Trump’s defence makes opening statement in ‘hush money’ trial

Prosecutors and defence to lay out broad strokes arguments in what is an unprecedented trial against a former president.

Former US President Donald Trump is seen leaving Trump Tower on his way to Manhattan criminal court [File: Stefan Jeremiah/The Associated Press]

Former United States President Donald Trump’s lawyers and prosecutors have made their opening statements in the businessman-turned-politician’s trial into alleged hush money payments made to an adult film star.

The case marks the first time that prosecutors presented a criminal case against a former president to a jury, and the trial is taking place months before November’s US presidential election, in which Trump is expected to face off against incumbent Joe Biden.

The proceedings on Monday saw both sides lay out their arguments in broad strokes, while simultaneously hinting at the legal strategies they plan to deploy in what is expected to be a six-week trial.

Prosecutors leaned heavily into allegations Trump paid “hush money” to Stormy Daniels to buy her silence going into the final weeks of a tight race between Trump, a Republican, and the Democratic nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Daniels has alleged a sexual encounter with Trump, which he has denied.

The defence said that Trump is innocent and was simply seeking to protect his family from a smear campaign.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. Prosecutors have alleged the crimes were committed in tandem with a second crime – to illegally influence the 2016 presidential election – which elevates what would typically be misdemeanour violations to more serious felonies.

Speaking first on Monday, prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said Trump “orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election”. Trump then “covered up” that scheme in business records by “lying over and over again”, he said.

He detailed the context of when the alleged hush money payments occurred, shortly after a leaked Access Hollywood tape showed Trump bragging about grabbing women by the genitals.

Colangelo noted the leak damaged Trump’s standing among women voters, and said the payments to Daniels were an effort to stop further political bleeding.

“It was election fraud, pure and simple,” Colangelo said.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche then began his statements with a simple message: “President Trump did not commit any crimes”. He added that prosecutors should never have brought the case against Trump, saying the narrative they told was “not true”.

The lawyer focused heavily on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who has said he facilitated the payments to Daniels. He is expected to be a star witness for the prosecution. He described Cohen as being a “criminal” who was “obsessed” with Trump and looking to take personal revenge.

He then accused Daniels of seeking to profit off of Trump, saying she “made a life off these communications.”

The opening arguments come after a week of jury selection, in which 12 jurors and six alternates were seated. Those proceedings ended on Friday with a morbid scene outside the courthouse when a man set himself ablaze in a park across the street. He later died from the burns.

Monday afternoon, the prosecution called their first witness, David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, a US tabloid.

Prosecutors have said Trump entered into a “catch and kill” agreement with Pecker, in which the publisher purchased and buried negative stories about Trump. They have portrayed the agreement as part of Trump’s larger effort to influence the election.

Reporting from outside the courthouse on Monday morning, Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey said Daniels and Cohen are also expected to testify.

“The key question of course is whether or not Donald Trump himself will take the stand in his own defence. He has said that he will, but it remains to be seen,” Saloomey said.

“Most lawyers and legal scholars say that would be a bad idea because he would have to answer a lot of questions and could get himself into trouble.”

Trump took to his Truth Social platform on Monday morning before arriving at court. He called on his supporters to go out and “peacefully protest”.

“America Loving Protesters should be allowed to protest at the front steps of Courthouses,” he said. Only a handful of Trump supporters and protesters have been present during the first days of the trial.

Trump faces three other criminal cases, although the New York trial is the only one expected to conclude before the November election. In Georgia, he faces state charges related to an alleged pressure campaign to change the state’s vote count in the 2020 general election.

He also faces a federal case in Florida related to classified documents he allegedly removed from the White House and a separate federal case in Washington, DC related to his public campaign to overturn the 2020 election results.

Prior to the New York charges, which were announced in April of 2023, no current or former US president had ever been criminally indicted.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies