On first day of Trump hush money trial, prosecutors say he corrupted 2016 election


  • World
  • Monday, 22 Apr 2024

FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. President and current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump sits at the defendant's table at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York, U.S., 19 April 2024. Sarah Yenesel/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

NEW YORK (Reuters) -New York prosecutors said on the first day of Donald Trump's criminal hush money trial that the former president broke the law and corrupted the 2016 election by trying to cover up sexual encounters with a porn star and a Playboy model, while his defense lawyer said he committed no crime.

Jurors in the historic trial also heard briefly from the prosecution's first witness: former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, who prosecutors say participated in a "catch and kill" scheme to suppress unflattering stories about Trump and help him get elected.

In the first-ever trial of a former U.S. president, Trump is charged with falsifying business records to cover up a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016 to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she says they had 10 years earlier. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denies the encounter took place.

Prosecutors portrayed the payment as a criminal effort to deceive voters at a time when Trump was facing other accusations of crude sexual behavior.

"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 who had something bad to say about his behavior," prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said. "It was election fraud, pure and simple."

Colangelo told the jury that they would hear Trump working out the details of the scheme in recorded conversations and see an extensive paper trail to back up the testimony of witnesses.

Trump's lawyer told the jury that the former president did not commit any crimes and said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg should not have brought the case.

"There's nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It's called democracy. They put something sinister on this idea, as if it's a crime," Trump lawyer Todd Blanche said.

Wearing a blue tie and dark blue suit, the Republican presidential candidate watched the court proceedings and occasionally spoke to his lawyer. A Secret Service agent wearing an earpiece sat directly behind him.

The lawyers made their opening statements in what may be the only one of Trump's four criminal prosecutions to go to trial before his Nov. 5 election rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden.

The case is seen by many legal experts as the least consequential of the Trump prosecutions, based on facts that have been public since 2018. A guilty verdict would not bar him from taking office, but it could hurt his candidacy.

Reuters/Ipsos polling shows half of independent voters and one in four Republicans say they would not vote for Trump if he is convicted of a crime.

Before proceedings got under way, Trump called on his supporters to peacefully protest nationwide, but few greeted him when he arrived at the downtown Manhattan courthouse. Trump blamed security restrictions for the poor turnout, though the surrounding streets were open to the public.

Trump faces three other criminal indictments stemming from his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat and his handling of classified documents after leaving the White House in 2021.

Trump has pleaded not guilty in those cases, and he portrays all of them as a broad-based effort by Biden's Democratic allies to undercut his campaign.

With the 2024 election campaign in full swing, Trump now must juggle courtroom appearances and rallies.

34 CRIMINAL COUNTS

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records. Prosecutors say he falsified checks and invoices to disguise $420,000 in payments to his personal lawyer Michael Cohen as legal services, when in fact they were meant to reimburse him for paying off Daniels.

Colangelo said those payments were part of a broader pattern by Trump, Cohen and Pecker to tamp down other unflattering stories and help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

According to prosecutors, Pecker agreed during an August 2015 meeting with Trump and Cohen to act as the campaign's "eyes and ears" by looking out for negative stories about Trump.

"Pecker was not acting as a publisher, he was acting as a co-conspirator," Colangelo said.

Pecker has not been charged with a crime.

American Media, which published the National Enquirer, in 2018 admitted that it paid $150,000 to former Playboy magazine model Karen McDougal for rights to her story about a months-long affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007. American Media said it worked "in concert" with Trump's campaign, and it never published a story.

The tabloid reached a similar deal to pay $30,000 to a doorman who was seeking to sell a story about Trump allegedly fathering a child out of wedlock, which turned out to be false, according to prosecutors.

Trump has said the payments were personal and did not violate election law. He has also denied the affair with McDougal.

Cohen's credibility as a witness is likely to be a crucial aspect of the trial, which could last six to eight weeks. He has pleaded guilty and served prison time on federal campaign-finance charges related to his role in the scheme.

"He has a goal - an obsession - with getting Trump," Blanche said, adding that Cohen had lied under oath in other cases. "I submit to you that he cannot be trusted."

Trump has criticized Cohen and others involved in the case, including prosecutors, Justice Juan Merchan and his daughter.

Merchan has imposed a limited gag order and will consider on Tuesday whether to penalize Trump for violating that order.

On Monday evening, Trump said in an interview to Real America's Voice that the jury "was picked so fast" and that the area was mostly Democrat.

Pecker, 72, is also expected to retake the stand on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Jack Queen in New York and Andy Sullivan in Washington; additonal reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Nick Zieminski and Himani Sarkar)

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