Prosecutors allege Donald Trump ‘orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt’ the 2016 election

Donald Trump

Donald Trump “orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election” a prosecutor said in his opening statement in a New York courtroom as the first-ever criminal trial of a former U.S. president got under way.

“This case is about conspiracy of fraud,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told 12 jurors and six alternates. Colangelo said they would hear Trump working out the details of a scheme to pay and hide hush money payments in his own voice on recorded conversations.

Colangelo told jurors that Trump engaged in a “catch and kill” conspiracy with his former lawyer Michael Cohen and David Pecker, then the publisher of the National Enquirer, to cover up unflattering information about Trump and help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

That included payments to women who said they had sexual encounters with Trump, including a $130,000 US payment to Stephanie Clifford, known as the porn performer Stormy Daniels, at a time when he was facing other revelations of sexual misbehaviour.

In the New York trial, Trump is charged by the Manhattan District Attorney with falsely recording his 2017 reimbursement of Cohen for the Daniels payment as a legal expense in his real estate company’s books. Prosecutors say he did so to conceal the fact that Cohen’s payment exceeded the $2,700 limit on individual campaign contributions at the time.

Colangelo said Trump disguised his reimbursements to Cohen as legal expenses through 11 falsified invoices, 12 falsified ledger entries, and 11 falsified cheques.

“Those were lies. There was no retainer agreement. Cohen was not being paid for legal services,” Colangelo said. “The defendant falsified those business records because he wanted to conceal his and others’ criminal conduct.”

Lawyers for the Republican presidential candidate began their opening statement in what may be the only one of Trump’s four criminal prosecutions to go to trial before an expected Nov. 5 election rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden.

Todd Blanche, Trump’s lawyer, said the former president was “innocent” of all charges and “had nothing to do with the invoice.” It is expected the defence will impugn the character of Cohen, who served a prison sentence not only for his involvement in the hush money scheme, but for tax offences that had nothing to do with Trump.

“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,” Blanche said.

A Secret Service agent wearing an earpiece sat directly behind Trump as the opening statements began.

Pecker, 72, was the first witness called to the stand. He explained the basics of tabloid journalism and said his company often paid for stories. He did not discuss his interactions with Trump, as court was adjourned early for Passover.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsification of business records. He at first denied knowledge of the payment to Daniels from Cohen, but then later backtracked, saying it was meant to make a false allegation disappear.

A guilty verdict in the case would not bar Trump from taking office, but it could hurt his candidacy.


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