Prosecutor accuses Trump of ‘orchestrating a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election’

In his opening statements, assistant district attorney Matthew Colangelo said the former U.S. president committed a crime ‘to influence the election’

Donald Trump
Donald Trump, this Monday, before the start of the hearing.YUKI IWAMURA / POOL (EFE)

The first trial of a former president of the United States is underway. In a historic hearing, Matthew Colangelo, assistant district attorney, was in charge of presenting the opening statements against Donald Trump, who shook his head in disapproval. “This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a cover-up,” Colangelo said. “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 business records over and over and over again.” Trump’s attorney, Todd Blanche, began his plea by saying, “President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes.”

In the case, called The People of the State of New York v. Donald Trump, the former president is accused of falsifying business records to hide hush money paid to cover up scandals that could have hurt his 2016 presidential campaign. The best known is the $130,000 payment made to porn actress Stormy Daniels in the final stretch of the election. She was given the money by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, in exchange for keeping silent about an alleged extramarital affair with Trump.

Colangelo claimed in his opening statement that Cohen paid the porn actress the hush money “at the defendant’s direction, and did it to influence the election.” After the election, Trump reimbursed Cohen for the money, and they “disguised what the payments were for,” according to the prosecutor. Trump “said in business records that he was paying Cohen for legal services pursuant to a retainer agreement. But those were lies. There was no retainer agreement,” Colangelo said, as reported by the media present in court.

“Neither Trump nor the Trump Organization could just write a check to Cohen with a memo line that said ‘reimbursement for porn star pay-off.’ So they agreed to cook the books and make it look like the payment was actually income, payment for services rendered,” he argued.

“No reasonable doubt”

Cohen is now the prosecution’s star witness, but the defense will try to question his credibility. “I suspect the defense will go to great lengths to get you to reject his testimony, precisely because it is so damning,” Colango warned the jury.

Shortly after, the defense lawyer said that Cohen was “obsessed” with Trump and that he holds a grudge against him because he did not give him a position in his government. “His entire financial livelihood depends on President Trump’s destruction,” said Blanche. “You cannot make a serious decision about President Trump relying on the words of Michael Cohen.”

As this is a criminal case, Trump is innocent until proven guilty. To be convicted, jurors must find that he committed the crimes with which he is charged beyond a reasonable doubt. Colango argued: “At the end of the case, we are confident you will have no reasonable doubt that Donald Trump is guilty of falsifying business records with the intent to conceal an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of a presidential election.”

Trump’s attorney argued just the opposite. Blanche said that prosecutors told what appears “to be a very clean, nice story,” but that “it is not simple,” and that the jury will find “plenty of reasonable doubt.”

Trump has pleaded not guilty to the 34 felony counts of falsifying business records for which he is being tried. The former president has always denied that he had sexual relations with Stormy Daniels and, his lawyers argue that the payments to Cohen were valid legal expenses. His lawyer said the scandal “was an attempt to embarrass president Trump, to embarrass his family.”

With respect to the allegations that Trump was trying to illicitly influence the 2016 election, he said, “I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy.” Trump is not being charged for the payments themselves, but for the alleged falsification of records to conceal them.

The 12 jurors (seven men and five women) and six alternates were sworn in on Friday after a four-day selection process.

At Monday’s hearing, before the opening arguments were made and the jury entered the courtroom, Judge Juan Merchan said he would not allow a video of Trump describing women in sexist terms to be seen, but that he would allow prosecutors to show emails describing what was said in the footage. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab‘em by the pussy, you can do anything,” Trump said in that recording, known as the Access Hollywood tape. The prosecution’s thesis is that after the release of that video in the 2016 campaign, it was vital for Trump to silence Stormy Daniels.

Merchan also set out the rules for the possible cross-examination of Donald Trump if he takes the stand, as he has promised. Prosecutors will be able to question him about the two verdicts in which jurors found that Trump defamed E. Jean Carroll when he denied her rape allegations. They may also question him about the civil fraud verdict that found he violated the law by inflating the value of his properties. On the other hand, he may not be questioned about his organization’s 2022 tax fraud case.

Upon entering the courthouse, Trump repeated his usual string of unsubstantiated criticisms of the trial, which he described as “election interference.” “I’m here instead of being able to be in Pennsylvania and Georgia and lots of other places campaigning, and it’s very unfair,” he said. The former president also claimed — without evidence — that he was the victim of a “witch hunt,” arguing the trial was being coordinated by Washington to favor Joe Biden, who he described as the “worst president in the history of our country” — a title that historians in fact have given to Trump.

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