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First witness takes stand in Trump hush money trial

Updated April 22, 2024 - 2:40 pm

NEW YORK — Donald Trump tried to illegally influence the 2016 presidential election by preventing damaging stories about his personal life from becoming public, a prosecutor told jurors Monday at the start of the former president’s historic hush money trial.

“This was a planned, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures to silence people who had something bad to say about his behavior,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said. “It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

A defense lawyer countered by assailing the case as baseless and attacking the integrity of the onetime Trump confidant who’s now the government’s star witness.

“President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes. The Manhattan district attorney’s office should never have brought this case,” attorney Todd Blanche said.

The opening statements offered the 12-person jury — and the voting public — radically divergent roadmaps for a case that will unfold against the backdrop of a closely contested White House race in which Trump is not only the presumptive Republican nominee but also a criminal defendant facing the prospect of a felony conviction and prison.

It is the first criminal trial of a former American president and the first of four prosecutions of Trump to reach a jury. Befitting that history, prosecutors sought from the outset to elevate the gravity of the case, which they said was chiefly about election interference as reflected by the hush money payments to a porn actor who said she had a sexual encounter with Trump.

“The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election. Then he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in his New York business records over and over and over again,” Colangelo said.

Away from the trail

The trial, which could last up to two months, will require Trump to spend his days in a courtroom rather than on the campaign trail, a reality he complained about Monday when he lamented to reporters after leaving the courtroom: “I’m the leading candidate … and this is what they’re trying to take me off the trail for. Checks being paid to a lawyer.”

Trump has nonetheless sought to turn his criminal defendant status into an asset for his campaign, fundraising off his legal jeopardy and repeatedly railing against a justice system that he has for years claimed is weaponized against him. In the weeks ahead, the case will test the jury’s ability to judge him impartially but also Trump’s ability to comply with courtroom protocol, including a gag order barring him from attacking witnesses, jurors, trial prosecutors and some others.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records — a charge punishable by up to four years in prison — though it’s not clear if the judge would seek to put him behind bars. A conviction would not preclude Trump from becoming president again, but because it is a state case, he would not be able to pardon himself if found guilty. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg revisits a years-old chapter from Trump’s biography when his celebrity past collided with his political ambitions and, prosecutors say, he scrambled to stifle stories that he feared could torpedo his campaign.

The opening statements served as an introduction to the colorful cast of characters that feature prominently in that tawdry saga, including Stormy Daniels, the porn actor who says she received the hush money; Michael Cohen, the lawyer who prosecutors say paid her; and David Pecker, the tabloid publisher who agreed to function as the campaign’s “eyes and ears” and who served as the prosecution’s first witness on Monday.

Pecker is due back on the stand Tuesday, when the court will also hear arguments on whether Trump violated Judge Juan Merchan’s gag order with a series of Truth Social posts about witnesses over the last week.

‘Access Hollywood’ revisited

In his opening statement, Colangelo outlined a comprehensive effort by Trump his allies to prevent three separate stories — two from women alleging prior sexual encounters — from surfacing during the 2016 presidential campaign. That undertaking was especially urgent following the emergence late in the race of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording in which Trump could be heard boasting about grabbing women sexually without their permission.

Colangelo recited Trump’s now-infamous remarks as Trump looked on, stone-faced.

“The impact of that tape on the campaign was immediate and explosive,” Colangelo said.

Within days of the “Access Hollywood” tape becoming public, Colangelo told jurors that the National Enquirer alerted Cohen that Stormy Daniels was agitating to go public with her claims of a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006.

“At Trump’s direction, Cohen negotiated a deal to buy Ms. Daniels’ story to prevent American voters from hearing that story before Election Day,” Colangelo told jurors.

But, the prosecutor noted, “neither Trump nor the Trump Organization could just write a check to Cohen with a memo line that said ‘reimbursement for porn star payoff.’” So, he added, “they agreed to cook the books and make it look like the payment was actually income, payment for services rendered.”

Those alleged falsified records form the backbone of the 34-count indictment against Trump. Trump has denied a sexual encounter with Daniels.

‘It is called democracy’

Blanche, the defense lawyer, sought to preemptively undermine the credibility of Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges related to his role in the hush money scheme, as someone with an “obsession” with Trump who cannot be trusted. He said Trump had done nothing illegal when his company recorded the checks to Cohen as legal expenses.

“There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It is called democracy,” not a crime, Blanche said.

Blanche challenged the notion that Trump agreed to the Daniels payout to safeguard his campaign. Instead, he characterized the transaction as an attempt to squelch a “sinister” effort to embarrass Trump and his loved ones.

“President Trump fought back, like he always does, and like he’s entitled to do, to protect his family, his reputation and his brand, and that is not a crime,” Blanche told jurors.

The efforts to suppress the stories are what’s known in the tabloid industry as “catch-and-kill” — catching a potentially damaging story by buying the rights to it and then killing it through agreements that prevent the paid person from telling the story to anyone else.

Besides the payment to Daniels, Colangelo also described other arrangements, including one that paid a former Playboy model $150,000 to suppress claims of a nearly yearlong affair with the married Trump. Colangelo said Trump “desperately did not want this information about Karen McDougal to become public because he was worried about its effect on the election.”

He said jurors would hear a recording Cohen made in September 2016 of himself briefing Trump on the plan to buy McDougal’s story. The recording was made public in July 2018. Colangelo told jurors they will hear Trump in his own voice saying: “What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?”

Trump denies McDougal’s claims of an affair.

The first and only witness Monday was Pecker, the then-publisher of the National Enquirer and a longtime Trump friend who prosecutors say met with Trump and Cohen at Trump Tower in August 2015 and agreed to help Trump’s campaign identify negative stories about him.

Pecker described the tabloid’s use of “checkbook journalism,” a practice that entails paying a source for a story.

“I gave a number to the editors that they could not spend more than $10,000” on a story without getting his approval, Pecker said Tuesday.

The New York case has taken on added importance because it may be the only one of the four against Trump to reach trial before the November election. Appeals and legal wrangling have delayed the other three cases.

Tucker reported from Washington.

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