Ex-National Enquirer publisher David Pecker is first witness

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as his criminal trial over charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016 continues, at Manhattan state court in New York City on April 22, 2024.

Brendan Mcdermid | Reuters

Prosecutors and defense attorneys for Donald Trump clashed Monday as they each tried to define the former president’s alleged crimes in his historic hush money trial.

“This case is about a criminal conspiracy” by Trump to “corrupt the 2016 election,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told the jury in his opening statements in Manhattan Supreme Court.

“Then he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in his New York business records over and over and over again,” he said.

“We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter, if this conspiracy was a difference maker in the close election,” Colangelo told the jury. “It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

Once Colangelo finished, Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche shot back, “The story you just heard, you will learn, is not true.”

Former U.S. president and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at Manhattan Criminal Court to attend his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs in New York, on April 22, 2024. 

Angela Weiss | Via Reuters

Blanche began by noting that Trump is not only a former U.S. president but also the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in the current election cycle.

“We will call him President Trump out of respect,” Blanche said.

“I have a spoiler alert: there’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election,” Blanche added. “It’s called democracy.”

After both sides delivered their opening statements, prosecutors called David Pecker, the former CEO of National Enquirer publisher American Media, as their first witness.

David Pecker, former CEO of American Media, speaks in New York City on Jan. 31, 2014.

Marion Curtis | Reuters

But Pecker was on the stand only briefly before Judge Juan Merchan excused the jury for the day. A juror had previously informed the court that they had to attend an emergency dentist appointment.

The jury will return to the courtroom Tuesday around 11 a.m. ET, after Merchan holds a hearing to consider Trump’s alleged violations of the gag order in the case.

The order bars him from speaking about likely witnesses and their participation in the case. On Thursday, prosecutors said Trump had violated it seven times since jury selection had begun that Monday.

The DA wants Merchan to hold Trump in contempt of court and fine him $1,000 for each violation.

Trump downplayed the charges as he left the courtroom.

“It’s a case as to book keeping, which is a very minor thing in terms of the law,” Trump said.

“They called a payment to a lawyer a legal expense in the books,” Trump said. “I got indicted for that.”

“This is what they try and take me off the trail for,” the presidential candidate added. “It’s very unfair.”

Pecker was deeply involved in alleged efforts ahead of the 2016 presidential election to “catch and kill” negative information about Trump, the Republican nominee in that contest.

Pecker allegedly warned Trump’s then-attorney Michael Cohen in late 2016 about porn star Stormy Daniels’ claim that she had sex with Trump years earlier while he was married. Cohen paid $130,000 to Daniels less than two weeks before the election, which Trump went on to win.

American Media earlier in 2016 also allegedly paid $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also says she had an extramarital affair with Trump.

Colangelo described how Trump, Cohen and Pecker first conspired to influence the election during a summer 2015 meeting at Trump Tower. There, Pecker agreed to act as the “eyes and ears” for Trump by flagging potentially harmful information to Cohen.

“Cohen’s job really was to take care of problems for the defendant,” Colangelo told the jury. “He was Trump’s fixer.”

To carry out the scheme, Colangelo said, Trump and others used a practice known as “catch and kill”: The publication would pay for the exclusive rights to a story, and then never publish it, thereby catching and killing it.

Not only would they bury negative stories, they also agreed to publish flattering stories about Trump and spread negative news about his opponents. Colangelo described this as a three-part conspiracy between Trump and Pecker, and executed by Cohen and then-National Enquirer editor-in-chief Dylan Howard, to influence the election outcome.

Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records in order to conceal his reimbursement to Cohen for paying off Daniels. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg accuses Trump of doing so to influence the 2016 election.

But those counts “are really just 34 pieces of paper,” Blanche argued. “None of this was a crime.”

Trump will not take the stand Monday, though he has repeatedly said he will testify in the trial. If he does, Merchan ruled, prosecutors will be able challenge his credibility by asking him about a range of court decisions that are not directly linked to the hush money case.

Trump in a post Monday morning on Truth Social defended the payments to Cohen that are at the heart of the case.

Bragg “says that the payment of money to a lawyer, for legal services rendered, should not be referred to in a Ledger as LEGAL EXPENSE,” Trump wrote. “What other term would be more appropriate???”

Read more about Trump’s hush money trial

Trump in that post also complained that he is unable to campaign for president this week because he is required to attend his trial, which is expected to last around six weeks.

“It is also the perfect Crooked Joe Biden NARRATIVE – To be STUCK in a courtroom, and not be allowed to campaign for President of the United States!” he posted.

The opening statements and witness testimony were delivered to a jury of 12 members and six alternates, who were seated last week for the historic trial.

Dozens of potential jurors quickly disqualified themselves from the process by declaring they could not be fair and impartial in deciding on the charges against the former president and current presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Others were excused from service after lawyers found past social media posts criticizing Trump.

The former president’s attorneys made about a dozen separate attempts to delay or dismiss the trial in the weeks leading up to it.

This included a request Friday afternoon that a Manhattan appeals court pause the case, in which they argued that Trump cannot receive a fair jury in New York City, where polls show he is deeply unpopular.

Merchan had seated a full jury that same day, and the appeals court swiftly rejected the last-minute effort.

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