Trump’s hush-money trial: prosecutors’ key arguments in criminal case

<span>Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg in New York on 10 April 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Lev Radin/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg in New York on 10 April 2024.Photograph: Lev Radin/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

On Monday, 15 April 2024, Donald Trump will go on trial in Manhattan, making him the first former US president to face a criminal jury. More than 500 prospective jurors have been summoned to Manhattan supreme court in preparation for a selection process that could span days.

Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, in spring 2023 charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records over an alleged hush-money scheme involving adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal. The charge is a class E felony.

Related: For all his bombast, Trump is plummeting – financially, legally and politically | Lloyd Green

Bragg’s office contends that Trump facilitated payoffs to the women through his then attorney, Michael Cohen, to cover up alleged extramarital liaisons that could have damaged his candidacy in the 2016 election. They say that the illicit “catch and kill” payoff scheme spanned from August 2015 to December 2017. Cohen in 2018 pleaded guilty to federal charges in Manhattan related to his involvement in that particular scheme, among other crimes.

Trump has maintained his innocence. As with the other criminal and civil cases against him, Trump has largely claimed these proceedings are a politically motivated witch-hunt, intended to impede his candidacy in the 2024 presidential election.

Here are the key points in Manhattan prosecutors’ case against Trump.

The Stormy Daniels allegation

Prosecutors charge that Cohen wired $130,000 to Daniels’ then attorney just 12 days before the presidential election. Cohen funneled the money by making the payoff through a shell company, which was funded through a New York City bank, prosecutors say.

When Trump won the election, prosecutors continue, he repaid Cohen in a series of monthly checks. Initially, those checks came from the Donald J Trump Revocable Trust – which was launched in New York to retain the president’s namesake company’s assets during his time in the White House. Then, payments to Cohen came from Trump’s bank account, per court papers.

Prosecutors say that 11 checks were doled out for this spurious purpose – and that Trump signed nine of them; the Trump Organization processed each of these checks “disguised as a payment for legal services rendered pursuant to a non-existent retainer agreement”.

Trump’s alleged passing off hush-money payouts as remittance for legal work “made and caused a false entry in the business records of an enterprise”, prosecutors say in the counts of his indictment. This was done, they say, “with intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof … .”

Prosecutors say there were a total of 34 phony ledger entries to hide the purpose of this “covert” payment. They also contend that those who partook in the scheme plotted to mischaracterize these disbursements for taxes.

The Karen McDougal accusation

In another alleged catch-and-kill operation, AMI, the publisher of the National Enquirer, paid $150,000 to McDougal. The former adult model claims to have had a sexual relationship with Trump, per Manhattan prosecutors.

AMI, which entered into a non-prosecution agreement with Manhattan federal prosecutors amid the Cohen probe, contacted Cohen after McDougal’s attorney reached out to the National Enquirer, hoping to sell her story. AMI entered into an agreement with McDougal to buy her “limited life rights” to her account of a relationship with “any married man”, per the non-prosecution agreement.

AMI agreed to feature the model on two magazine covers and that it could run more than 100 magazine articles authored by McDougal. AMI entered into the August 2016 deal with McDougal to publish features and articles but had no intention of running them, as the agreement was “to suppress the model’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election”, federal prosecutors also say.

Manhattan state prosecutors contend that Trump “explicitly directed” Cohen to repay AMI with cash. Cohen, in turn, told Trump that AMI should be reimbursed through a shell company.

The media company – owned by longtime Trump ally David Pecker – decided in the end not to accept reimbursement following consultations with their counsel, the Manhattan DA’s office says.

The doorman’s claim

Around October or November 2015, Pecker learned that an ex-Trump Tower doorman was trying to peddle information about a child Trump allegedly fathered out of wedlock. Under Pecker’s direction, AMI agreed to pay him $30,000 for the exclusive rights to his story, prosecutors claim.

AMI, per Manhattan prosecutors, “falsely characterized this payment in AMI’s books and records, including in its general ledger”. The publisher brokered this deal without investigating it, and later learned the account was untrue.

While Pecker wanted to release the ex-doorman from this deal, Cohen told him not to do so until after the election. He agreed, per prosecutors.

The longtime agreement among Trump, Cohen and Pecker

Manhattan prosecutors describe the catch-and-kill scheme as having roots in summer 2015. Some two months after Trump announced his candidacy, he, Pecker and Cohen met at Trump Tower.

Pecker, prosecutors say, agreed to help with Trump’s presidential bid – and vowed to act as his “eyes and ears” for the campaign by tracking negative stories and flagging them to Cohen before they broke. Pecker, prosecutors say, also agreed to run negative stories about Trump’s opponents.

This alleged agreement appeared to play heavily into Pecker’s decision to buy the doorman’s story despite failing to investigate it first. Pecker “directed that the deal take place because of his agreement” with Trump and Cohen, prosecutors say in court papers.

The Access Hollywood tape

Trump and his cronies were concerned about damaging information for more than one year prior to the election, but pressure intensified on 7 October 2016. On that date, the Washington Post published audio in which Trump boasted he could grope women without their consent due to his fame.

“You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump said in the recording. “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

The audio, in a video excerpt from an Access Hollywood taping, made Trump “concerned that the tape would harm his viability as a candidate and reduce his standing with female voters in particular”.

AMI caught wind of Daniels’ account shortly after the tape became public. AMI’s editor-in-chief contacted Cohen, and connected him with Daniels’ attorney at the time.

In court papers, prosecutors say that Trump tried to stall the Daniels payoff “for as long as possible”. Trump told Cohen that if he could delay the exchange until after the election, they might be able to avoid giving her any money, “because at that point it would not matter if the story became public”.

But, “with pressure mounting and the election approaching”, Trump agreed to pay off Daniels and told Cohen to go forward. Trump’s lawyers pushed unsuccessfully for the Access Hollywood tape to be excluded from the trial. Court papers say the tape “helps establish defendant’s intent and motive for making the payment to Daniels and then, attempting to conceal them”.