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Prosecutor: A tabloid pact led to Trump faking business records

NEW YORK — Donald Trump oversaw a “planned, coordinated, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election,” which included hush money payments to an adult-film actress, prosecutors told a jury Monday in the opening salvo of the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president.

“It was election fraud, pure and simple,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo told the jury inside a packed and heavily-guarded courtroom, illustrating the sky-high stakes of a criminal trial in which the defendant is also the presumptive GOP nominee for president in the November election.

In the hallway outside the courtroom, Trump denounced the case, and other legal battles he is fighting, with his usual bluster and vitriol against a system that he claims is targeting him unfairly for political reasons.

“I should be in Georgia now, I should be in Florida now,” Trump said.

Colangelo spent about 40 minutes Monday morning describing the evidence that he said would show Trump broke the law. The prosecutor’s delivery was calm and measured throughout — never raising his voice, and keeping his hands in his suit pockets for much of the time he spoke.

Trump’s crimes, the prosecutor said, arose out of his secret election-year deal with the National Enquirer to squelch bad stories about his sex life — a conspiracy launched in a meeting between Trump; the tabloid’s then-CEO David Pecker; and Michael Cohen, Trump’s then-lawyer and fixer.

That pact ultimately led Cohen to arrange a $130,000 payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels to keep her from going public about an alleged sexual encounter she’d had with Trump years earlier, the prosecutor said.

Cohen is expected to testify that Trump purposely misrepresented reimbursements to Cohen to conceal what the money was for.

Cohen’s testimony will be “damning” and convincing, Colangelo said.

“I suspect the defense will go to great lengths to get you to reject his testimony, precisely because it is so damning,” Colangelo said, though he acknowledged that Cohen “has made mistakes.”

Throughout the prosecutor’s presentation, Trump showed little emotion, often not looking at Colangelo and occasionally writing short notes to his lawyers.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche countered when it was his turn to address the panel that the prosecutor’s case would collapse because it was built on Cohen’s lies.

“Unbeknownst to President Trump, in all the years that Mr. Cohen worked for him, Mr. Cohen was also a criminal,” Blanche said. “He cheated on his taxes, he lied to banks, he lied about side businesses.”

Blanche said that when the FBI began investigating Cohen, he tried to “blame Trump for virtually all of his problems,” and continues to do so.

“Michael Cohen was obsessed with President Trump. He’s obsessed with President Trump even to this day,” Blanche said.

Cohen weighed in on social media later in the day, using a profanity to refer to Trump and saying “your attacks of me stink of desperation. We are all hoping that you take the stand in your defense.”

Cohen, an admitted perjurer and felon, is considered central to the prosecution’s case, and how jurors view him may ultimately decide whether they convict Trump. Colangelo said the jury will be convinced Cohen is telling the truth about the hush money payments because his statements will be “backed up by testimony from other witnesses” as well as bank records, emails and text messages.

Trump will provide some of the evidence that will prove his guilt, Colangelo said, because jurors will hear “Donald Trump’s own words on tape, in social media posts, in his own books and in video of his own speeches.”

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records, for categorizing the reimbursement payments to Cohen as legal expenses. Trump denies the charges.

The payment from Cohen to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was done “at Donald Trump’s direction and for his benefit, and he did it with the specific goal of influencing the outcome of the election,” said Colangelo.

“No politician wants bad press. But the evidence at trial will show this was not spin or strategy,” he said. “This was a planned, coordinated long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures, to silence people who had something bad to say about his behavior, using doctored corporate records.”

Blanche struck back at that characterization, saying the district attorney is trying to make legal conduct sound like a criminal conspiracy.

“There’s nothing illegal about what happened between AMI, Mr. Pecker, Mr. Cohen and President Trump,” Blanche said, referring to American Media Inc., the Enquirer’s parent company at the time. “This sort of thing happens regularly, where newspapers make decisions about what to publish, how to publish. It happens all the time with famous people, wealthy people. It doesn’t matter if it’s a scheme — it’s not against the law.”

Prosecutors said Trump was motivated to keep Daniels from speaking publicly in part because in October 2016, The Washington Post revealed the existence of an “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump made graphic comments about grabbing women’s genitalia. Afraid of the damage more stories about sexual impropriety could do to his candidacy, Trump and his allies set out to keep more scandalous stories from surfacing, Colangelo said.

After opening statements, prosecutors called Pecker as their first witness — suggesting his testimony may serve as a kind of tour guide to help the jury understand the seamy world of tabloid sex scandals and Trump’s alleged role in preventing some of those stories from coming to light.

Pecker said in his role as CEO of the company that ran the National Enquirer and other celebrity-focused publications, he approved any payment of more than $10,000 for a story.

“We use checkbook journalism and we paid for stories,” said Pecker, describing a practice that is common at American tabloids and in some other countries, but is not generally part of mainstream journalism.

Prosecutors do not contend that Pecker was part of the scheme to pay off Daniels, but rather, that the deal he struck with Trump and Cohen to “catch and kill” bad stories about the presidential candidate showed Trump was motivated to keep such tales quiet because of the election.

To buttress the point, Colangelo said that when it seemed Trump might have to pay Daniels, he first tried to put the entire issue off until after the election, when it wouldn’t have mattered as much. But when Daniels’s representative made clear they would go public before Election Day, Trump decided to pay, the prosecutor said.

Pecker only spoke for about 20 minutes on the witness stand Monday before court ended for the day. He is expected back in court Tuesday to continue testifying, and a key element to his account will be what specific statements he says were made by Trump, and how the two of them — the witness and the accused — interact in court.

Before Pecker takes the stand, however, New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan plans to hold a morning hearing on the prosecutors’ request that Trump be found in contempt for at least 10 alleged instances of violating a gag order.

Trump has been ordered not to publicly criticize the witnesses, or the family members of the judge or prosecutor. Prosecutors say he has brazenly and repeatedly violated that order, and are asking the judge to impose a fine of $1,000 for each violation.

Trump’s lawyers have argued it’s unfair to insist Trump remain silent about Cohen when Cohen repeatedly publicly criticizes him.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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