Trump tried to ‘corrupt’ 2016 election, prosecution alleges

22 April 2024, 19:44

Trump Hush Money
Trump Hush Money. Picture: PA

The former president’s hush money trial has started in New York.

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 on Monday at the start of the former president’s historic hush money trial.

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said: “This was a planned, 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 behaviour.

“It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

Trump Hush Money
The trial of Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump began with opening statements on Monday (Brendan McDermid/Pool Photo via AP)

A defence lawyer countered by attacking the integrity of the onetime Trump confidant who is now the government’s star witness.

“President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes. The Manhattan district attorney’s office should never have brought this case,” attorney Todd Blanche said.

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 defences.

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.

Trump Hush Money
Former President Donald Trump (Victor J. Blue/The Washington Post/AP)

The case is the first criminal trial of a former American president and the first of four prosecutions of Trump to reach a jury.

Befitting that history, prosecutors sought from the outset to elevate the gravity of the case, which they said was chiefly about election interference as reflected by the hush money payments to an adult film actor who said she had a sexual encounter with Trump.

Mr Colangelo said: “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.”

The trial, which could last up to two months, will require Trump to spend his days in a courtroom rather than on the campaign trail, a reality he complained about on Monday.

“I’m the leading candidate … and this is what they’re trying to take me off the trail for. Cheques being paid to a lawyer,” he lamented to reporters after leaving court.

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Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records (Angela Weiss/Pool Photo via AP)

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 weaponised against him.

In the weeks ahead, the case 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 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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Former president Donald Trump arrives at court (Victor J. Blue for The Washington Post/AP)

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

The opening statements served as an introduction to the colourful cast of characters that feature prominently in that tawdry saga, including Stormy Daniels, the adult film actor who says she received the hush money; Michael Cohen, the lawyer who prosecutors say paid her; and David Pecker, the tabloid publisher who agreed to function as the campaign’s “eyes and ears” and who served as the prosecution’s first witness on Monday.

Mr Pecker is due back on the stand on Tuesday, and the court is also expected to hear arguments on whether Trump violated Judge Juan Merchan’s gag order with a series of Truth Social posts about witnesses over the last week.

In his opening statement, Mr Colangelo outlined a comprehensive effort by Trump and his allies to prevent three separate stories — two from women alleging prior sexual encounters — from surfacing during the 2016 presidential campaign.

That undertaking was especially urgent following the emergence of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording in which Trump could be heard boasting about grabbing women sexually without their permission.

Trump Hush Money Who’s Who
It is alleged that Trump paid adult film actor Stormy Daniels to prevent her claims of a sexual encounter with him from emerging into the public (Markus Schreiber/AP)

“The impact of that tape on the campaign was immediate and explosive,” Mr Colangelo said.

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

But, the prosecutor noted, “Neither Trump nor the Trump Organisation could just write a cheque to Cohen with a memo line that said ‘reimbursement for porn star payoff’.”

So, he added, “they agreed to cook the books and make it look like the payment was actually income, payment for services rendered”.

Trump Hush Money Who’s Who
Michael Cohen is expected to be one of the prosecution’s star witnesses (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File)

Those alleged falsified records form the backbone of the 34-count indictment against Trump.

Mr Blanche, the defence lawyer, sought to pre-emptively undermine Cohen’s credibility – who pleaded guilty to federal charges related to his role in the hush money scheme – as someone with an “obsession” with Trump who cannot be trusted.

He said Trump had done nothing illegal when his company recorded the cheques to Cohen as legal expenses and that it was not against the law for a candidate to try to influence an election.

Trump has denied having a sexual encounter with Ms Daniels.

Mr Blanche challenged the notion that Trump agreed to the pay-out to safeguard his campaign.

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Prosecutors are already seeking fines against Trump for alleged violations of a gag order (John Minchillo/AP)

Instead, he characterised the transaction as an attempt to squelch a “sinister” effort to embarrass Trump 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,” Mr Blanche told jurors.

The efforts to suppress the stories are what’s known in the tabloid industry as “catch-and-kill” — catching a potentially damaging story by buying the rights to it and then killing it through agreements that prevent the paid person from telling the story to anyone else.

Besides the payment to Ms Daniels, Mr Colangelo also described arrangements to pay a former Playboy model 150,000 dollars (£120,000) to suppress claims of a nearly year-long affair with the married Trump.

Mr 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”.

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Alina Haba, lawyer for former president Donald Trump, leaves after the first day of opening arguments in his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court (Victor J. Blue/The Washington Post via AP)

He said jurors 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.

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

The first and only witness on Monday was Mr Pecker, the then-publisher of the National Enquirer and a long-time Trump friend.

Prosecutors say Mr Pecker met with Trump and Cohen at Trump Tower in August 2015 and agreed to help Trump’s campaign identify negative stories about him.

Trump Hush Money
Supporters of former President Donald Trump stand outside Manhattan criminal court building (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Mr Pecker described the tabloid’s use of “chequebook journalism”, a practice that entails paying a source for a story.

“I gave a number to the editors that they could not spend more than 10,000 dollars” on a story without getting his approval, said Mr Pecker, who is due back on the stand on Tuesday.

The New York case has taken on added importance because it may be the only one of the four against Trump to reach trial before the November election.

Appeals and legal wrangling have delayed the other three cases.

By Press Association

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