Trump did not commit any crimes, defence says in hush money case

Donald Trump did not commit a crime by paying his former lawyer in 2017, the former US president’s defence lawyer said on Monday, dismissing prosecutors’ assertion Trump sought to cover-up the lawyer’s hush money payment to a porn star before the 2016 election.

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

Blanche spoke shortly after prosecutors laid out their case arguing that Trump broke the law by deceiving voters.

“This case is about a conspiracy and a cover-up, an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of a presidential election, and then the steps that Donald Trump took to conceal that illegal election fraud,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said.

He told the jury that they would hear Trump working out the details of the scheme in his own voice on recorded conversations.

In a courtroom sketch, prosecutor Matthew Colangelo (left) speaks as former US president Donald Trump sits among his lawyers Todd Blanche, Emil Bove and Susan Necheles during a hearing before his trial. Photo: Reuters

Lawyers for the Republican presidential candidate will also make their opening statement in what may be the only one of Trump’s four criminal prosecutions to go to trial before his November 5 election rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden.

Colangelo told jurors that Trump engaged in a “catch and kill” conspiracy with his former lawyer Michael Cohen and tabloid publisher David Pecker 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 US$130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, at a time when he was facing other revelations of sexual misbehaviour, he said.

As the trial opened, Justice Juan Merchan ruled that prosecutors would be able to ask Trump, if he testifies, about two other court cases: one that found he fraudulently misstated the value of his real estate assets, and another that found he defamed writer E. Jean Carroll after she accused him of rape.

Merchan also said prosecutors would be able to show jurors a transcript of a tape from the Access Hollywood TV show in which Trump makes vulgar comments about grabbing women’s genitals, though jurors will not be allowed to see the tape itself.

Trump rape accuser can use Access Hollywood tape in trial, judge says

Wearing a blue tie and dark blue suit, Trump stared at the judge and occasionally spoke to his lawyer. A Secret Service agent wearing an earpiece sat directly behind him.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsification of business records brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and denies having had a sexual encounter with Daniels.

The case is seen by many legal experts as the least consequential of the Trump prosecutions. A guilty verdict would not bar him from taking office, but it could hurt his candidacy.

Reuters/Ipsos polling shows half of independent voters and one in four Republicans say they would not vote for Trump if he is convicted of a crime.

Trump supporters rally outside the Manhattan criminal court where opening statements are set to begin for former US president Donald Trump in his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs. Photo: AFP

‘Catch and kill’

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

“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.”

Pecker is the first witness prosecutors plan to call after opening statements, The New York Times and CNN reported on Sunday.

Trump hush money trial: 12 jurors picked, selection of alternates continues

According to prosecutors, Pecker agreed during an August 2015 meeting with Trump and Cohen to act as the campaign’s “eyes and ears” by looking out for negative stories about Trump.

“Pecker was not acting as a publisher, he was acting as a co-conspirator,” Colangelo said.

American Media, which published the National Enquirer, in 2018 admitted that it paid US$150,000 to former Playboy magazine model Karen McDougal for rights to her story about a months-long affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007.

American Media said it worked “in concert” with Trump’s campaign, and it never published a story.

“The evidence will show that the defendant desperately did not want this info about Karen McDougal to become public because he was worried about its impact on the election,” Colangelo said.

Former US president Donald Trump looks on at Manhattan criminal court during his trial. Prosecutors plan to call at least 20 witnesses total, according to Trump’s defence team. The trial could last six to eight weeks. Photo: AFP

The tabloid reached a similar deal to pay US$30,000 to a doorman who was seeking to sell a story about Trump allegedly fathering a child out of wedlock, which turned out to be false, according to prosecutors.

Trump has said the payments were personal and did not violate election law. He has also denied the affair with McDougal.

In the New York trial, Trump is charged 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 US$2,700 limit on individual campaign contributions at the time.

Testimony about those payments could help prosecutors establish that Cohen’s payment to Daniels was part of a broader pattern.

Prosecutors plan to call at least 20 witnesses total, according to Trump’s defence team. The trial could last six to eight weeks.

Man dies after setting himself on fire outside Trump hush money trial

Before the trial began on Monday, Trump called for supporters to protest peacefully at courthouses “all over the country”, but few were on hand to greet him when he arrived at the downtown courthouse. Trump suggested tight security measures were responsible for the sparse turnout, but the streets surrounding the courthouse were open to the public.

“Lower Manhattan surrounding the Courthouse, where I am heading now, is completely CLOSED DOWN. SO UNFAIR!!!” he wrote on social media.

Trump faces three other criminal indictments stemming from his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat and his handling of classified documents after leaving the White House in 2021.

Trump has pleaded not guilty in those cases, and he portrays all of them as a broad-based effort by Biden’s Democratic allies to undercut his campaign.

Merchan, who is overseeing the hush money trial, imposed a limited gag order on Trump after he criticised witnesses, prosecutors, the judge and his daughter. Prosecutors are pressing Merchan to penalise Trump for violating that order.



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