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First day of Trump's hush money trial kicks off with opening statements and a witness

Former President Donald Trump looks on at Manhattan criminal court Monday, during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs.
Victor J. Blue
/
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump looks on at Manhattan criminal court Monday, during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs.

NEW YORK — Just before 10 a.m. Monday, a jury of 18 every-day New Yorkers filed into the Manhattan courtroom where former President Donald Trump sat at the defense table.

"Members of the jury, we are about to proceed with the outset of the trial of Donald J. Trump," pronounced Judge Juan Merchan.

As Merchan began instructing the jury on their critical role over the next few weeks, Trump, the defendant, sat flanked by his legal team, occasionally looking down and slightly shifting in his chair.

Trump faces 34 felony counts alleging that he falsified New York business records in order to conceal damaging information to influence the 2016 presidential election. Trump claims the trial itself is "election interference" because of how it is disrupting his 2024 bid for president. He has pleaded not guilty and instead argues that all he did was pay his lawyer.

Merchan told the jurors that the burden of proof will be on the prosecutors, who must prove that Trump is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Last week, 12 jurors and six alternates were selected to decide the fate of the former president. The trial has begun about a year after a grand jury originally delivered the indictment that set up this trial as the first against a sitting or former U.S. president.

Jurors also began to hear from the first witness: David Pecker, former CEO of American Media, the publishing company of the National Enquirer magazine.

Pecker, who was on the stand for less than a half hour before the first day wrapped at around lunchtime, testified to the editorial structure of his magazine and about the level of oversight he had on the stories. He also confirmed his phone numbers, which the prosecution suggested could be relevant later on.

Testimony should continue on Tuesday. Other witnesses for the prosecution are expected are former Trump fixer Michael Cohen and Keith Davidson, a former lawyer for a Playboy model.

The prosecution delivers a lengthy detail of the alleged scheme

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo delivered the opening statement on behalf of the district attorney's team, detailing that this case is about "criminal conspiracy and coverup."

He laid out what has long been Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's argument: He alleges there was a conspiracy created in part by Trump to conceal information that he had an affair with an adult film star out of fear that if that information got out, it could hurt his 2016 presidential electoral prospects.

There were 34 "falsified" business records, Colangelo said, while detailing how the DA's office believes Trump coordinated with Cohen, his former fixer, and Pecker in August 2015. This resulted in Trump's oversight of various flattering stories about him, he said, and also of damaging information about his opponents.

Colangelo said that this deal made in August also resulted in a "catch and kill" scheme to find these potentially damaging stories as Election Day got closer and make sure they were never released.

He said Pecker found potentially damaging info and "killed it" by paying people off. First was Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, who was going to allege publicly she had an affair with Trump. Trump "desperately" did not want this made public, Colangelo told the jury. The former president has denied having an affair with McDougal.

Three months before Election Day, a payment to McDougal was made, Colangelo said, with the help of Davidson, her lawyer. He also told the jury that they plan to play a recording of a phone call between Trump and Cohen about how to pay off Pecker and get the rights for the McDougal story.

Further laying out the timeline, Colangelo noted the Access Hollywood tape was released a month before the election.

"The campaign went into immediate damage control mode," Colangelo said, adding that Trump received word the next day that another woman was about to come forward with her own alleged sexual encounter with the GOP nominee — adult film star Stormy Daniels. Trump has also denied this encounter.

A story of infidelity with a porn star would have been damaging to the campaign, Colangelo said, and Trump wanted to "prevent American voters from learning about that information before Election Day."

Cohen created a shell company to send $130,000 payment to Daniels, made at Trump's direction and for his benefit and with the specific goal of preventing negative information that could have cost Trump the election, Colangelo argued.

"It was election fraud. We will never know and it doesn't matter if this made the difference for him in the election," Colangelo said. "You will see from social media posts, speeches at campaign rallies" that Trump was worried about how this could "hurt standing with voters and female voters in particular."

Colangelo foreshadowed that the jury will see text messages between the leadership of the National Enquirer questioning "what have we done?" They will also see how payments were calculated and disguised for tax purposes as well as evidence that "Trump is a frugal businessman ... but when it came to pay Cohen back, he didn't negotiate the price down. He doubled it, so he could disguise it as income," Colangelo said.

"There was no retainer agreement, it was instead what they thought was a clever way to pay Cohen back without being obvious about it," Colangelo said, detailing that Cohen submitted 11 "phony invoices" paid for by checks with "false entries" signed by Trump himself.

Colangelo also attempted to get ahead of potential criticism of testimony of Cohen, noting that the defense is likely to discredit him. "Cohen has made mistakes in the past," he said, adding that testimony also from Pecker and Davidson will corroborate what is said.

"Tune out the noise. Focus on the fact," he closed.

Defense sets up the argument: Trump did nothing illegal

Trump, who largely seemed to look straight ahead or down during the prosecution's opening, turned to look at the jury when his lawyer stood at the lectern.

"President Trump is innocent. Trump did not commit any crimes," said Todd Blanche. "He is also a man, a husband, a father, and just like me."

Off the bat, Blanche told the jury that the story just detailed by the prosecution was not true and at the end of the trial there will be "plenty of reasonable doubt."

Blanche argued that invoices, records and payments were made by the book in part because Cohen assumed the role of personal attorney when Trump entered the White House.

He also argued that Trump was simply fighting back against allegations that could hurt his family, reputation and brand.

"There is nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It's called democracy," he said.

Blanche also spent time trying to discredit some of the prosecution's witnesses, primarilyCohen, who has a history of perjury, and Daniels, also known as Stephanie Clifford, noting how she has received publicity, pointing to her recent documentary, and how Trump has won a defamation lawsuit against her.

"We are New Yorkers. It's why we are here," Blanche said, reminding the jury that they promised they would set aside personal thoughts of Trump from the past eight years. "And if you do that, there will be a very swift not-guilty verdict."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.