New York prosecutors outline their criminal 'conspiracy' case against Trump

The opening statements have been delivered to the jurors in Donald Trump's hush money trial, ITV News US Correspondent Dan Rivers reports

Manhattan prosecutors told the jury in former President Donald Trump’s first criminal trial on Monday that hush money payments meant to silence sex scandal stories during the 2016 presidential election campaign amounted to falsifying business records and more.

“This case is about a criminal conspiracy and cover up an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of a presidential election and the steps Donald Trump took to conceal that election fraud,” Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Matthew Colangelo told the court in the government’s opening statement.

But Trump’s defense team countered that Trump had not engaged in any illegal activity, saying: “President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes.

"The Manhattan District Attorney should never have brought this case,” attorney Todd Blanche said in his opening statement. “At the end of this trial, there will be plenty of reasonable doubt.”

Mr Colangelo depicted the alleged conspiracy - not an actual charge in the case - as a coordinated effort by Trump, his former attorney, Michael Cohen, and retired National Enquirer publisher David Pecker.

Hatched in an August 2015 Trump Tower meeting, Colangelo said, Mr Pecker and his company, American Media, Inc., agreed “to act as eyes and ears of the campaign” for Trump, to publish “flattering stories” about the defendant, and to “attack Mr Trump’s political opponents.”

The most well-known action described in the indictment is the $130,000 paid to pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels for a non-disclosure agreement “to silence her and make sure the public did not learn about a sexual encounter with the defendant” in 2006, Mr Colangelo said.

The twice-divorced, former president was married at the time to the future first lady, Melania, who was pregnant with their son, Barron.

Mr Cohen allegedly made the Daniels payment at the direction of Trump, who reimbursed his attorney in 2017 in monthly checks “disguised” as legal services through 34 false Cohen invoices, Trump Organization ledger entries, and checks from Trump’s personal bank account he signed in the White House, according to the prosecution.

Ms Daniels is expected to testify about her NDA, and a second woman, Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate who says she had a nearly year-long affair with Trump, is expected to testify about $150,000 she received from the Enquirer in 2016 for the rights to her life story.

But the weekly tabloid had engaged Ms McDougal in a “catch and kill,” which the prosecutor described as “a way of buying damaging information not to publish it but to hide it.”

Mr Colangelo said the tabloid also paid $30,000 to former Trump Tower doorman Dino Sajudin, who had alleged in 2015 that Trump had fathered an out-of-wedlock child with a former housekeeper - another catch and kill.

The Daniels deal, at the heart of the business fraud charges, followed the summer 2016 release of the infamous Access Hollywood video featuring Trump “bragging about sexual assault” with women.

“The impact of that tape on the campaign was immediate and explosive. Prominent allies withdrew their endorsement,” the Republican National Committee considered replacing Trump as the nominee, and the campaign immediately went into “damage control mode,” Mr Colangelo said.

After an attorney for Daniels connected with the Enquirer’s editor-in-chief, Trump told Mr Pecker he was “adamant he did not want the story to come out,” because it would have been “devastating to the campaign,” Mr Colangelo said.

After negotiating the NDA, Mr Cohen has said he agreed to put up his own money to keep Daniels quiet.

He formed a shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, transferred personal funds from his home equity line of credit to the LLC’s bank account, and wired the hush money to Daniels’ attorney two weeks before Election Day, Mr Colangelo said.

“The evidence at trial will show this was not spin or communications strategy” but a planned “conspiracy to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures to silence people,” Mr Colangelo said. “It was election fraud pure and simple.”

The charges levied against Trump refer to hush-money payments made to Stormy Daniels. Credit: AP

The prosecutor said phone records document calls between Mr Cohen and Trump, and a Mr Cohen recording of one call preserves Trump’s voice discussing the deal. “You will hear him suggest paying in cash,” Mr Colangelo said.

After winning the White House in November 2016, without the public learning about Daniels or McDougal, Trump paid Cohen $420,000 - $130,000 for the Daniels payoff plus $50,000 for separate technical services, then agreed to double the total to $360,000 to cover Mr Cohen’s income taxes and added a $60,000 year-end bonus.

The windfall came in a series of monthly checks that ended in December 2017, Mr Colangelo said, supported by fake invoices from Cohen and Trump Organization ledger entries.

Mr Cohen and Trump ironed out the details in an Oval Office meeting in February 2017, and trial evidence includes a photo of Cohen at the White House that, the prosecutor said.

Mr Cohen will be a key prosecution witness and defense punching bag. Defense attorney Mr Blanche described him as a disbarred convicted perjurer who cheated on his taxes, lied to banks and Congress, and made illegal campaign contributions.

“He’s obsessed with President Trump,” Mr Blanche said, mentioning Mr Cohen’s books and podcasts about the 45th president. “His entire financial livelihood depends on President Trump's destruction.”

Mr Blanche described Ms Daniels as “similarly extremely biased against President Trump” and someone who has profited from their association, though she first “denied any improper relationship in writing.”

Mr Blanche said Ms Daniels tried “to extort President Trump” and “has no idea” about the business records. “So, her testimony, while salacious, does not matter,” he said.

Mr Blanche also rebuked the prosecution’s portrayal of a conspiracy. He told the jury, “I have a spoiler alert – there’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy.”

Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to charges including campaign finance fraud in 2018. Credit: AP

Entering into non-disclosure about “false claims,” Mr Blanche continued, “is not illegal.”

“President Trump fought back like he always does,” the defense attorney said, “to protect his family and his reputation and his brand, and that is not a crime.”

Testifying under a subpoena, Mr Pecker, the first prosecution witness, only began telling his story on Monday.

“I had the final say on the celebrity sides of the magazine,” Mr Pecker told the court. He said editors had discretion to pay sources up to $10,000 (£8,096) for stories but were required to get his approval to spend more.

“We used checkbook journalism,” he said.

Earlier, as Judge Merchan spent a half hour explaining court procedures to the jury, Trump could be seen sitting at the defense table and nodding off once or twice.

Arriving at the courthouse on Monday morning, Trump told reporters his trial is “very unfair” and “a witch hunt and a shame.”

He reasserted his view that the New York trial is being coordinated in Washington.

“This is done for purposes of hurting the opponent of the worst president in the history of our country,” Trump said. “This is a “very, very sad day in America.”

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