Donald Trump’s hush-money scheme was ‘election fraud, pure and simple,’ prosecutors charge in opening statements

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Donald Trump schemed to defraud the 2016 electorate and covered up the plot by lying “over and over and over again” once he won the White House, prosecutors charged Monday during opening statements at the former president’s hush money trial.

The ruse central to the first-ever criminal case against an ex-U.S. president started with three men in a room at Trump Tower in August 2015, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo said in Manhattan Supreme Court: Trump, his convicted former fixer, Michael Cohen, and David Pecker, the former CEO of American Media, the parent company of the National Enquirer.

The trio sought to influence the results of the election by paying off porn star Stormy Daniels, former Playboy model Karen McDougal and a Trump Tower doorman — all of whom had unflattering information to share about Trump — Colangelo said.

“This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a coverup,” the prosecutor added. “The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election. Then he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in his New York State business records over and over and over again.”

To ensure nothing would get in the way of Trump becoming the leader of the free world, Pecker agreed to be his campaign’s “eyes and ears” by using publisher American Media’s network of sources to “catch and kill” stories that could harm his chances, Colangelo alleged. Pecker allegedly reported tips to Cohen, who helped facilitate payments to anyone with dirt on his boss.

Pecker further saw to it that positive stories were published about Trump and negative pieces about his competitors, the jury heard. The hit pieces included claims that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had ties to JFK’s assassination.

Trump and his associates followed “through on every aspect of this scheme,” the prosecutor said, and the candidate was kept closely in the loop as the Enquirer “ran headline after headline that extolled the defendant’s virtues.” Colangelo said jurors will review a mountain of evidence, including a “flurry of text messages” among the scheme’s architects, and hear a phone call between Cohen and Trump.

The former president and presumptive Republican presidential nominee stewed at the defense table when Colangelo turned to the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, the release of which, the prosecutor said, led to great concern it would “irreparably damage” Trump’s standing with female voters for “bragging” about sexual assault.

Jurors had no noticeable reaction as the prosecutor repeated Trump’s notorious caught-on-camera boast that being famous entitled him to grab women “by the p—y.”

Colangelo said the tape’s release in the weeks before the election put the Trump campaign in “damage control mode” and left no question that Daniels needed to be silenced about a years-old extramarital tryst with Trump that “could have been devastating to his campaign.”

“With pressure mounting and Election Day fast approaching, Donald Trump agreed to the payoff and directed Cohen to proceed,” the prosecutor said, leading Trump’s then-fixer to take out a loan to wire Daniels $130,000.

The Daniels payoff came after American Media had handed a $150,000 payment to McDougal, who alleged she had a heated 10-month affair with Trump shortly after he wed Melania, and $30,000 in hush money to a former Trump Tower doorman who wanted to sell a later-debunked story about Trump fathering a child out of wedlock.

Trump’s fixer agreed to pay Daniels, the prosecutor said, when an “antsy” Pecker voiced concern that he still hadn’t been paid back. The former CEO ultimately backed away from the deal and agreed to “eat” the debt, Colangelo said.

The 34 felonies Trump has pleaded not guilty to are tied to the alleged compensation to Cohen and related fees, totaling 11 checks for $420,000, 11 invoices and 12 ledger entries falsely logged as payment for “legal” services. Colangelo said Trump’s since-convicted former finance chief, Allen Weisselberg, helped disguise the checks and that Trump’s actions went beyond “spin or communication strategy.”

“It was election fraud. Pure and simple,” the prosecutor said.

In his opener, Trump lawyer Todd Blanche flipped the script, countering that the state’s star witness, Cohen, was “obsessed” with Trump and a liar whose success hinged on Trump’s “destruction.” The attorney said the central scheme involved no illegality.

“I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy,” Blanche said. “President Trump did not commit any crimes.”

He sought to humanize his client, saying he wasn’t just the former POTUS and a TV personality.

“He’s also a man, he’s a husband, he’s a father. And he’s a person, just like you and just like me,” Blanche said of his client, whose family hasn’t attended one day of the trial. He later said nothing was criminal about the nondisclosure agreements that Trump entered into to protect his family and reputation.

Prosecutors called Pecker, who flashed a big grin before laying out his responsibilities as a supermarket tabloid publisher from 1999 to 2020, as their first witness. Trump switched his gaze from looking ahead and turned to face his former ally when he took the stand, jotting down notes.

Pecker, who received immunity in Cohen’s 2018 federal case that led to the ex-fixer’s conviction and prison sentence, told jurors he reviewed covers — “the only thing that was important” — and that any stories that cost more than $10,000 had to get his signoff.

“I had the final say on the celebrity side of the industry,” Pecker said. “We used checkbook journalism and paid for stories.”

Pecker is expected to share more about his role on Tuesday and is the first character of many in the salacious hush money saga jurors are expected to hear from — possibly including Trump, should he follow through on his promise to testify. If so, prosecutors can ask him about a bevy of other cases that went horribly for him, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Merchan ruled Monday.

As he vies for the presidency once again, Trump, 77, faces 88 felony counts across four states alleging crimes that started the year before he won the White House and ran until the year he left. In the other cases, he’s denied that he plotted to subvert democracy and illegally hoarded classified documents.

He returned to his trial after an arduous first week in which he was threatened with sanctions for potentially violating a gag order prohibiting public criticisms of trial participants, which Merchan is expected to consider on Tuesday.

In a nine-minute rant after proceedings wrapped, the displeased-looking ex-prez said the trial was going “very well” and that there was nothing wrong with classifying reimbursement for hush money as legal fees.

“What else would you call it?” Trump said. “In the book, it’s a little lie.”