Trump hush money trial: Jurors hear opening statements; 1st witness takes stand

NEW YORK — The first witness took the stand Monday in the trial of former President Donald Trump, who is accused of illegally covering up hush money payments in the run up to the 2016 presidential election.

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In opening statements, prosecutors said Trump, his former attorney Michael Cohen and former American Media Inc. CEO David Pecker conspired to “catch and kill” negative stories about Trump in an effort to influence the election. They said Trump illegally labeled payments to Cohen as legal fees when they were actually made to reimburse the attorney for money he paid adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet about an alleged affair she had with Trump.

The former president’s attorney denied that he did anything wrong, repeating his claims that the case should not have been brought and saying that witnesses have reasons for lying about the payments. Trump earlier pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of first-degree falsifying business records.

The case marks the first criminal trial of a former president. It is the first of four criminal cases against Trump expected to go to a jury.

Trump insists his payment to Cohen was for legal fees

Update 12:50 p.m. EDT April 22: Speaking with reporters outside the courtroom on Monday, Trump said the payments he made to Cohen were legal expenses by definition.

“You know, Cohen is a lawyer — represented a lot of people over the years, I’m not the only one,” he said. Later, he added, “He puts in an invoice or whatever, a bill, and they pay — they call it a legal expense. I got indicted for that. What else could you call it?”

Prosecutors said Trump mislabeled payments to Cohen as legal fees when they were actually reimbursements for campaign contributions made in the form of a payment to Daniels.

First day of trial ends

Update 12:45 p.m. EDT April 22: Judge Juan Merchan has left the stand, marking the end of the first day of testimony in Trump’s criminal trial, The New York Times reported.

Trump appeared to be angry as he left the courtroom, according to the newspaper.

Pecker dismissed from the stand

Update 12:35 p.m. EDT April 22: After appearing on the witness stand for less than 30 minutes, Pecker was dismissed from the stand by Judge Juan Merchan, The New York Times reported.

He is expected to return Tuesday morning to continue his testimony.

As Pecker was leaving the jury box, CNN reported he smiled and said, “Hi” to Trump. Pecker has been a longtime friend of Trump’s, according to The Associated Press.

Judge excuses jury with instructions to return Tuesday morning

Update 12:30 p.m. EDT April 22: Judge Juan Merchan dismissed jurors on Monday afternoon earlier than originally scheduled to allow an alternate juror to deal with a medical issue.

The dismissal came about 20 minutes after Pecker took the stand and began discussing how things worked at The National Enquirer when he was the CEO of American Media Inc.

Jurors were told to return to court at 11 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, CNN reported. Before they resume hearing testimony, a hearing will be held to determine whether Trump violated a gag order in the case.

National Enquirer ‘used checkbook journalism,’ Pecker says

Update 12:20 p.m. EDT April 22: Pecker, who published The National Enquirer during his time as CEO of American Media Inc., said on the stand on Monday that the company paid sources for stories, The New York Times reported.

“We used checkbook journalism, and we paid for stories,” he testified under questioning from prosecutor Joshua Steinglass. He added that he had to sign off on any stories that cost more than $10,000 and that, in his experience, the only important thing “is the cover” of a magazine, according to the Times.

Pecker called to the stand

Update 12:05 p.m. EDT April 22: After a brief recess following opening statements on Monday morning, prosecutors called former American Media Inc. CEO David Pecker to the stand, CNN reported.

As the CEO of AMI, Pecker published The National Enquirer. In August 2016, the company bought the rights to former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s claims that she had a nearly year-long affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007. Trump married his wife, Melania, in 2005.

Court takes brief recess after defense attorney’s opening statement

Update 11:55 a.m. EDT April 22: Court proceedings paused for a brief recess on Monday morning after a defense attorney and a prosecutor previewed their arguments for jurors.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche maintained that his client did nothing wrong, saying that Daniels lied about her relationship with Trump to embarrass him and his family and that Cohen lied due to a grudge against Trump. Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo outlined a “catch and kill” scheme allegedly aimed at keeping negative coverage of Trump out of the press ahead of the presidential election.

Defense attorney: Cohen has ‘an obsession with getting President Trump’

Update 11:45 a.m. EDT April 22: Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche framed Cohen as a criminal “obsessed with President Trump, even to this day,” according to CNN.

“He has a goal, an obsession with getting President Trump,” he said. “I submit to you that he cannot be trusted.”

Blanche offered a motive for Cohen’s expected testimony, saying that he “wanted a job in the administration. He didn’t get one,” according to The New York Times.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to violating campaign finance laws for submitting false invoices to the Trump Organization to get reimbursement for unlawful campaign contributions — the payments made to Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. At the time, he said that he coordinated with Trump to make the payments.

‘There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election,’ defense attorney says

Update 11:35 a.m. EDT April 22: Defense attorney Todd Blanche told jurors on Monday that there was nothing sinister about Trump’s attempts to win the 2016 presidential election.

“I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election,” Blanche said, according to The New York Times. “It’s called democracy.”

He denied that his client had a sexual relationship with Daniels and said she alleged as much in “an attempt to embarrass President Trump, to embarrass his family,” CNN reported.

Defense attorney: ‘Trump did not commit any crimes’

Update 11:25 a.m. EDT April 22: Attorney Todd Blanche delivered his opening statement on behalf of Trump on Monday.

“President Trump is innocent,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “President Trump did not commit any crimes. The Manhattan D.A.’s office should never have brought this case.”

He said the government’s case is not as straightforward as prosecutors made it seem and that jurors would find “plenty of reasonable doubt,” CNN reported.

“He’s a man. He’s a husband. He’s a father,” Blanche said. “He’s a person just like you and just like me.”

Prosecutor finishes opening statement; defense attorney begins

Update 11:20 a.m. EDT April 22: Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo wrapped up his opening statement on Monday, setting out the government’s case against Trump.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche stood next to give an opening statement on behalf of his client, The New York Times reported. He earlier said he expected to speak for about 20 minutes.

Prosecutor: Pecker will testify

Update 11:10 a.m. EDT April 22: Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo confirmed during opening statements that the government will call former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker to the stand in Trump’s trial, NBC News reported.

Reports earlier surfaced that Pecker was expected to be the first witness called by the prosecution. It was not immediately clear when testimony would begin.

Pecker will testify that Trump met him after the election to thank him for handling stories about women who claimed to have had affairs with him ahead of the election, NBC news reported. He will also say that the $150,000 that The National Enquirer paid for information about Trump from former Playboy model Karen McDougal was larger than the publication would have typically paid for such a deal and that he spoke to Trump about his reimbursement, according to The New York Times.

3 ‘catch and kill’ deals central to scheme, prosecutor says

Update 11 a.m. EDT April 22: Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said there were three “catch and kill” deals at the center of the conspiracy hatched by Trump, his former attorney Michael Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election.

Authorities earlier outlined the schemes in court records. One involved adult film star Stormy Daniels, who claimed that she had a sexual encounter with Trump years before the election. The second involved hush money payments made to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claimed that she had an affair with Trump while he was married. The third deal focused on allegations from a onetime Trump Tower doorman, Dino Sajudin, who claimed to have a story about a child Trump had out of wedlock, according to The Associated Press.

Prosecutor: Payments to Cohen were wrongly labeled as legal fees

Update 10:50 a.m. EDT April 22: Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told jurors that payments made to Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, after the 2016 presidential election were mislabeled as legal fees pursuant to a retainer agreement, The Associated Press reported.

In reality, he said, there was not retainer and no legal services rendered, according to the AP.

“The defendant falsified those business records because he wanted to conceal his and others’ criminal conduct,” Colangelo said.

Prosecutor delivers opening statements

Update 10:35 a.m. EDT April 22: Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo began giving his opening statement Monday morning in Trump’s criminal trial.

He said that Trump, his former attorney Michael Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker formed a conspiracy early in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign to get him elected, The New York Times reported. He said that Cohen paid adult film star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep her quiet about a sexual encounter he had with her in order to influence the election, according to the newspaper.

“This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a coverup,” Colangelo said, according to CNN.

“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.”

Judge gives jurors instructions ahead of opening statements

Update 10:10 a.m. EDT April 22: Judge Juan Merchan began giving jurors instructions ahead of opening statements on Monday morning and shared what they can expect in the days ahead.

“We are about to proceed with the trial of the People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump,” Merchan said, according to The Associated Press.

He emphasized that jurors, “must decide this case on the evidence,” NBC News reported, and added that what he says and what attorneys say “at any time is not evidence.”

Judge sets out limits on Trump questioning

Update 10 a.m. EDT April 22: Judge Juan Merchan said Monday that if Trump takes the stand, he will allow prosecutors to ask him about up to six different determinations from four other cases, prompting head shakes from the former president, The New York Times reported.

Merchan will allow prosecutors to ask Trump about the civil fraud case he lost earlier this year, in which he was found liable for conspiring to inflate his net worth to get better terms from lenders and insurers. He could also face questions about the civil cases involving writer E. Jean Carroll, the newspaper reported.

Juror shares concerns about media attention

Update 9:45 a.m. EDT April 22: Judge Juan Merchan said a person will stay on the jury despite sharing concerns Monday morning about media attention in the trial, according to CNN.

Juror No. 9 had earlier called the court to share concerns, NBC News reported. However, Merchan said in court that it was “not going to be an issue,” according to CNN.

Court session begins

Update 9:40 a.m. EDT April 22: Judge Juan Merchan has begun court proceedings for the Trump trial in New York, according to multiple reports.

Merchan said court will end earlier than expected, at 12:30 p.m., to allow one of the alternate jurors to deal with a medical issue, The Washington Post reported.

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told Merchan that he expects the government’s opening statement to take 40 minutes, while defense attorneys said their statement will take 25 minutes, according to The New York Times. The statements are expected to begin later Monday.

Trump: ‘This is a witch hunt’

Update 9:30 a.m. EDT April 22: Trump spoke to reporters before walking into a courtroom in New York on Monday, where opening statements are expected to begin in his hush money trial.

“This is a witch hunt and it’s a shame,” Trump said, later adding, “It’s a very, very sad day in America.”

Trump also repeated his claims that the charges against him were filed “in coordination with Washington.” The charges are state crimes, and no evidence has surfaced to link President Joe Biden to the case, according to Poynter.

Trump calls charges unbelievable ahead of opening statements

Update 9:15 a.m. EDT April 22: Trump took to social media on the eve of opening statements to criticize authorities for bringing charges against him in New York.

“(Manhattan District Attorney) Alvin Bragg, who has totally lost control of Violent Crime in New York, says that the payment of money to a lawyer, for legal services rendered, should not be referred to in a Ledger as LEGAL EXPENSE,” he wrote in a post on his Truth Social platform. “What other term would be more appropriate???”

In announcing charges against Trump in April 2023, Bragg said Trump “repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal crimes that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.”

Original report: Prosecutors say that through his then-attorney, Michael Cohen, Trump paid adult film star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged affair they had years before the election. Authorities said he violated the law when he falsified business records to hide reimbursement payments made to Cohen.

Under New York law, it’s a crime to conspire to promote a candidacy by unlawful means.

Earlier, prosecutors said the payments were part of a broader “catch and kill” scheme that sought to stop negative coverage of Trump before the election. At the time, his campaign was struggling as he faced sexual misconduct allegations.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing and said that he never had an affair with Daniels. Ahead of the November presidential election, in which he is expected to face off against President Joe Biden, Trump has framed the allegations as a “witch hunt” and election interference.

The former president has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of first-degree falsifying business records.

Trump is also facing three other criminal cases, none of which are expected to go to trial before voters hit the polls in November.

In Florida, federal authorities have accused Trump of mishandling classified documents that were found at his Mar-a-Lago estate after he left the White House. In Georgia and Washington, D.C., he is facing separate trials over his role in efforts to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

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