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Prosecutors at hush money trial say Trump led 'porn star payoff' scheme to 'corrupt' 2016 election

Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker was called as the prosecution’s first witness following opening statements from both sides.
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Donald Trump "orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election," a prosecutor told jurors Monday during opening statements in the first criminal trial of a former president.

"This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a cover-up,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told the 12-person jury and six alternates. Trump, he said, conspired to corrupt the 2016 presidential election by scheming with his lawyer Michael Cohen and David Pecker, who was the publisher of the National Enquirer at the time.

“Then, he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in his New York business records over and over and over again,” Colangelo said.

Pecker was called as the prosecution's first witness following opening statements from both sides. Trump's lawyer Todd Blanche told the jury his client was not guilty because no crime was committed.

Trump, who had his eyes closed for periods during the morning proceedings, seemed much more engaged when his old ally and friend Pecker was taking the stand. Trump craned his neck when Pecker walked in, almost as if to see whether Pecker would meet his eye. Trump also poked at his attorney Emil Bove and whispered something as Pecker, 72, got situated, and he leaned forward attentively when he began testifying.

Pecker did not get to his relationship with Trump by the time the court day ended. The proceedings ended early because a juror had an emergency dental appointment.

Trump told reporters afterward that the case was "unfair" and launched into an attack against Cohen, who's expected to be called as witness.

"When are they going to look at all the lies that Cohen did in the last trial? He got caught lying in the last trial. Pure lying," Trump said, apparently referring to Cohen's statement in the civil fraud case against Trump that he lied under oath during part of his 2018 guilty plea. "When are they going to look at that?” Trump said.

The comments are likely to come up at a hearing Tuesday morning, when Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's office is scheduled to argue that Trump has repeatedly violated a partial gag order barring him from making "public statements about known or reasonably foreseeable witnesses concerning their potential participation in the investigation or in this criminal proceeding."

Prosecutors have said Cohen and Pecker, the longtime former publisher of the Enquirer, are central figures in the alleged scheme to bury claims from women who said they had had affairs with Trump.

Colangelo told the jurors they will hear about a 2015 meeting at Trump Tower with Trump, Cohen and Pecker. Both Cohen and Pecker had specific roles to play in the scheme, Colangelo said. “Cohen’s job really was to take care of problems for the defendant,” he said. “He was Trump’s fixer.” Pecker, meanwhile, would act as “the eyes and ears” for Trump and would let him and Cohen know about any allegations that could hurt his campaign.

The DA alleges the three conspired to hide “damaging information from the voting public.” That included allegations from a former Playboy model named Karen McDougal who said she had a 10-month sexual relationship with Trump that ended in April 2007. Pecker’s AMI agreed to pay her $150,000 in a deal to essentially buy her silence — a practice that was referred to as “catch and kill.” Trump has denied McDougal's claims.

The situation took on a greater sense of urgency for Trump in October 2016. That's when The Washington Post published the "Access Hollywood" tape, which caught Trump on a hot mic saying he could grope women without their consent because "when you're a star, they let you do it."

Judge Juan Merchan barred the DA from playing the tape for the jury for fear it would be too prejudicial, but he did allow prosecutors to use a transcript of Trump's remarks.

Colangelo said the impact of the tape was “immediate and explosive.”

“The defendant and his campaign were concerned that it would irrevocably damage him with female voters,” he said, and "the campaign went into immediate damage control mode."

It was around that time that the Enquirer heard that adult film actress Stormy Daniels was interested in coming forward with a claim that she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. Trump was "adamant" he didn't want that claim, which he denies, to become public for fear it would be "devastating" to his campaign, Colangelo said.

Cohen then struck a deal to buy Daniels' silence for $130,000, Colangelo said.

"It was election fraud, pure and simple," Colangelo said, adding “We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter, if this conspiracy was a difference maker in the close election.”

Colangelo said the Trump Organization, Trump’s company, couldn’t cut Cohen a check with the memo “reimbursement for porn star payoff” so "they agreed to cook the books" and make it look like the reimbursement was income.

"The defendant said in his business records that he was paying Cohen for legal services pursuant to a retainer agreement. But, those were lies. There was no retainer agreement," Colangelo said.

“It was instead what they thought was a clever way to pay Cohen back without being too obvious about it,” he said. But what they did was a crime, Colangelo said. “Donald Trump is guilty of 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree,” he concluded.

Trump's attorney Blanche countered in his opening statement that his client hasn’t committed any crimes. “The story you just heard, you will learn, is not true,” he said. "President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes."

He said the only thing Trump did was sign checks for legal services rendered by his lawyer.

“The invoice is processed, somebody at Trump Tower generated a check, the check was ultimately signed, and there was a record in the ledger,” Blanche said. “He’s the only signatory on his personal checking account, which is why he signed the check.

"So what on Earth is a crime? What’s a crime, of what I just described?” Blanche said. "None of this is a crime," he said, adding that nondisclosure agreements like the one Daniels signed are legal.

As for the election interference argument, Blanche said, “I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy.”

In a preview of his trial strategy, Blanche also attacked Daniels' and Cohen's character and credibility. He accused Daniels, whom he described as "extremely biased," of trying to "extort" Trump, a word that the judge ordered stricken from the record. Blanche then said what Daniels had been threatening to do by going public with her allegation was "sinister" and "damaging to [Trump] and damaging to his family.”

Blanche also said Daniels' testimony, while salacious, doesn't matter because she doesn't know anything about how Cohen was repaid.

The bulk of Blanche's attacks were reserved for Cohen, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to numerous crimes, including some that he said he carried out on Trump's behalf.

“Michael Cohen was obsessed with President Trump. He’s obsessed with President Trump, even to this day,” Blanche said, calling him a "convicted felon" and a "convicted liar."

“He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump go to prison,” Blanche said, including in public on Sunday.

He told the jurors that if they listen to the evidence, they'll return "a very swift not guilty verdict."

Cohen said in a statement afterward, “The facts will come out at the time of trial that contradicts Todd Blanche’s mischaracterizations of me.”

Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records related to the hush money payment to Daniels. Trump, who has pleaded not guilty, could face up to four years in prison if he is convicted.

On his way into the courtroom Monday morning, he told reporters: “It’s a very, very sad day in America. I can tell you that.”

The day got off to a rough start for Trump, with Merchan, the judge, ruling that if he winds up taking the stand in his own defense, prosecutors can cross-examine him about another New York judge's finding that he and his business committed "persistent" fraud and violated a gag order, juries' finding him civilly responsible for sexual abuse and defamation in the E. Jean Carroll cases and a settlement in a case that found he used his now-shuttered foundation to improperly further his campaign in the 2016 election. Trump's attorneys had argued that all of those topics should be out of bounds.

Trump didn't show concern — he sat with his eyes closed through much of Merchan's ruling. He briefly opened his eyes when the jury was brought in for the judge's instructions and then closed them again.

Bragg was sitting in the front row of the courtroom ahead of opening statements.

Cohen, Daniels and McDougal are also expected to testify during the trial, which is estimated to take six weeks.

The jury consists of seven men and five women. The final day of jury selection, Friday, was particularly intense, as some potential jurors broke down in tears and said they were too anxious to be seated. They were excused. A man also set himself on fire outside the courthouse.

Trial proceedings Tuesday will be abbreviated, ending at 2 p.m. ET because of the Passover holiday.