Trump hush money trial: Ex-president 'orchestrated criminal scheme to corrupt' 2016 election but defence says 'nothing wrong with interference'

Donald Trump "orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt" the 2016 election, a prosecutor has said at the start of the former president's hush money trial, but the defence claims he did "nothing illegal".

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo claimed the former president had been "lying... over and over" as he accused Trump of covering up a "criminal conspiracy".

He made the remarks as opening statements as the historic trial got under way - the first time prosecutors have presented to a jury a criminal case against a former US president.

Trump is accused of falsifying internal business records as part of an alleged scheme to bury stories that he thought might hurt his presidential campaign in 2016.

He is accused of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records - an offence punishable by up to four years in prison - though it's unclear if he is likely to be jailed.

The prosecuting lawyer Mr Colangelo told jurors: "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."

But Trump's lawyers defended his actions, claiming none of what has been alleged was a crime, and going on to say there was "nothing wrong with trying to influence an election", as it was "democracy".

A panel of New Yorkers - 12 jurors and six alternates - were sworn in on Friday after four days of jury selection.

At the heart of the allegations against Trump is a $130,000 payment made to porn actress Stormy Daniels by Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer and personal fixer, to allegedly prevent her claims of a sexual encounter with Trump from surfacing in the final days of the presidential race.

Today's opening statements set the stage for weeks of testimony about Trump's personal life.

Payments part of 'catch and kill ploy' - prosecution

Mr Colangelo began by going through some of the history of the election campaign, referencing a tape recording made in 2005 on which Trump was heard boasting about grabbing women without their permission.

He said it had resulted in the Republican National Committee considering whether it was possible to replace Trump with another candidate.

Days after, The National Enquirer newspaper alerted Cohen that Ms Daniels had come forward with her claims of a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006.

Trump has denied having a sexual encounter with Ms Daniels.

Mr Colangelo told jurors: "At Trump's direction, Cohen negotiated a deal to buy Ms Daniels' story to prevent American voters from hearing that story before election day."

The prosecutor said there were a number of payments made that were part of a "catch-and-kill" ploy - catching a potentially damaging story by buying the rights to it and then suppressing or killing it to prevent the paid person from telling the story to anyone else.

Among them, Mr Colangelo said, were arrangements to pay a former Playboy model $150,000 dollars to suppress her claims of a nearly year-long affair with the married Trump.

Mr Colangelo said Trump "desperately" wanted to avoid the information about Karen McDougal becoming "public because he was worried about its effect on the election".

Jurors will hear a recording Cohen made in September 2016 in which he briefed Trump on the plan to buy Ms McDougal's story, he added.

The recording was made public in July 2018. On it, Trump's voice can be heard saying: "What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?", Mr Colangelo said.

Payments were made by Trump's company as veiled reimbursements meant to cover up Cohen's payments to Daniels, prosecutors say.

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'What on earth is a crime?' - Trump's defence lawyer

Trump did nothing illegal when his company recorded checks paid to Cohen as legal expenses, defence lawyer Todd Blanche said, challenging the notion that Trump agreed to the pay-out to Ms Daniels to safeguard his campaign.

Mr Blanche said he would refer to his client as "President Trump out of respect" as he claimed his client was innocent.

"He's in some ways larger than life. But he's also here in this courtroom, doing what any of us would do. Defending himself."

Mr Blanche went on to ask: "What on earth is a crime? What's a crime, of what I just described?

"This business records violation, these 34 counts are really just 34 pieces of paper, the cheques that were generated because of invoice and records notation... none of this is a crime.

"You heard the people's theory that Michael Cohen was trying to cover the payback to Stormy Daniels, who also goes by Stephanie Clifford.

"She did sign an agreement for $130,000... President Trump did not pay Mr Cohen back $130,000. President Trump paid Michael Cohen $420,000.

"Would a frugal business man… would a man who pinches pennies… repay a $130,000 (£106,000) debt to the tune of $420,000?"

The lawyer then said: "I have a spoiler alert: there's nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It's called democracy."

First witness quizzed over use of cheque book journalism

The first witness, former publisher of The National Enquirer David Pecker, was quizzed over his ex-publication's use of cheque book journalism.

Prosecutors claim Mr Pecker - who is in court on a subpoena - met Trump and Cohen at Trump Tower in August 2015 and agreed to help the campaign identify negative stories about the ex-president before he was elected.

Before the court was adjourned, he was asked to recite his phone numbers from the period in question, but the prosecution did not get around to explaining why.

'People understand what's going on' - Trump

Trump said it was a "very sad day in America" as he spoke outside the New York courthouse before opening statements began.

He added that his trial was an example of "election interference", describing it as "very unfair".

"People understand what's going on," he said, describing the trial as a "witch hunt".

Trump, who has secured the Republican nomination for the 2024 US presidential election, added: "I'm here instead of being able to be in Pennsylvania and Georgia and lots of other places campaigning and it's very unfair."

The former US president said the trial was "in coordination with Washington" and "done for the purposes of hurting the opponent of the worst president in the history of our country".

Trump will run against current US leader Joe Biden when the election takes place in November.

First of four criminal trials facing Trump

The hush money case is the first of Trump's four indictments to reach trial.

In his comments outside the courthouse today, the former president also spoke about his New York civil fraud case as a result of which he was ordered to pay a fine of at least $453.5m (£368m).

New York attorney general Letitia James has challenged a $175m (£142m) bond provided to Trump by insurer Knight Specialty Insurance Co.

The company is trying to convince a state judge today that it is financially strong enough to issue the guarantee after Ms James questioned if the bond was backed by secure assets.

Mr Trump said: "The money was put up, it was $175m and I don't think (Ms James) is complaining about me for the first time, she's complaining about the company, but why would she be doing that when I put up the money?"