‘Election Fraud, Pure and Simple’: Prosecutors Lay Out Criminal Case Against Trump

In October of 2016, Donald Trump’s fixer paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, a porn star who was shopping out claims of a scandalous affair between herself and Trump — who at the time was in the heat of his first campaign for president. The long tail of the scandal’s fallout would ultimately land Trump in criminal court, where on Monday prosecutors delivered opening arguments to a jury they hope to convince of the former president’s guilt.

Trump didn’t seem too concerned with the gravity of the situation — bobbing his head around and shifting in his seat in an apparent attempt to keep himself from falling dozing off for the fifth trial day in a row — but the prosecution’s allegations were serious. “This case is about criminal conspiracy,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said in his opening statement, during which he pinned the payment directly on Trump.

“It’s election fraud, pure and simple,” Colangelo added.

The prosecution teased the forthcoming testimony of former National Enquirer honcho David Pecker, who they say was intimately involved with Trump and Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen’s efforts to suppress negative stories about the then-candidate ahead of the election. The suppression of these stories, the prosecution says, were of paramount concern to Trump.

“You will see throughout the trial Donald Trump was a very frugal businessman. He believed in pinching pennies,” adding that he doubled the hush-money reimbursement payment to his fixer, Michael Cohen, so he could disguise it as business income. “You’ll hear in this trial how he has never paid more than necessary,” Colangelo continued. “This might be the only time it ever happened. Donald Trump’s willingness to do so here shows his true nature and intention to hide the payment to Ms. Daniels, and [his role in] the overall election interference in 2016.”

Trump was charged in March of last year with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to his role in the hush-money payment made to Daniels by his former lawyer Michael Cohen. The hush-money payment itself is not the crime, but rather allegations that Trump falsely listed his reimbursements to Cohen for the hush money as legal and business expenses to cover up the true nature of the payment. Prosecutors argue that the money given to Daniels was not a business expense, but an unreported campaign expenditure intended to bury a damaging story about Trump in the final weeks of the 2016 election cycle.

Colangelo said on Monday that the Trump Organization couldn’t reimburse Cohen for the payment with a line reading “Reimbursement for Porn Star Payoff,” so “they agreed to cook the books” and make it look like the payment was for legal services rendered. Trump has recently been decrying that he is being unfairly prosecuted for paying his lawyer for simple legal services rendered, but Colangelo made clear that the legal services weren’t actually legal services, and the effort to cast them that way was criminal.

Trump’s lawyers, of course, argued otherwise. Tood Blanche said in his own opening statement that reality is “not as simple” as the pitch jurors heard from Colangelo. “None of this was a crime,” he added, claiming Trump’s payments to Cohen were legitimate and that charges of election interference are overblown. “I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election,” Blanche said. That’s called democracy.”

Blanche also tried to cast doubt on the credibility of Cohen, a key witness for the prosecution who has served time for tax fraud and other crimes, including crimes related to the hush-money payments. “Michael Coehn was also a criminal,” Blanche said. “He cheated on his taxes. He lied to banks. He lied about the taxi medallion. And he got caught.”

“He has a goal and an obsession with getting Trump,” Blanche added of Cohen. “I submit to you that he cannot be trusted.”

Blanche also argued that there is “nothing wrong with what happened between President Trump and Mr. Pecker,” and that collaborating to identify and kill unflattering stories “happens regularly.” Blanche also tried to portray “catch-and-kill” as standard journalistic practice — which it is not.

Pecker testified briefly on Monday following opening arguments, but court was adjourned shortly after he took the stand.

After myriad attempted delays and legal challenges by the former president, the criminal hush-money began last week in Manhattan Criminal Court with jury selection. The process was a struggle, and was accompanied by plenty of theatrics from Trump, who relentlessly complained about the process on social media and to reporters before and after court.

Rolling Stone reported on Saturday that Trump has been privately raging over the trial, as well. The former president has complained about the treatment given to him by the courtroom sketch artist, griped about the trial’s coverage on late-night shows, raged over his issues with the jury selection process, and furiously denied having repeatedly fallen asleep in court. Trump reportedly dozed off every day of the trial last week, and was once again struggling to stay upright on Monday, jerking himself upright on multiple occasions.

Trump was singled out by both the prosecution and Judge Juan Merchan for allegedly intimidating prospective jurors via his social media posts and his in-court behavior. On Tuesday, Merchan sharply admonished Trump and his team after the former president was heard muttering commentary during the questioning of potential jurors. “I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom. I want to make that crystal clear,” Merchan said.  Last week, the prosecution accused Trump of violating a gag order barring him from attacking jurors, witnesses, prosecutors, and court staff at least seven times.

He appeared to violate the order again on Monday after leaving court, ranting about Cohen, despite the order prohibiting from speaking about witnesses.

Merchan has called a hearing this Tuesday pertaining to whether Trump should be held in contempt of court for violating the order. The hearing will take place in the morning, after which the jury will be brought in and the trial will resume with more from Pecker.

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