Donald Trump

Trump trial: Prosecutors, defense present their case as first witness takes the stand

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.

NBC Universal, Inc.

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.

A defense lawyer countered by saying that Trump was “innocent" and by attacking the integrity of the onetime Trump confidant who's now the government's star witness.

The opening statements offered the 12-person jury — and the voting public — a roadmap for viewing the allegations at the heart of the case and Trump's expected defenses. The attorneys previewed weeks of salacious and potentially unflattering testimony in a trial that will unfold against the backdrop of a closely contested White House race. Trump is not only the presumptive Republican nominee but also a defendant facing the prospect of a felony conviction and prison.

Prosecutors at the outset sought to emphasize the gravity of the case, the first of four criminal prosecutions against Trump to reach trial, by framing it as about election interference. The depiction seemed intended to rebut criticism that the case lacks the grievous allegations that define Trump's other three cases, including plotting to overturn an election and illegally hoarding classified documents.

“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.

The opening statements also served as an introduction to the colorful cast of characters that comprise the tawdry saga, including a porn actor who says she had a sexual encounter with Trump; the lawyer who prosecutors say paid her to keep quiet about it; and the tabloid publisher who agreed to function as the campaign's “eyes and ears.”

Former National Enquirer publisher and longtime Trump friend David Pecker took the stand as the first witness for the prosecution. Prosecutors say Pecker met with Trump and Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer, at Trump Tower in August 2015 and agreed to help Trump’s campaign identify negative stories about him.

Pecker testified 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.

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 attempt to pardon himself if found guilty. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

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

In his opening statements, Colangelo traced the origins of the effort to the emergence late in the 2016 campaign of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording in which Trump could be heard boasting about grabbing women sexually without their permission.

“The impact of that tape on the campaign was immediate and explosive,” Colangelo said, recounting for jurors how prominent Trump allies withdrew their endorsements and condemned his language.

The prosecutor said evidence will show the Republican National Committee even considered whether it was possible to replace Trump with another candidate.

Within days of the “Access Hollywood” tape becoming public, Colangelo told jurors that The National Enquirer alerted Cohen that porn actor 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.

The prosecutor described other payments as well that were part of what's known in the tabloid industry as a “catch-and-kill” ploy — catching a potentially damaging story by buying the rights to it and then suppressing or killing it through agreements that prevent the paid person from telling the story to anyone else.

Trump has denied having a sexual encounter with Daniels.

Colangelo also talked about arrangements made to pay a former Playboy model $150,000 to suppress her 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 told jurors they will 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 hear Trump in his own voice, saying: “What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?”

Arguing that Trump did nothing illegal when his company recorded the checks to Cohen as legal expenses, defense lawyer Todd Blanche challenged the notion that Trump agreed to the Daniels payout to safeguard his campaign. Prosecutors say the payments were veiled reimbursements meant to cover up Cohen’s payments to Daniels.

While the money changed hands close to the election, Blanche characterized the transaction as the then-candidate trying to squelch a “sinister” effort to embarrass him 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.

This brings the case closer to opening statements.

Trump arrived at the courthouse shortly before 9 a.m., minutes after castigating the case in capital letters on social media as “election interference” and a “witch hunt.”

The trial will require him to spend his days in a courtroom rather than on the campaign trail, a reality he complained about Monday when he lamented to reporters that he was “here instead of being able to be in Pennsylvania and Georgia and lots of other places campaigning, and it’s very unfair.”

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.

Hearing the case is a jury that includes, among others, multiple lawyers, a sales professional, an investment banker and an English teacher. As court began Monday, Judge Juan Merchan disclosed that one of the jurors selected for the case had conveyed reservations about participating, apparently because of the intense media attention. The juror was questioned privately but will remain on the case.

The case will test jurors' ability to set aside any bias but also Trump's ability to abide by the court's restrictions, such as a gag order that bars him from attacking witnesses. Prosecutors are seeking fines against him for alleged violations of that order.

To convict Trump of a felony, prosecutors must show he not only falsified or caused business records to be entered falsely, which would be a misdemeanor, but that he did so to conceal another crime.

The allegations don't accuse 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.

Contact Us