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Former US president and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump awaits the start of proceedings for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York, on April 22, 2024. Image Credit: via REUTERS

NEW YORK: New York prosecutors on Monday began telling a jury why Donald Trump ‘s alleged cover-up of a hush money payment to a porn star during his 2016 campaign broke the law, as the first-ever criminal trial of a former US president got underway.

“This case is about conspiracy of fraud,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told the jury. “The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election.”

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Lawyers for the Republican presidential candidate will also make their opening statement in what may be the only one of Trump’s four criminal prosecutions to go to trial before his Nov. 5 election rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden.

Though Trump called for supporters to protest peacefully at courthouses “all over the Country,” few were on hand to greet him when he arrived at the downtown courthouse.

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Trump suggested tight security measures were responsible for the sparse turnout, but the streets surrounding the courthouse were open to the public.

“Lower Manhattan surrounding the Courthouse, where I am heading now, is completely CLOSED DOWN. SO UNFAIR!!!” he wrote on social media.

Prosecutors say Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier deceived voters in the waning days of Trump’s 2016 campaign, when he was facing other revelations of sexual misbehavior.

As the trial opened, Justice Juan Merchan ruled that prosecutors would be able to ask Trump, if he testifies, about two other court cases: one that found he fraudulently misstated the value of his real estate assets, and another that found he defamed writer E. Jean Carroll after she accused him of rape.

Merchan also said prosecutors would be able to show jurors a transcript of a tape from the ‘Access Hollywood’ TV show in which Trump makes vulgar comments about grabbing women’s genitals, though jurors will not be allowed to see the tape itself.

Wearing a blue tie and dark blue suit, Trump stared at the judge and occasionally spoke to his lawyer. A Secret Service agent wearing an earpiece sat directly behind him.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsification of business records brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and denies having had a sexual encounter with Daniels.

The case is seen by many legal experts as the least consequential of the Trump prosecutions. A guilty verdict would not bar him from taking office, but it could hurt his candidacy.

Reuters/Ipsos polling shows half of independent voters and one in four Republicans say they would not vote for Trump if he is convicted of a crime.


Prosecutors have said the Daniels payment was part of a broader “catch and kill” scheme hatched by Trump, Cohen and David Pecker - the former chief executive of tabloid publisher American Media - to pay off people with potentially damaging information about Trump before the November 2016 election. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Colangelo said Trump said in his business records that he was paying Cohen for legal expenses.

Those were lies. There was no retainer agreement, Cohen was not being paid for legal services” Colangelo said. The defendant falsified those business records because he wanted to conceal his and others’ criminal conduct.”

The defendant disguised his reimbursements to Michael Cohen through 11 falsified invoices, 12 falsified ledger entries, and 11 falsified checks, Colangelo said.

Pecker is the first witness prosecutors plan to call after opening statements, the New York Times and CNN reported on Sunday. According to prosecutors, Pecker agreed during an August 2015 meeting with Trump and Cohen to act as the campaign’s “eyes and ears” by looking out for negative stories about Trump.

American Media, which publishes the National Enquirer, in 2018 admitted that it paid $150,000 to former Playboy magazine model Karen McDougal for rights to her story about a months-long affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007. American Media said it worked “in concert” with Trump’s campaign, and it never published a story.

The tabloid reached a similar deal to pay $30,000 to a doorman who was seeking to sell a story about Trump allegedly fathering a child out of wedlock, which turned out to be false, according to prosecutors.

Trump has said the payments were personal and did not violate election law. He has also denied the affair with McDougal.

In the New York trial, Trump is charged with falsely recording his 2017 reimbursement of Cohen for the Daniels payment as a legal expense in his real estate company’s books.

Prosecutors say he did so to conceal the fact that Cohen’s payment exceeded the $2,700 limit on individual campaign contributions at the time.

Testimony about those payments could help prosecutors establish that Cohen’s payment to Daniels was part of a broader pattern.

Prosecutors plan to call at least 20 witnesses total, according to Trump’s defense team. The trial could last six to eight weeks.

Trump faces three other criminal indictments stemming from his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat and his handling of classified documents after leaving the White House in 2021.

Trump has pleaded not guilty in those cases, and he portrays all of them as a broad-based effort by Biden’s Democratic allies to undercut his campaign.

Merchan, who is overseeing the hush money trial, imposed a limited gag order on Trump after he criticized witnesses, prosecutors, the judge and his daughter. Prosecutors are pressing Merchan to penalize Trump for violating that order.