Key takeaways from opening statements in Trump’s hush money trial

It’s the case that many thought might never make it to trial, and yet at 9.30am ET on Monday 22 April, twelve jurors, six alternates, two teams of attorneys, one former president, and the world’s press were in attendance as Judge Juan Merchan called the court to order.

Opening statements got under way in the case, with prosecutors laying out an election interference scheme involving “conspiracy and cover-up” while the defence argued that no crime was committed whatsoever.

Then came the first witness in the case: the former National Enquirer boss David Pecker, who is alleged to have played a key role in the so-called “catch and kill scheme”.

Informally known as Donald Trump’s “hush money” trial, the former president faces 34 counts of falsifying business records as part of what prosecutors called a “criminal conspiracy” to bury politically compromising stories of alleged affairs ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Of the four criminal cases against the defendant and former president, it was assumed that perhaps one of the federal cases regarding the retention of classified documents or election subversion relating to the January 6 Capitol riot, or the sprawling racketeering case in Fulton County, Georgia, would make it to trial first, thereby pushing back any court date in New York.

However, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case against Mr Trump takes its place in the history books as the first time a former president has been put on trial for criminal charges.

Perhaps it’s because of its relative simplicity compared to the other cases.

Or perhaps it also makes sense chronologically as the New York indictment against Mr Trump was also a historic first of its kind. Further, underneath that salacious veneer of money to cover up sex scandals lies a months-long plan to interfere in the 2016 election. Meanwhile, the other criminal cases against the former president relate to his actions around the 2020 election and his departure from office in 2021.

Here are the five key takeaways from this historic day in court:

Trump can be questioned about E Jean Carroll defamation verdict and civil fraud ruling

Last week, Judge Merchan held a hearing to determine what – if anything – prosecutors can ask Mr Trump to impeach his credibility on the witness stand if he chooses to testify in his defence.

On Monday, the judge revealed his decision on the matter, giving prosecutors the green light to bring up separate rulings that found the former president liable for fraud in a civil case against him and the Trump Organization, and that found him liable for the defamation of writer E Jean Carroll.

A pair of federal court rulings that found Mr Trump liable for sexually abusing Ms Carroll are off the table, however. Prosecutors also cannot bring up the total monetary damages – totalling tens of millions of dollars – facing Mr Trump in that case and the fraud ruling.

His repeated violations of a gag order in the civil fraud case can also be brought up.

The former president has already volunteered to testify, opening the door for prosecutors to grill him about his previous alleged misconduct.

Speaking at a press conference from his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida earlier this month, Mr Trump said: “Yeah, I would testify, absolutely. That’s not a trial. That’s a scam.”

If he does, he now faces the likelihood of prosecutors bringing up much of his past misconduct.

Prosecutors lay out election interference scheme of ‘conspiracy and cover-up’

Presenting their opening statement, the prosecution wasted little time in making it clear to the jury what the case was really about.

“This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a cover-up,” Manhattan assistant district attorney Matthew Colangelo explained. “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 business records, over and over and over again.”

Referring to the “catch-and-kill” scheme orchestrated with former attorney Michael Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker to cover-up Mr Trump’s extramarital affairs, Mr Colangelo continued: “No politician wants bad press, but the evidence of trial will show that this was not spin or communications strategy. This was a planned, coordinated, long-running conspiracy … It was election fraud. Pure and simple.”

Trump’s attorneys try to humanise him while stressing he’s ‘earned’ the title of president

In giving the defence team’s opening statement, Todd Blanche, Mr Trump’s lead attorney in the case, tried to humanise the defendant seated beside him and cut through any preconceived notions about the former president.

“President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office should have never brought this case.”

Mr Blanche says the defence will “refer to him as President Trump”.

“This is a title he has earned,” he said. “We will call him President Trump out of respect for the office he held.

“But he’s not just our former president, he’s not just Donald Trump that you’ve seen on TV or read about or seen photos of. He’s also a man, he’s a husband, he’s a father. And just like me,” said Mr Blanche.

Referring to the prosecution’s opening statement, he said: “The story you just heard you will learn is not true, and at the end of this trial, there will be plenty of reasonable doubt.”

Defence claims ‘criminal’ Cohen is ‘obsessed’ with Trump

Mr Blanche went on to lay out how the defence plans to undermine Michael Cohen — a key witness for the prosecution — who he says is “obsessed” with Mr Trump.

“He rants and raves about President Trump,” says the attorney. “He criticises President Trump. He talks extensively about his desire to see President Trump go to prison. He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump’s family go to prison.”

Cohen’s “financial livelihood depends on President Trump’s destruction,” according to Mr Blanche.

“He cannot be trusted.”

The defence case makes a big point of Cohen pleading guilty in 2018 to federal campaign finance violations related to the hush money payments. At the same time, he also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about events unrelated to the current criminal case.

Mr Trump’s team want to hammer home to the jury that he has previously been found liable for perjury in an effort to taint his testimony.

David Pecker admits to secret email account – and buying ‘juicy’ stories

When the trial’s first witness, Mr Pecker, took the stand, jurors were treated to a lesson in chequebook journalism.

The longtime friend of Mr Trump and publisher of the National Enquirer and other tabloids explained how he allowed his editors to spend up to $10,000 to investigate, produce or publish a story. This type of operation separates such publications from other media companies and news organisations. Anything above that spending limit would require his approval.

A catch-and-kill operation as deployed in Mr Trump’s favour involves spending money to buy the rights to a story from a person and then not publishing it, thereby removing it from the market.

Mr Pecker also explained that “the only thing that’s important is the cover of the magazine”. His titles are best known for being available at grocery store checkouts with brash headlines to lure readers.

He testified that the publication’s then editor-in-chief Dylan Howard – who is accused of tipping off Mr Trump about the Stormy Daniels story – would run “juicy” stories by him.

A “juicy” detail of his own work habits included the revelation that he kept two email accounts. One would be used for day-to-day business, and the other for sensitive messages and material that he wouldn’t want his assistant to see.

And finally, elsewhere in Trumpworld…

After weeks of back-and-forth between the Trump legal team and New York Attorney General Letitia James over the $175m bond in his civil fraud ruling, the two sides have agreed to allow the bond to be backed by a California-based company so long as the collateral remains in cash, among other stipulations.

In a hearing just 500ft from today’s historic criminal trial, it was established that the underwriter Knight Specialty Insurance Company (KSIC) that gave Mr Trump an 11th-hour lifeline can continue to do so.

The attorney general had raised concerns over the details of the bond, saying the company should be under full control of the collateral put by Mr Trump and that KSIC was not authorized to write business in New York. The company disagreed.

After a relatively brief hearing, lawyers came to an agreement that would keep the $175m in collateral in cash, have KSCI maintain control of it and KSCI will designate an agent to accept legal services on their behalf in New York.

Justice Arthur Engoron, who presided over the hearing and the civil fraud trial, ruled that the bond could stand on the new terms.

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