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The Latest | Lawyers in Trump hush money case paint competing portraits of him in opening statements

Apr 22, 2024, 3:16 AM | Updated: 12:06 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — In opening statements in Donald Trump’s historic hush money trial, prosecutors said Monday that the former president “orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt” the 2016 presidential election.

Defense attorneys countered, calling Trump “innocent” and saying the Manhattan district attorney’s office “should never have brought this case.”

The commencement of the proceedings set the stage for weeks of unsavory and salacious testimony about Trump’s personal life and placed his legal troubles at the center of his closely contested campaign against President Joe Biden.

A panel of New Yorkers — 12 jurors and six alternates — was sworn in last Friday after four days of jury selection and is hearing what is the first-ever criminal trial against a former U.S. commander-in-chief.

Trump is accused of falsifying internal business records as part of an alleged scheme to bury stories that he thought might hurt his presidential campaign in 2016.

At the heart of the allegations is a $130,000 payment made to porn actor Stormy Daniels by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer, to prevent her claims of a sexual encounter with Trump from surfacing in the final days of the race.

Prosecutors say Trump obscured the true nature of such payments in internal business documents. Trump has denied having a sexual encounter with Daniels, and his lawyers argue that the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses. He has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

The hush money case is the first of Trump’s four indictments to reach trial.

Currently:

— Key players: Who’s who at Donald Trump’s hush money criminal trial

— The hush money case is just one of Trump’s legal cases. See the others here

— Trump cancels rally because of weather, proving the difficulty of balancing a trial and campaign

— Trump was forced to listen silently as potential jurors offered their unvarnished assessments of him

Here’s the latest:

JURY WILL NEED TO ASSESS EVIDENCE FAIRLY, EVEN AS TRUMP RAILS AGAINST THE SYSTEM

Donald Trump has sought to turn his criminal defendant status into an asset for his presidential 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 criminal case against him 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.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records and faces up to four years in prison if convicted, 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.

TRUMP’S $175M BOND IN CIVIL FRAUD JUDGMENT CASE SETTLED WITH CASH PROMISE

In a Manhattan civil court on Monday, state lawyers and an attorney for Donald Trump settled their differences over a $175 million bond that Trump posted to block a large civil fraud judgment while he pursues appeals.

An attorney for the state said they wanted extra assurances because Trump had raised the money with help from a relatively small out-of-state insurance company.

As part of the deal struck Monday, lawyers for Trump and Knight Specialty Insurance Company agreed to keep the $175 million in a cash account that will gain interest but faces no downside risk.

The bond stops the state from potentially seizing Trump’s assets to satisfy the more than $454 million that he owes after Judge Arthur Engoron in February concluded that Trump and others had deceived banks and insurers by exaggerating his wealth on financial statements.

Trump railed against Engoron after his criminal trial wrapped for the day.

“He challenged the bonding company that maybe the bonding company was no good. Well, they’re good. And they also have $175 million of collateral — my collateral,” he said.

HEARING ON PROSECUTORS’ REQUEST TO SANCTION TRUMP OVER ONLINE POSTS TO BE HELD MONDAY

Before testimony resumes in Donald Trump’s hush money trial on Tuesday, the judge will hold a hearing on prosecutors’ request to hold the former president in contempt of court over social media posts he recently made.

Last week, the prosecution asked that Judge Juan M. Merchan sanction Trump and fine him at least $3,000 for allegedly violating a gag order prohibiting him from attacking key witnesses in the case. Prosecutors said Trump did just that with nearly a dozen online posts, including at least three posted on Truth Social.

Several of the posts involved an article that referred to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen as a “serial perjurer,” and one from Wednesday repeated a claim by a Fox News host that liberal activists were lying to get on the jury, said prosecutor Christopher Conroy.

EVERYDAY PEOPLE GETTING AN UP CLOSE VIEW OF TRIAL FROM INSIDE

While courtroom access to Donald Trump’s hush money trial was restricted to a handful of reporters during jury selection, the start of opening statements has given members of the public a chance to witness the first criminal trial of a former president up close.

Roughly a dozen members of the public were allowed into the proceedings on Monday. Some had lined up before dawn to get their chance at witnessing history. But not everyone.

“I was planning on going to work, then as I was walking by, I saw all the police,” said Monroe Clinton, a programmer, who added that had not been following the trial closely. “I told my co-workers, ‘Hey I just saw the Trump trial is happening.’ The line was quite short, so I decided to go on in.”

Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a former aide in the Trump administration, was seen waiting in line to get into the overflow room, a room adjacent to the main courtroom where the trial is being shown on monitors.

COURT ADJOURNS EARLY

Court has adjourned for the day in Donald Trump’s hush money trial in New York.

Judge Juan M. Merchan had originally planned to adjourn at 2 p.m. because of Passover but agreed to adjourn early to accommodate an alternate juror’s emergency dental appointment.

Merchan plans to adjourn court on Tuesday at 2 p.m. for the holiday.

TESTIMONY MARKED BY LIGHTHEARTED MOMENT

He’s the first person ever to testify at a criminal trial of a former U.S. president, and David Pecker is doing so under subpoena, with his lawyer in the courtroom.

But the weighty occasion still had a lighthearted moment on Monday afternoon.

It came when a prosecutor asked Pecker to recite parts of phone numbers he’d had during the time period when the allegations in Donald Trump’s hush money case took place — from 2015 to about 2017. It was a question that might have been asked in order to authenticate phone records later on.

But after Pecker rattled off the closing digits of four different cellphone and office phone numbers from memory, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass assured him, “This isn’t a quiz.”

Pecker responded with a cackling laugh.

NATIONAL ENQUIRER EMPLOYED ‘CHECKBOOK JOURNALISM,’ PECKER TESTIFIES

David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, testified Monday in Donald Trump’s hush money trial about the publication’s use of “checkbook journalism,” a practice that entails paying a source for a story.

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

He went on to describe the publication’s coverage meetings — in which he had final say over celebrity stories — and his editorial philosophy.

“The only thing that is important is the cover of a magazine,” Pecker said.

DAVID PECKER TAKES THE STAND AS THE FIRST WITNESS

David Pecker, the National Enquirer’s former publisher and a longtime friend of Donald Trump, was the first witness to take the stand in the former president’s hush money trial on Monday.

Prosecutors say he met with Trump and Michael Cohen at Trump Tower in August 2015 and agreed to help the campaign identify negative stories about him.

Pecker took the stand just after noon, sporting a charcoal suit, yellow tie and glasses. The 72-year-old now consults, including for his old employer, the company formerly known as American Media Inc.

DEFENSE ASKS JURORS TO USE ‘C
OMMON SENSE’ IN FINAL REMARKS

Defense attorneys concluded their opening statements in Donald Trump’s hush money trial by downplaying expected testimony from porn actor Stormy Daniels, as well as emphasizing that prosecutors have not charged him with conspiracy despite describing the allegations against him as such in their opening statements.

“There’s nothing illegal about what you will hear happened among the National Enquirer, AMI, David Pecker and Donald Trump,” Blanche said, adding: “It’s not a scheme, unless a scheme means something that doesn’t matter, that’s not illegal.”

Blanche concluded by urging jurors to pay attention to all of the testimony and to use common sense, observing, “We’re all New Yorkers here.”

“If you do that, there will be a very swift ‘not guilty’ verdict,” Blanche said.

Court subsequently took a break and Trump left the courtroom without speaking to reporters in the hallway.

DEFENSE ZEROES IN ON KEY PROSECUTION WITNESS

One of Donald Trump’s defense attorneys zeroed in during opening statements on the credibility of one of the prosecution’s key witnesses: Michael Cohen.

Attorney Todd Blanche provided an extensive account Monday of Cohen’s criminal record and his history of lying under oath. He said that Cohen turned against the former president only after he was not given a job in the administration and found himself in legal trouble.

Blanche accused Cohen of being “obsessed with President Trump,” saying “his entirely financial livelihood depends on President Trump’s destruction.”

“You cannot make a serious decision about President Trump relying on the words of Michael Cohen,” Blanche said.

Anticipating the defense’s likely attacks on their star witness, prosecutor Matthew Colangelo acknowledged Cohen’s criminal record earlier in the day.

“I suspect the defense will go to great lengths to get you to reject his testimony precisely because it is so damning,” Cohen said.

“We will be very upfront about it,” he continued, adding that Cohen, “like other witnesses in this trial, has made mistakes.”

“You can credit Michael Cohen’s testimony despite those past mistakes,” he added.

TRUMP HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH PAYMENTS, DEFENSE SAYS

Defense attorneys in Donald Trump’s hush money case said Monday that he had nothing to do with payments that were made to prevent stories about his sex life from being made public near the end of the 2016 presidential election.

Todd Blanche portrayed the business ledger entries at issue in the case as pro forma actions performed by a Trump Organization functionary.

Trump “had nothing to do” with the invoice, the check being generated or the entry on the ledger, Blanche said.

While prosecutors allege Trump reimbursed Michael Cohen $420,000 — more than double what Cohen paid to porn actor Stormy Daniels — because the cover-up was crucial to the campaign, Blanche said the excess payments are proof that Trump had nothing to do with the scheme.

“Ask yourself, would a frugal businessman, a man who pinches pennies, repay a $130,000 debt to the tune of $420,000?” Blanche asked.

“President Trump had nothing to do with any of the 34 pieces of paper, the 34 counts, except that he signed the checks, in the White House, while he was running the country.”

Blanche took particular issue with the prosecution’s insinuation that attempting to influence an election connotes illegality.

“I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy,” Blanche said. “They put something sinister on this idea as if it’s a crime. You’ll learn it’s not.”

DEFENSE BEGINS ITS OPENING STATEMENTS

Following the prosecution’s opening statements in Donald Trump’s criminal hush money trial, the defense called the former president “innocent” and said the Manhattan district attorney’s office “should never have brought this case.”

“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,” Todd Blanche said as Trump looked on with interest. He went on to describe Trump as a former president but also an everyday person — a man, a husband, a father.

In the prosecution’s openings, Trump was referred to as “the defendant.” But his own lawyers are referring to him as “President Trump.”

“We will call him President Trump, out of respect for the office that he held,” Blanche said.

Other Trump lawyers have used the same language in previous legal cases.

PROSECUTORS SAY TRUMP PAID COHEN DOUBLE FOR HUSH MONEY SCHEME

After the 2016 election, Donald Trump invited David Pecker, then publisher of the National Enquirer, to Trump Tower to thank him for his contribution to the campaign, prosecutors said Monday. He also invited the publisher to the inauguration and later to the White House, where a dinner was held to honor Pecker and then-National Enquirer editor Dylan Howard.

But prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said Trump still had a few “loose ends” to tie up at the time, including reimbursing his then-lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen for the payments he had given to Stormy Daniels.

“Neither Trump nor the Trump Organization could just write a check to Cohen with a memo line that said ‘reimbursement for porn star pay-off,’” Colangelo said. “So they agreed to cook the books and make it look like the payment was actually income, payment for services rendered.”

Colangelo added that the evidence would show that while Trump is a “very frugal businessman,” when it came to reimbursing Cohen, Trump paid him double.

“This might be the only time it ever happened,” Colangelo said. Trump’s willingness to part with so much cash showed how important it was to him to keep the hush money scheme under wraps, the prosecutor posited.

TRUMP DIRECTED COHEN TO MAKE A DEAL WITH STORMY DANIELS, PROSECUTORS SAY

Within days of the “Access Hollywood” tape involving Donald Trump becoming public, Colangelo told jurors, The National Enquirer alerted Trump’s then-lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen that porn actor Stormy Daniels wanted to go public with her claims of a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump.

“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, referring to the scheme as a “conspiracy” and “election fraud, pure and simple.”

TRUMP SHOWS NO REACTION TO ‘ACCESS HOLLYWOOD’ TAPE TRANSCRIPT

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told jurors in Donald Trump’s criminal hush money case that The Washington Post’s publication of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape, where Trump was heard on a hot mic “bragging about sexual assaults,” had an immediate and “explosive” impact on his presidential campaign.

Colangelo told jurors that prominent Trump allies withdrew their endorsements and condemned his language. The prosecutor said evidence would show the Republican National Committee even considered whether it was possible to replace Trump with another candidate.

As Colangelo read aloud words from the tape, Trump showed no reaction.

PROSECUTION HONES IN ON ‘CATCH-AND-KILL’ OPERATION

Prosecutors in Donald Trump’s criminal trial honed in on what they called a “catch-and-kill” operation at the center of the allegations in the hush money case.

The plan was hatched at Trump Tower shortly after the then-presidential candidate had announced his candidacy. During that meeting, prosecutors say that David Pecker, then-publisher of the National Enquirer, agreed to “help the defendant’s campaign by working as the eyes and the ears of the campaign.”

Speaking of arrangements made to pay former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 to suppress her claims of a nearly year-long affair with the married Trump, Colangelo said Trump “desperately did not want this information … become public because he was worried about its effect on the election.”

Colangelo told jurors they 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 would hear Trump in his own voice, saying, “What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?”

TRUMP TRIED TO ‘CORRUPT’ 2016 ELECTION, PROSECUTORS ALLEGE IN OPENING STATEMENTS

Prosecutors in Donald Trump’s hush money trial said in opening statements that the former president allegedly went to great lengths to “corrupt” the 2016 presidential election.

“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,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told jurors.

Colangelo, senior counsel to the district attorney, told jurors that though the payments to Michael Cohen were labeled as legal fees pursuant to a retainer agreement, there was no retainer and there were no legal services. “The defendant falsified those business records because he wanted to conceal his and others’ criminal conduct,” he said.

All 18 jurors looked directly at the veteran prosecutor, who stood at a lectern in the middle of the courtroom about halfway between them and Trump.

JUDGE BARS PROSECUTORS FROM BRINGING UP 2 TRUMP LEGAL CASES

While prosecutors in Donald Trump’s hush money trial will be allowed to question him in a limited manner — if he testifies — about his recent civil fraud and writer E. Jean Carroll’s defamation lawsuit against him, the judge has barred them from bringing up two other legal cases.

One was the 2022 New York criminal tax fraud trial of Trump’s business, the Trump Organization. The company was convicted by a jury. Trump wasn’t charged in that case.

The other is the nearly $1 million fine that a federal judge in Florida last year ordered Trump and one of his attorneys to pay. The judge levied the penalty after finding that Trump filed a “completely frivolous” lawsuit against his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton and others.

JURY ENTERS COURTROOM FOR TRIAL PROCEEDINGS

Members of the jury in Donald Trump’s hush money case entered the courtroom just after 10 a.m. Monday. The former president turned in his seat and looked briefly in their direction before the judge began explaining the court proceedings.

“Good morning, jurors. We are about to proceed with the trial of the People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump,” said Judge Juan M. Merchan.

Because the panel was selected over several days, this is the first time the full jury has been together. It’s also the first time jurors are seeing the courtroom packed with reporters — a departure from last week when the gallery was full of prospective jurors and there were just a few reporters permitted inside.

PROSECUTORS CAN QUESTION TRUMP ABOUT OTHER CASES, JUDGE RULES

Prosecutors in Donald Trump’s hush money case can cross-examine him about several of his recent legal setbacks if he chooses to testify, the judge ruled.

Trump shook his head Monday morning as Judge Juan M. Merchan ruled that prosecutors could ask him about the outcome of his recent civil business fraud trial, in which another judge found that Trump, along with his business and key executives, fraudulently inflated his wealth on paperwork used to secure loans and insurance.

Merchan said prosecutors could challenge the former president’s credibility by questioning him about six legal determinations in four cases, including his $88.3 million in judgments for defaming writer E. Jean Carroll.

Strict limits will be placed on what prosecutors can question Trump about regarding those cases, including prohibiting them from eliciting the amounts of the monetary penalties imposed, said Merchan.

JUDGE TO ALLOW PROSECUTION TO INTRODUCE ‘ACCESS HOLLYWOOD’

Judge Juan M. Merchan will allow the prosecution in Donald Trump’s hush money case to introduce the notorious ‘Access Hollywood’ tape into evidence, but will not permit the showing of the actual video in court.

Trump’s lawyers have objected to the use of a transcript. But Merchan said that in his view there is “no reason” why a transcript of the video, where Trump boasted about grabbing women’s genitals without permission, “should not be admitted into evidence.”

COURT TO END EARLY DUE TO PASSOVER, JUROR OBLIGATIONS

Donald Trump’s hush money trial will adjourn earlier than expected on Monday to accommodate an alternate juror’s emergency dental appointment in the afternoon.

Judge Juan M. Merchan had previously planned to adjourn the trial at 2 p.m. because of Passover, but will now adjourn the case at 12:30 p.m. He plans to end at 2 p.m. on Tuesday for the holiday.

JUROR WHO EXPRESSED RESERVATIONS ABOUT TRIAL WILL STAY ON

A juror who expressed reservations about continuing with Donald Trump’s hush money trial ahead of opening statements will remain on the jury, according to the judge.

Judge Juan M. Merchan said his understanding was “that the juror was concerned about the media attention” to the case and wasn’t “100% sure they wanted to be here today.”

The juror showed up to court Monday and was questioned in the judge’s robing room, out of the view of the press, he said.

TRUMP CASTS TRIAL AS ‘UNFAIR’

Before heading into the courtroom Monday morning, Donald Trump addressed a camera in the hallway, once again saying that it’s “unfair” he has to be there, rather than out campaigning.

He once again cast the trial as a “witch hunt” and a “shame” aimed at damaging his campaign.

“I’m here instead of being able to be in Pennsylvania and Georgia and lots of other places campaigning and it’s very unfair,” he said.

Trump also spoke at length about another hearing taking place at a nearby court, regarding the $175 million bond he paid in his civil fraud case.

Once in the courtroom, the former president filled his cheeks with air and exhaled before sitting down.

Photographers quickly crowded around him, snapping photos ahead of the proceedings.

The gallery was packed with reporters, and the temperature in the courtroom was slightly warmer than on previous days, where the chill was a subject of much discussion.

WHY ISN’T TRUMP’S TRIAL TELEVISED?

New York state law regarding media coverage of court proceedings is one of the most restrictive in the country.

Regulations limiting media coverage in courtrooms date back nearly a century, when the spectacle of bright flashbulbs and camera operators standing on witness tables during the 1935 trial of the man accused of kidnapping and killing Charles Lindbergh’s baby son horrified the legal community, according to a 2022 report by the New York-based Fund for Modern Courts.

Yet an interest in open government chipped away at these laws and — slowly, carefully — video cameras began to be permitted in courts across the country, often at the discretion of judges presiding in individual cases.

New York allowed them, too, on an experimental basis between 1987 and 1997, but they were shut down.

THE TIMING OF THIS CASE LENDS TO ITS SIGNIFICANCE

The allegations at the heart of this case don’t accuse Donald Trump of an egregious abuse of power like the federal case in Washington charging him with plotting to overturn the 2020 presidential election, or of flouting national security protocols like the federal case in Florida charging him with hoarding classified documents.

But the New York prosecution has taken on added importance because it may be the only one of the four cases against Trump that reaches trial before the election.

Appeals and legal wrangling have delayed the other three cases.

HERE’S WHO COULD BE CALLED TO TESTIFY

MICHAEL COHEN — Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer. He was once a fierce Trump ally, but now he’s a key prosecution witness against his former boss. Cohen worked for the Trump Organization from 2006 to 2017. He later went to federal prison after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations relating to the hush money arrangements and other, unrelated crimes.

STORMY DANIELS — The porn actor who received a $130,000 payment from Cohen as part of his hush money efforts. Cohen paid Daniels to keep quiet about what she says was a sexual encounter with Trump years earlier. Trump denies having sex with Daniels.

KAREN MCDOUGAL — A former Playboy model who said she had a 10-month affair with Trump in the mid-2000s. She was paid $150,000 in 2016 by the parent company of the National Enquirer for the rights to her story about the alleged relationship. Trump denies having sex with McDougal.

DAVID PECKER — The National Enquirer’s former publisher and a longtime Trump friend. Prosecutors say he met with Trump and Cohen at Trump Tower in August 2015 and agreed to help Trump’s campaign identify negative stories about him.

HOPE HICKS — Trump’s former White House communications director. Prosecutors say she spoke with Trump by phone during a frenzied effort to keep allegations of his marital infidelity out of the press after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape leaked weeks before the 2016 election. In the tape, from 2005, Trump boasted about grabbing women without permission.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.

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The Latest | Lawyers in Trump hush money case paint competing portraits of him in opening statements