Prosecution: Trump hush money was ‘pure election fraud’

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Donald Trump appeared in court for a day of opening statements as well as testimony from David Pecker
By Phil McCausland & Kayla Epstein & Nada Tawfik
BBC News, New York

The prosecution in Donald Trump’s hush-money trial accused the former president of a criminal conspiracy and cover-up to hide a sex scandal ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

“It was election fraud, pure and simple,” a lawyer told the jury during opening statements on Monday at the historic trial in New York.

Setting out the case for the defence, Mr Trump’s lawyer said his client had committed no crimes and that it was not illegal to try to influence an election.

“He is cloaked in innocence,” he added.

Mr Trump is accused of trying to cover up a $130,000 (£104,500) payment to porn star Stormy Daniels before he won the race for the White House back in 2016.

He has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records and also denies having an alleged sexual encounter with Ms Daniels.

At the start of the second week of the criminal trial in Manhattan – the first ever of a former US president – each side set out the case they will present to the jury. The first witness, tabloid publisher David Pecker, also took the stand briefly and will continue his testimony on Tuesday.

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo alleged that Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s former lawyer and confidant, worked with the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, to “cook the books” at Mr Trump’s direction to hide hush-money payments central to the case.

Those payments were allegedly made to Ms Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, by Mr Cohen over her claim that she had a sexual encounter with the former president. Mr Trump then reimbursed his former lawyer, though he is accused of disguising the payments.

Prosecutors alleged that the scheme to pay off Ms Daniels involved falsifying three forms of records – invoices, ledger entries and cheques.

Mr Trump said in his business records that those payments were “for legal services pursuant to a retainer agreement” with Mr Cohen, Mr Colangelo told the jury.

“Those were lies,” the prosecutor said.

Most importantly, however, he claimed Mr Trump was motivated to provide the payoff so voters did not learn of the alleged encounter with Ms Daniels.

Prosecutors said that this cover-up should be considered election interference, and constituted the second crime, making the charge of falsifying business records a more serious felony, instead of a lower-lever misdemeanour.

One piece of evidence they emphasised was the infamous Access Hollywood tape in which Mr Trump bragged to television host Billy Bush about trying to have sex with a married woman.

Prosecutors were permitted by the judge to add a transcript of the video to evidence, but not the video itself. The key point for the district attorney’s office is that it shows how the Trump political campaign panicked in 2016 when the Washington Post first reported on the tape’s existence.

“The defendant and his campaign staff were deeply concerned that it would irreparably damage his standing with female voters in particular,” Mr Colangelo told the court.

Mr Colangelo alleged that a day later, Ms Daniels came forward alleging a sexual encounter with Mr Trump; Mr Pecker then contacted Michael Cohen to discuss how to keep it quiet.

Similar to the Access Hollywood tape, the public disclosure that Trump had a sexual encounter with an adult film star “would have been devastating to his campaign, so at Trump’s direction Cohen negotiated a deal”, Mr Colangelo told the jurors.

The defence’s rebuttal was fairly simple in comparison, though it was interrupted a few times by objections from prosecutors.

Mr Blanche appeared intent on casting prosecutors’ star witness – Mr Cohen – as an untrustworthy former employee with an axe to grind against the former president.

“He’s a convicted felon and a convicted perjurer – he’s an admitted liar,” Mr Blanche said of Mr Cohen.

He also zeroed in on Ms Daniels, who he said had earned “hundreds of thousands” of dollars with her claims. The defence lawyer told the jury to discount her as a witness.

He went on to dismiss the examples of allegedly false records as “34 pieces of paper” that did not involve his client.

As for the case prosecutors made for election interference, Mr Blanche denied that his client had done anything illegal even if he had attempted to sway voters.

“There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election,” Mr Blanche said. “It’s called democracy.”

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