counts. We just talk back and forth between clients.”

Other potential jurors in the Bannon case were more typically well-connected for D.C.: One woman who was not chosen for jury duty told the court she had contacted Bannon twice in the last year — all part of her work as a political reporter.

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The process of selecting a jury in a politically charged case in District of Columbia District Court, which is where such federal cases are usually heard, is not too different from other trials: Potential jurors fill out questionnaires with information about connections they might have to the case or its defendants, their opinions on law enforcement and whether serving on a jury would cause undue hardship. Then the judge and lawyers ask follow-up questions and try to determine whether the person could be a fair-minded juror.

The difference in cases where the defendant is a household name or in the news regularly is that many potential jurors might have preconceived notions of whether the defendant is guilty. So the court draws from a bigger pool of potential jurors, and lawyers screen carefully to feel out preconceived ideas that could affect how they side in a court case.

“Once you place prospective jurors under oath, they typically will answer questions accurately and honestly,” said Glenn L. Kirschner, who was a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., for many years. “I think you will be able to sniff out people who can’t sit fairly. I think that’s true whether you’re talking about relatively red Florida or blue D.C.”

In the cases examined by NOTUS, potential jurors included a heavy contingent of lawyers and lobbyists, political staffers and trade association employees. The communications director for the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration was summoned during the Stone trial, as was a former congressional candidate. A staffer who had worked for Hillary Clinton and Dianne Feinstein ended up in the pool for the Greg Craig trial. A lawyer whose boyfriend covered Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation for The New York Times was summoned for the Craig trial. And one lawyer even told NOTUS that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ended up in his jury pool — though not on a high-profile case.

But there are also plenty of truly apathetic or apolitical potential jurors. During jury selection for Libby’s trial, one juror was asked for their opinion of whether the Bush administration lied to the American people to justify the invasion of Iraq.

“I don’t know,” the potential juror replied. “I don’t really follow a lot of that because I sort of read Medicare documents all day and don’t really do a whole lot else.”

Another prospective juror in the same trial — a housekeeper who cleaned apartments in the Watergate complex — was asked if she knew anyone who might potentially figure into the trial. Because the Libby trial involved a who’s who of media characters and Bush administration officials, jurors were asked about a huge number of Washington figures.

The juror replied there was “the dark-skinned lady” in the building she cleans. The judge was able to suss out that she was referring to a potential witness: then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

William H. Jeffress, a defense attorney who represented Libby, told NOTUS that “it’s going to be hard to get people who feel open-minded towards Trump” in Washington. “That’s just a fact of life. But of course, there are lots and lots of people who, even though they may think Trump is a danger, take that jury service seriously.”

“Jury selection is an art, not a science,” Jeffress said. Finding fair jurors involves both listening to their answers and watching their body language. And potential jurors who are frank about their preconceptions are preferable to those who appear to be “cutting it down the middle,” in Jeffress’ view, because those jurors who give too-good-to-be-true answers could just be gunning to be seated on the jury.

And of course D.C. is a city like any other — with bank tellers, elementary school teachers and day laborers who all get called for jury duty alongside Big Law associates, U.S. Senate staffers and Central Intelligence Agency analysts.

Others prospective jurors showed off their eclectic taste in media — relishing in a news diet consisting of multiple perspectives.

One woman, called as a potential juror in the 2019 Craig trial, described her family’s media diet as consisting of Fox, CNN, the liberal show “Democracy Now!” and the fringe conspiracy theory website Infowars. A possible juror in the Libby trial described reading blogs which were then ascending as an alternate form of media from all over the political spectrum, including the snarky liberal blog Wonkette and the conservative Power Line. A juror candidate in the Roger Stone trial reported only watching figure skating on TV. Another said he consumed no media or social media — other than the social account he set up to show off his car.

And partisans do not always behave in partisan ways when they take an oath to be a juror.

Several members of the militia group Oath Keepers went on trial last year in D.C. — a closely watched political trial involving right-wing figures. Though the government prevailed in convincing two of the group, the D.C. jury acquitted numerous defendants on some of the charges brought by the government.

In neighboring Alexandria, Virginia — another blue enclave just across the Potomac River from D.C., a loyal Trump voter was empaneled as part of the jury that heard the case against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Paula Duncan, a Leesburg homemaker, told NBC that she left her Make America Great Again hat in the car during her jury service.

And at the end of the day, she voted to convict.

“I wanted Paul Manafort to be innocent, but he wasn’t,” Duncan told NBC.

Byron Tau and Maggie Severns are reporters at NOTUS.