5 takeaways from opening statements in the Trump trial

5 takeaways from opening statements in the Trump trial

Former President Trump’s first criminal trial began in earnest Monday, with opening statements from prosecutors and the defense team, as well as the calling of the first witness.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

The alleged offenses center on a $130,000 payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in the final days of the 2016 election campaign. The money was intended to stop Daniels from publicizing an alleged sexual encounter with Trump from a decade prior.

Trump denies any such encounter and denies any legal wrongdoing.

The proceedings, in Lower Manhattan, are the first criminal trial of a former president.

If convicted, Trump faces up to four years in prison, though such a sentence for a first-time offender would be rare.

Trump case painted as 2016 election criminal conspiracy in opening statements

Here are the main takeaways from Monday.

Prosecution presses the case that Trump was conspiring to sway the election

The offenses Trump is accused of would normally be misdemeanors — except when prosecutors can make the case that they were committed in the service of another crime.

This has always been a sticking point in the New York case because — even though he has been indicted in three other, unrelated cases — Trump has not been charged with any other crime pertaining to the payment to Daniels.

Monday’s proceedings made it clearer than ever that prosecutors are arguing Trump was conspiring to influence the 2016 election, however.

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo called Trump’s actions “election fraud, pure and simple.”

Colangelo added that Trump and his cohorts were part of “a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election.”

The prosecution’s argument encompasses the chaos that followed the public revelation of the so-called “Access Hollywood” tape in early October 2016. On the tape, which is from 2005, Trump was heard boasting crudely about women, and he asserted that fame enabled any “star” to grab women by the genitals.

Trump knew his campaign was unlikely to withstand further embarrassing stories, prosecutors contend — which meant it was vital to bury Daniels’s allegation.

“Another story about sexual infidelity, especially with a porn star, on the heels of the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, would have been devastating to his campaign,” Colangelo said.

Much will hinge upon whether the prosecution can make this element of the case stick.

The Trump defense: No big deal

Trump’s team sought to rebut the prosecution with an argument that is, at its core, pretty simple: What’s the big deal?

“There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election — it’s called democracy,” said Todd Blanche, the former president’s lead attorney.

The defense also sought to mock the idea that someone as parsimonious as Trump would try to conceal a payment of $130,000 to Daniels, made through his then-attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, by paying $420,000 in installments to Cohen.

The Trump team’s argument is that the payments, far from intended to mask a sinister conspiracy, were legitimate legal fees.

Cohen is expected to take the stand against Trump, but the former president’s legal team sought to paint the friend-turned-enemy as a scoundrel motivated by animus toward the former president.

Cohen previously pleaded guilty to offenses related to tax fraud and election finance law, as well as lying to Congress. This enabled Trump’s team to dismiss him as a “criminal” whose evidence should be disregarded.

Blanche told the jury that the prosecution was, in effect, trying to whip up a criminal case from innocuous events.

If the jurors used their “common sense,” he insisted, the outcome would be a “very swift ‘not guilty’ verdict.”

Trump faces potential peril if he takes the stand

One of the huge questions looming over the trial is whether Trump will take the stand in his own defense.

Judge Juan Merchan, whom Trump has repeatedly targeted in speeches and on social media, made a ruling Monday that heightens the risks for the former president.

Merchan had to decide what topics the prosecution could raise with Trump if he does indeed testify.

The judge gave considerable leeway.

He decided prosecutors could ask about the massive civil fraud case in which Trump and his business were penalized to the tune of $454 million.

The judge also greenlighted questions about the two defamation cases brought against Trump by the writer E. Jean Carroll. Carroll says Trump raped her in a New York department store in the 1990s. In May 2023, a jury in a civil trial found Trump liable for sexual abuse of Carroll.

An apparent Trump violation of a gag order in another, separate civil case can also be discussed.

Trump might still decide to roll the dice on testifying. Such a move would be consistent with his exuberant belief in himself.

But Merchan’s order must give Trump’s legal team some pause.

The trial is proceeding at pace

Early predictions that Trump’s trial could last six weeks or longer could be dashed if Merchan keeps things moving along swiftly.

Opening statements were only possible Monday because, last week, jury selection was completed faster than many observers had expected.

That process could easily have taken two weeks. Instead, the 12 jurors and six alternates were finalized in just one week.

On Monday, Merchan’s desire to maintain the pace was shown when, even on an abbreviated day — because of the Passover holiday — he fit in some early testimony from the first witness, former magazine executive David Pecker.

There were few bombshells in the time available to Pecker, but he will be back on the stand Tuesday morning.

A frustrated Trump fires back

Reporters in the courtroom say Trump has appeared frustrated at times, listening to hostile arguments and unable to respond in his usual hypercombative way.

At day’s end, however, he did try to make his case to the media.

Describing himself as the “leading candidate” for the presidency, he insisted that the powers that be were trying to “take me off the trail for checks being paid to a lawyer.”

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