Trump case painted as 2016 election criminal conspiracy in opening statements

NEW YORK — An alleged conspiracy to launch Donald Trump to the White House in 2016, with top allies pulling the strings to get him there: That’s the case against Trump that prosecutors said Monday they intend to present to a jury of New Yorkers, who will decide whether to make the former president a felon before Election Day.

“This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a cover-up,” Manhattan prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said. “The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 election, then covered it up.”

But Trump’s attorneys will paint a different picture — one that shows business as usual turned into a crime without basis.

“President Trump is innocent,” Trump attorney Todd Blanche said in his first remarks to the jury. “He did not commit any crimes. The Manhattan district attorney’s office should never have brought this case.”

The opening statements previewed the testimony expected to unfold in the dingy Manhattan courtroom in the coming weeks in the first criminal trial of a current or former president.

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Although Trump faces charges of falsifying business records, prosecutors will tell jurors a story that ranges from sex to politics to accounting, attempting to convince them that Trump criminally covered up a hush money deal to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The district attorney’s first oration to the jury echoed two of Trump’s other criminal cases, which revolve around his alleged attempts to subvert the 2020 presidential election results after losing to President Biden.

“It was election fraud — pure and simple,” Colangelo said in his opening remarks.

Trump maintained a steely composure throughout the day, his gaze shifting among the judge, jury and his attorneys as opening statements unfolded. On his signature blue suit, he donned a pin of an American flag.

Blanche noted that hush money alone isn’t illegal, suggesting Trump’s arrangements were the same as an everyday nondisclosure agreement.

“I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election,” he said. “It’s called democracy.”

He spent much of his opening statement directing his disdain at prosecutors’ expected star witnesses, attempting to impugn their credibility before the jurors see anyone take the stand.

Blanche told jurors they can’t trust Michael Cohen, Trump’s ex-fixer and personal lawyer who made the hush money deals at the center of the case. Cohen, who has since turned against his former boss, is likely to be a star witness.

Trump’s attorney brought up Cohen’s past guilty pleas, portraying him as a liar who is now making a livelihood off attacking Trump on his podcast, book and cable news.

“Given this, you cannot give [a] serious decision about President Trump relying on the words of Michael Cohen,” Blanche said.

He went on to discredit porn actor Stormy Daniels, who is likely to take to the stand to testify about Cohen’s $130,000 payment to her days before the 2016 election to stay quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump from about a decade earlier. Trump denies her story.

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Blanche looked to distance Daniels from Trump’s case, insisting the porn actor has “no idea” about the charges because they are about documents allegedly created after Daniels was paid off.

“Her testimony, while salacious, does not matter,” Blanche said.

Prosecutors attempted to rehabilitate their star witnesses before they had even taken the stand — and before the defense tried to discredit them. The state told jurors off the bat that Trump sought to “silence” Daniels, and that Cohen “made mistakes in the past.”

“You will need to keep an open mind,” Colangelo advised the jury.

After opening statements, prosecutors called their first witness: David Pecker, the ex-CEO of American Media.

The district attorney’s office detailed the so-called “catch-and-kill” conspiracy it says underlies the case.

At an August 2015 meeting with Trump and Cohen, Pecker agreed to squelch bad press about Trump. Their effort became more dire after the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced just weeks before Election Day 2016, in which Trump boasts about his apparently unsolicited advances on women.

On the witness stand Monday, Pecker testified that “juicy stories” were run by him before publication, and he had final say on what was — or wasn’t — published.

Pecker’s testimony was cut short by time constraints imposed by the judge to honor any Passover commitments and a juror’s dental appointment.

The proceedings are set to resume Tuesday morning, when the judge will weigh prosecutors’ assertion that Trump has violated his gag order 10 times. They have asked the judge to hold the former president in contempt and fine him thousands of dollars.

Afterward, Pecker is expected to retake the stand.

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