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19 May 2024 16:13
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  •   Home > News > Law and Order

    Donald Trump's 'hush money' trial has begun in New York. Here are the key takeaways from opening arguments

    A prosecutor lays out the "Trump Tower conspiracy", the former president's lawyers argue he's "cloaked in innocence", and a former titan of tabloid media educates jurors on chequebook journalism at the historic hush money trial in New York.

    In a packed Manhattan courtroom, The People of the State of New York v Donald J Trump has formally begun.

    Opening arguments in the former president's first criminal trial were presented today (Monday local time) to the 12 New Yorkers selected to sit on the jury.

    The prosecution said hush money payments made at Mr Trump's direction to an adult film star amounted to election interference.

    The defence told the court the former president was "cloaked in innocence", and cast doubt on the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses.

    Mr Trump sat through it all again, as he's obliged to do.

    Here are the key takeaways.

    The 'Trump Tower conspiracy'

    The "hush money case" might not appear at first glance to be about alleged election interference, but that's central to the complex legal argument the prosecution will weave here over the coming weeks.

    "This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a cover-up," prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told jurors at the start of his 45-minute-long opening arguments. 

    "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."

    The gist of the prosecution's case is that Mr Trump was part of a "catch and kill" conspiracy, entered into with his one-time lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen and the then-publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid, David Pecker.

    The conspiracy hatched at a meeting in Trump Tower, the court heard, involved the National Enquirer buying up stories that could be damaging to Mr Trump as he campaigned for the White House in 2016.

    Those people offering the stories would be paid, but the stories would never be published, and they would sign a non-disclosure agreement to prevent them taking the stories elsewhere.

    One of these alleged "catch and kill" payments was to porn star Stormy Daniels, who'd come forward with a claim of a previous sexual encounter with Mr Trump.

    The 2005 Access Hollywood tape, in which Mr Trump brags about groping women, had just surfaced, and its impact on his campaign was "immediate and explosive", Mr Colangelo told the court.

    He said Mr Trump was concerned about the effect the revelations would have "with female voters in particular".

    "Another story about sexual infidelity, especially with a porn star, on the heels of the Access Hollywood tape could have been devastating," Mr Colangelo said.

    Ms Daniels, he argued, had to be paid off.

    "This was not spin or communication strategy," he said.

    "It was election fraud, pure and simple."

    A 'spoiler alert' from Trump's team

    "Good morning your honour, Todd Blanche – I'm joined by President Trump," the defence lawyer said as the day began.

    The lawyer later explained to the jury that he would refer to the defendant as "President Trump" throughout the trial, saying he had earned that title and respect.

    Mr Blanche described his client as "larger than life", the man you got to know on television and then in the White House.

    Yet, he was more than that.

    "He's a husband, he's a father, he's a person just like you and just like me," Mr Blanche said.

    He said Mr Trump was in court doing "what any of us would do, defending himself".

    The defence's case looks set to focus on attacking the credibility of witnesses, and the relevance of their testimony.

    Mr Blanche told the court there was nothing illegal about Stormy Daniels being paid $US130,000 ($202,000) to not air what he said were false claims about Mr Trump.

    I have a spoiler alert," Mr Blanche said.

    "There's nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It's called democracy."

    Mr Blanche tore into Michael Cohen, who he said was a "convicted felon and convicted perjurer" who had cheated on his taxes and been disbarred.

    He said the jury should not believe Mr Cohen's claim Mr Trump had entered an agreement to cover up the payments to conceal attempted election interference.

    Furthermore, the defence lawyer said, said Mr Cohen was obsessed with Mr Trump.

    "His entire financial livelihood depends on President Trump's destruction," Mr Blanche said.

    Stormy Daniels, he said, had also benefited from her claims about Mr Trump.

    Ultimately, however, he said Ms Daniels' testimony, "while salacious, does not matter".

    Mr Blanche told the court Mr Trump was "cloaked in innocence" and appealed to the jurors to use their common sense.

    "We're New Yorkers," he said.

    A 101 in tabloid journalism

    The day ended with the first witness — the former head of American Media (AMI) and publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker.

    The man once known as the "tabloid king" gave the jury a brief crash course on "chequebook journalism".

    In his hey-day, Mr Pecker ruled over what celebrity news adorned the front pages of his publications. 

    "The only thing that is important is the cover of a magazine," he said.

    His editors had free reign to buy stories for up to $US10,000. Anything above that had to cross his desk.

    Mr Pecker was asked to explain to the jury who the sources for these stories might be.

    He turned to the jury box and explained they could be doormen, limo service drivers, lawyers, people who worked in hotels.

    "As an editor of a tabloid magazine you develop, over the years, a number of sources," he said.

    The court heard Dylan Howard, who was editor of the National Enquirer at the time of the Stormy Daniels payment, was now living in Australia and had some health issues.

    It wasn't clear if that meant Mr Howard, who grew up in Geelong, would not be called to testify.

    A dentist's appointment and juror doubts

    This is technically week two of the trial. Week one was dedicated to jury selection, in which a 42-point questionnaire was used to help narrow a field of hundreds of Manhattanites.

    Today's proceedings were always due to end early, at 2pm local time, because of the Jewish Passover holiday. But the finish time was brought forward, to 12:30pm, after the judge said that an alternate juror had an urgent dentist's appointment.

    Meanwhile, another juror had become concerned about their participation in the case because of the media attention.

    The judge and prosecution and defence teams left the courtroom to speak to the person concerned. 

    That left Mr Trump by himself on the defence bench. 

    There were Secret Service agents and other aides in court, but for a few minutes the former president cut a striking and almost vulnerable image sitting there quietly alone. 

    The judge and the legal teams returned with news that the juror would continue.

    The court had already suppressed some of the jurors' details, after the judge last week dismissed a juror who said she felt intimidated by some media reporting.

    Unlike in Australian court settings, many details about the jurors' backgrounds – and their views on Mr Trump – remain publicly available.

    Among the five women and seven men are an English teacher, an investment banker, a speech therapist and multiple lawyers. During jury selection, one juror said Mr Trump "seems very selfish and self-serving", but that didn't mean she couldn't be impartial. Another said, "President Trump speaks his mind. I would rather that in a person than someone who's in office and you don't know what they're doing behind the scenes."

    There are also six alternate jurors, but the judge today explained while they should listen carefully to all the evidence, they would only be substituted in if there were an "extraordinary emergency".

    Courtroom chills

    It really is cold in courtroom 1530.

    The issue was raised during jury selection last week, when Judge Merchan apologised, saying if court staff tried to adjust the temperature a little, it would "probably go up 30 degrees [Farenheit]".

    The judge decided it was better to be "a little cold than sweaty", but it seemed the message hadn't reached the jury.

    One turned up in just a T-shirt.

    After a short break just before midday. at least half of the jurors, including the man in the T-shirt, returned wearing coats and puffer jackets.

    They appeared a little dazed, but attentive.

    Many raised their hands and asked for a notepad when the judge asked them to indicate who would like one.

    They won't, however, be able to take the notepads home and are encouraged to rely on their impressions, and not on what they have written down, when it comes to deciding whether or not Mr Trump is guilty. 

    Mr Trump was observed appearing to fall asleep during proceedings last week, and despite the cool temperatures, he appeared close to nodding off during the slower-moving parts today.

    Otherwise, he sat quietly, passing notes to his lawyers.

    He stared straight ahead while the prosecution delivered its opening arguments, but twisted in his chair during defence lawyer Todd Blanche's address, so that he was side-on to the court and facing the jury. 

    When the first witness, Mr Pecker, took the stand, Mr Trump leaned forward on the bench.

    As Mr Pecker left the courtroom, there was a slightly awkward moment where the witness smiled politely and nodded at the defence bench.

    The former president didn't seem to be looking. 

    Mr Blanche nodded, perhaps in acknowledgement, but a little late.  

    Mr Pecker will be back on the stand tomorrow as the case continues.

    Trump's anger at being trapped in court

    This trial is expected to run for six to eight weeks.

    Proceedings will take place four days a week (generally every weekday except Wednesdays), and Mr Trump will need to physically attend every day.

    Not only is he the first US president to face criminal charges, he's also the first serious candidate to go on trial during a campaign.

    Needing to be in court, he says, takes him off the campaign trail in the lead-up to November's election. So while US President Joe Biden was last week campaigning in the crucial swing seat of Pennsylvania, Mr Trump was sitting in the courtroom for jury selection.

    "I should be in Georgia now," Mr Trump said today. "I should be in Florida now. I should be in a lot of different places right now campaigning, and I'm sitting here, and this will go on for a very long time."

    So Mr Trump says the bringing of this case, and his forced attendance, is itself election interference. However, he is using the huge media presence to campaign from the court's corridors, speaking to the waiting cameras about topics of his choosing.

    This morning, for example, he complained about a separate civil case being dealt with by a nearby New York court, which was today considering issues relating to the $US175 million bond he has been ordered to pay.

    "I have plenty of money to put up, but nobody is going to be putting up with this," he said. "Nobody's going to be listing or coming to New York anymore – businesses are going to be fleeing because people are treated so badly."

    The hush money case is one of four cases in which Mr Trump faces criminal charges, but various delays in the other cases means it may be the only one that reaches trial before the November election.

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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