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Prosecutor, Trump Defense Lawyer Spar Over Charges Facing Former President

Former President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump looks on at Manhattan criminal court during his trial in New York, April 22, 2024. Opening statements in Trump's historic hush money trial are set to begin.
Former President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump looks on at Manhattan criminal court during his trial in New York, April 22, 2024. Opening statements in Trump's historic hush money trial are set to begin.

A New York prosecutor and a defense lawyer for Donald Trump sparred sharply Monday over whether the former U.S. president illegally schemed to influence the outcome of his successful 2016 run for the White House by making hush money payments to two women who alleged they had extramarital affairs with him.

“It was election fraud, pure and simple,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo bluntly told the 12-member jury in his opening statement of the first criminal trial ever against a former U.S. president. “This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a coverup.”

But Trump’s defense attorney, Todd Blanche, told the jurors, “President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes. He is cloaked in innocence.”

Colangelo laid out a wide-ranging plot he says Trump orchestrated to keep voters from learning, just days before they headed to polling stations eight years ago, about Trump’s alleged affairs with porn film star Stormy Daniels and a former Playmate of the Year, both of which the country’s 45th president has denied.

Colangelo said that from the evidence he plans to produce, the jurors would reach “only one conclusion: Donald Trump is guilty of 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree,” to reimburse his one-time lawyer and political fixer, convicted perjurer Michael Cohen, for the $130,000 he paid to Daniels to keep her quiet.

Blanche dismissed the prosecutor’s account as misleading and untrue, telling jurors, "I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election."

"It’s called democracy,” Blanche said.

“Use your common sense,” Blanche said. “We’re New Yorkers. It’s why we’re here. If you do that, there will be a very swift — a very swift — not guilty verdict,” he said, the last words of his opening statement in a trial that could last six weeks.


Man who set himself on fire outside Trump trial dies of injuries, police say

First witness

With the lawyers’ opening accounts of the case completed, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass called his first witness, David Pecker, the former publisher of the popular grocery store tabloid, the National Enquirer.

Prosecutors are hoping Pecker will describe how he, Trump and Cohen plotted in what Colangelo called a “Trump Tower conspiracy” to keep damaging stories about Trump from being published in the tabloid ahead of the 2016 election.

“We used checkbook journalism, and we paid for stories,” Pecker told jurors of his time at the National Enquirer. Pecker said he had "final say" over editorial decisions and that anything over $10,000 for a story had to be approved by him.

Prosecutors allege that the tabloid paid Karen McDougal, the former Playmate of the Year who says she had a 10-month affair with Trump, $150,000 to buy the rights to her story and then not publish it, a scheme the tabloid called “catch and kill.”

But Pecker’s testimony was truncated soon after it started, with New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan recessing the trial for the day in observance of Passover, the Jewish holiday.

The 72-year-old Pecker is expected to resume testifying on Tuesday but not until Merchan holds a hearing on whether Trump should, at the prosecution’s request, be held in contempt of court and fined for allegedly violating the judge’s gag order prohibiting him from disparaging witnesses and key figures in the case. Trump has denied wrongdoing.

Key ruling

At the outset Monday, Merchan issued a key ruling favoring the prosecutors.

The judge said that if the 77-year-old Trump decides to testify at the trial, prosecutors will be allowed to ask him questions about costly civil cases he has lost in recent months.

Trump has said he intends to testify in his own defense. But Merchan’s ruling allowing prosecutors to ask Trump on cross-examination about his previous civil cases in which he was ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages could make his testimony in the criminal case more problematic.

Ultimately, it will be up to Trump whether he decides to take the witness stand after listening to his lawyers’ advice.

Trump, sitting at the defense table, shook his head in disagreement as Merchan said prosecutors could, if Trump testifies, ask him under oath about a decision in which another judge ordered him to pay more than $350 million in damages for inflating the value of his vast real estate holdings as he sought favorable loan terms for future business transactions.

In addition, Merchan ruled that Trump could be asked about another case in which a jury awarded more than $80 million to New York writer E. Jean Carroll for defamation, after an earlier jury had ruled that Trump sexually assaulted her in a New York department store dressing room in the late 1990s.

Charges explained

In the criminal case, Trump lawyer Blanche told the jurors that the money paid to Cohen was not to reimburse him for the $130,000 in hush money Cohen claims he paid to Daniels but rather legal fees he was owed. Cohen has turned against his former boss and is expected to be a key witness for the prosecution.

As he came to court one day last week, Trump told reporters, “I was paying a lawyer and marked it down as a legal expense. That’s exactly what it was."

Before heading to court Monday, Trump, the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee in the November 5 election, again claimed on his Truth Social platform that the case against him is part of a Democratic “witch hunt” and “election interference” designed to keep him from campaigning.

Late Sunday, he noted he was “somewhat ironically” being accused of election interference in his 2016 campaign while making the same claim himself in his current contest against President Joe Biden, the Democrat he lost to in 2020.

Seven men and five women were seated on the jury last Thursday to hear the evidence in the trial. The jury includes two lawyers, six people employed at businesses, two in the education field, a health care worker and an engineer.

Trump was president from 2017 to 2021. He has denied all 34 felony counts in the New York indictment filed against him a year ago.

If convicted, Trump could be imprisoned for up to four years.

Since Trump is required to be in court, the case almost certainly will limit his time on the campaign trail as he runs for the second straight election cycle against Biden.

Altering his company’s ledgers would be a misdemeanor offense, but to convict Trump of a more serious felony, prosecutors will have to convince jurors he committed an underlying crime, such as trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 election by keeping information about the alleged affairs from voters.

It is not illegal to pay hush money, and Trump may claim the payments were made simply to avoid disclosure of personally compromising moments of his life, not to try to influence the 2016 election.

The 12-member jury will have to reach a unanimous decision of either a guilty verdict or acquittal. If the jurors fail to agree among themselves, there would be what is called a hung jury, leaving the prosecutors to decide whether to seek a new trial.

Each of the charges carries the possibility of a four-year prison term, although Trump is certain to appeal any guilty verdict and sentence.

The New York case is one of an unprecedented four criminal indictments Trump is facing, encompassing 88 charges, all of which he has denied. The hush money trial, however, could be the only one that occurs before the November election.

Two of the other indictments — one state and one federal — accuse him of illegally trying to upend his 2020 loss, while the third alleges he illegally took hundreds of highly classified national security documents with him to his oceanside Florida estate when his presidential term ended, and then refused requests by investigators to return them.

No firm trial dates have been set in any of those three cases, and Trump has sought to push the start dates to after the election.

If he wins, he could seek to have the federal charges dismissed. In any event, if he assumes power again, he would not be tried during his presidency.