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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Victoria Bekiempis in New York

Trump trial: hush money was ‘election fraud pure and simple’, prosecutors say

 Donald Trump, flanked by lawyer Todd Blanche, speaks on his way into court on Monday.
Donald Trump, flanked by lawyer Todd Blanche, speaks on his way into court on Monday. Photograph: Angela Weiss/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock

Donald Trump “orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election” in his efforts to cover up an alleged affair with the adult film star Stormy Daniels, the prosecution said on Monday in its opening statement in the former president’s criminal trial, with the defense countering that “there’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election – it’s called democracy”.

After opening statements from both sides, the historic trial also briefly heard from its first witness, David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer and a man at the heart of Trump’s alleged crimes.

A jury of seven men and five women living in Manhattan will weigh whether Trump’s alleged efforts to conceal an affair with Daniels, which he feared would damage his bid for the White House, were illicit. Trump was charged in the spring of 2023 with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

The case, brought by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, hinges on a $130,000 payment that Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, made to Daniels to keep her story under wraps. Bragg contends that Trump masked the true nature of the payment in business records, by describing repayments to Cohen as lawful legal expenses.

In his opening statements on Monday, the prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told jurors that Trump invited his friend Pecker to a meeting at Trump Tower in summer 2015. Trump had recently thrown his hat into the ring for the 2016 Republican nomination, and Colangelo said Trump, Cohen and Pecker hatched a plan to keep damaging information about Trump out of the press.

According to the prosecution, Pecker agreed to run damaging information in the National Enquirer about opponents – including an item claiming, falsely, that Senator Ted Cruz had family connections to the JFK assassination – as well as buying up negative stories for the express purpose of preventing them from being published.

Colangelo said this “catch-and-kill” campaign was geared towards helping Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

He mentioned an earlier payment to Karen McDougal, the Playboy model who claimed to have had an affair with Trump. “Pecker will also testify that $150,000 was way more than AMI would normally pay for this kind of story, but he discussed it with Donald Trump and he discussed it with Michael Cohen, and he agreed on the deal with the understanding what Trump would find a way to pay AMI back,” Colangelo said. “The company coordinated directly with the candidate.”

He also read out a transcript of Trump’s infamous comments, caught on a hot mic, on the set of the Access Hollywood television show, where Trump bragged he could sexually assault women because he was famous. Colangelo quoted Trump saying: “Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

Noting that the video was released to the public in October 2016, one month before election day, Colangelo said: “The campaign went into immediate damage control mode” and tried to frame the remarks as “locker room talk” – but were terrified the Daniels allegation would show that his boorish behavior extended to actions, not just talk.

“Another story about infidelity, with a porn star, on the heels of the Access Hollywood tape, would have been devastating to his campaign,” Colangelo said.

Cohen was therefore tasked with handling the payment to Daniels, for $130,000, which Trump is alleged to have repaid to him after the election in checks that were listed in business records as legal services. Colangelo said that was a lie. “The defendant was paying him back for an illegal payment to Stormy Daniels on the eve of the election.

“He wanted to conceal his and others’ criminal conduct.”

“Look, no politician wants bad press, but the evidence at trial will show that this wasn’t spin or communication strategy,” Colangelo said. “This was a planned, coordinated, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures – to silence people with something bad to say about his behavior,” Colangelo said.

“It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

Colangelo added that “we’ll never know” whether this conspiracy made the difference “in a close election”.

Cohen, who pleaded guilty in 2018, is expected to be one of the prosecution’s star witnesses. Trump has denied having a sexual encounter with Daniels and insists payments to Cohen were above-board legal expenses.

In the defense’s opening statements, Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche said as much: “President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes. The Manhattan district attorney should never have brought this case.”

Blanche made an effort to humanize Trump, while also repeatedly calling him “President Trump”. “He’s, in some ways, larger than life. But he’s also here in this courtroom doing what any of us would do – defending himself,” he said. “He’s also a man, he’s a husband, he’s a father, he’s a person who’s just like you and just like me.”

Blanche argued that Trump was unaware about the specifics of the hush-money payments because he left it all to Cohen. Trump had nothing to do with the 34 checks other than to sign them, Blanche said.

He added: “There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy.” Prosecutors, he said, “they put something sinister on this idea, as if it was a crime. You’ll learn: it’s not.”

He defended Trump’s attempt to address Daniels’s “sinister” allegations, calling it an attempt to try to “embarrass President Trump, to embarrass his family, because as the people alluded to at that time, there were all kinds of salacious allegations going around about President Trump, and it was damaging to him and it was damaging to his family”.

“You will hear during this trial President Trump fought back – like he always does – like he’s entitled to do to protect his family, his reputation, and his brand – that is not a crime.”

He attacked Cohen, alleging he wanted a job in the Trump administration but did not get one, and saying “he’s obsessed with President Trump, even to this day” to the extent of having multiple podcasts over Trump and waxing enthusiastic about the possibility of his former boss’ conviction. Cohen, he noted, was found to have lied under oath, further undermining his reliability.

As for Daniels, he dismissed her role in the trial as immaterial: “It doesn’t matter. What I mean by that is, I expect you will learn that Ms Daniels doesn’t have any idea. She doesn’t know anything about the charge, 34 counts in this case. She has no idea what Michael Cohen wrote on the invoice … her testimony, while salacious, does not matter.”

He concluded by emphasizing that catch-and-kills of the kind arranged by Trump, Cohen and Pecker of the National Enquirer are not illegal. “This sort of thing happens regularly, where newspapers [make] decisions about what to publish, where to publish, how to publish,” Blanche said. “It happens with politicians, famous people, wealthy people.”

As for Pecker, in brief questioning before the court adjourned, he was asked about his power to control coverage at the National Enquirer – setting up later prosecution efforts to prove he was integral to the catch-and-kill conspiracy. Pecker confirmed the paper paid for stories. “Being in the publishing industry for 40 years, I realized early in my career that the only thing that was important is the cover of a magazine, so when the editors produced the story or prepared a cover, we would have a meeting and they would present to me what the story would be, what the concept was, what the cost was going to be,” he said.

Trump, who has appeared mostly dour throughout the proceedings and fell asleep briefly at several points last week, looked very attentive to and focused on Pecker’s testimony, conferring repeatedly with his lawyers and taking notes on the yellow legal pad in front of him.

The New York City case is just one of several criminal proceedings against Trump. He faces federal charges in relation to the January 6 insurrection, as well as his handling of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago home. In Georgia, he faces state-level charges related to allegedly trying to subvert 2020 election results.

Trump is nonetheless poised to land the Republican presidential nomination this summer after easily defeating his party rivals.

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