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Trump lawyer opens hush-money defence by attacking key witnesses

Trump lawyer opens hush-money defence by attacking key witnesses
Former US president Donald Trump at the Manhattan criminal court in New York on 15 April 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Jeenah Moon)

The trial in lower Manhattan, the first of a former president, takes place as the 77-year-old seeks a return to the White House in a rematch with Joe Biden. It’s one of four prosecutions of Trump that have hung over the presumptive Republican nominee.

Donald Trump’s lawyer launched his criminal defence at the historic trial by attempting to discredit key witnesses and arguing that prosecutors had falsely accused the former president of corrupting the 2016 election by paying porn star Stormy Daniels to bury her claims of a sexual liaison.

Attorney Todd Blanche stood before a New York jury on Monday and sketched out how he will try to take apart the prosecution’s 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up a $130,000 payment to Daniels, who had threatened to go public with her account of having sex with Trump.

He followed prosecutors, who briskly laid out their case against Trump, detailing the alleged hush-money scheme and promising it would be backed up by insider witnesses, bank records and recordings of Trump himself.

The trial in lower Manhattan, the first of a former president, takes place as the 77-year-old looks to return to the White House in a rematch with Joe Biden. It’s one of four prosecutions of Trump that have hung over the presumptive Republican nominee, who has branded them as election interference and a witch-hunt by Democrats.

Blanche said his “larger than life” client was a victim of overreaching prosecutors who put their faith in Daniels and attorney Michael Cohen, the former Trump attorney and fixer who went to prison for perjury and other crimes. Blanche said Daniels’ attempt to go public was “almost an attempt to extort” Trump.

“It was sinister, it was an attempt to embarrass President Trump,” Blanche said, laying out the former president’s defence for the first time. Blanche said Trump bought the silence of Daniels to protect “his family, his reputation and his brand”. None of that was illegal, and it had nothing to do with the 2016 election, he said.

A key question posed to jurors during the trial, set against the backdrop of a campaign for the White House, is whether Trump engaged in election interference by attempting to hide negative stories about him so he could get elected eight years ago.

“The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said.

“Spoiler alert: there’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election,” Blanche countered. “It’s called democracy.” 

Criminal conspiracy

Colangelo used his opening statement to sketch out a criminal conspiracy that began in Trump Tower in 2015 between Trump, Cohen and David Pecker, who ran the company that owned the National Enquirer. Their goal was to conceal damaging information ahead of the election and trash Trump’s opponents like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson with scurrilous stories.

The Enquirer would “catch and kill” damaging stories, or buy unflattering articles with no intention of publishing them. Pecker was briefly called as the first witness on Monday, giving some basics about his role, and will return on Tuesday.

The crimes centre on business records that, Colangelo said, covered up Trump reimbursing $420,000 to Cohen, or more than twice what he paid Daniels to buy her silence. The legal fiction, he said, was that they were legal repayments. After he was elected, Colangelo said, Trump reimbursed Cohen, claiming the payments were for legal fees, he said.

trump media

Former US President and current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the media during his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York, New York on 22 April 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Brendan McDermid)

“They couldn’t say ‘reimbursement for porn star payment’ so they had to cook the books,” Colangelo said. “The evidence will show this was not spin or strategy but a plan to influence the election to help Donald Trump get elected,” he said. “It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

While this basic account has been well known since Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicted Trump last year, Colangelo revealed for the first time that prosecutors had amassed a wealth of evidence to back up their version of events that took place eight years ago. They include emails, text messages and recordings of Trump discussing the repayment. 

Jurors will also hear Trump “working out the terms of the deal” with Cohen. “You will hear the defendant’s own voice in a recorded conversation,” the prosecutor said.

Access Hollywood tape

Colangelo said the airing in October 2016 of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump bragged about his conquest of women, had an “immediate and explosive” effect on the campaign.

“The campaign was concerned,” the prosecutor said. “They knew it was damaging, not only because Trump bragged about sexual assault” but it was “in his own words, in his own voice”.

Bragg filed the first of four criminal indictments of the former president. What was less clear until Monday was how the former president would defend Bragg’s specific charges beyond attacking the DA and calling it an unfair witch-hunt.

Trump, who wore a navy suit, white shirt and blue tie, seemed subdued and often jotted notes as Blanche took aim at Cohen, the witness who can most directly tie the payments to the election. Blanche recounted Cohen’s criminal record since leaving Trump, including his prison term for tax fraud and lying under oath to Congress.

“He raised his hand, swore to tell the truth and then lied, under oath,” Blanche said. As a podcaster and book author, Cohen is now obsessed with Trump, saying “his entire livelihood depends on this Trump obsession”.

Trusting such a man is a mistake, the defence lawyer said.

“You cannot make a decision on President Trump based on Michael Cohen,” Blanche said.

He also took shots at Daniels, whom he said profited greatly from her account of having sex with Trump in 2006 and still owes him $600,000 in legal judgments. He told jurors that her story doesn’t relate to the financial transactions made by Cohen that are at the heart of the case.

“Her testimony, while salacious, does not matter,” Blanche said. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Mr Trump, as an innocent man you should be welcoming this court case, sticking to the facts, and presenting hard clear evidence of your innocence to get it over with as fast as possible.

    Resorting to irrelevant babble about witch hunts etc and delaying trials makes you look very very guilty indeed.

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