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Attorneys to present opening statements in Trump’s historic hush money case

todayApril 22, 2024


Former President Donald Trump sits at the defendant’s table during his criminal trial as jury selection continues at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 19, 2024 in New York City. (Sarah Yenesel-Pool/Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) — After a week-long selection process, the jurors in Donald Trump’s New York hush money case will hear opening statements Monday in the first criminal trial of a former United States president.

To prove their case, lawyers for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg need to convince 12 jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump repeatedly falsified records related to unlawfully influencing the 2016 presidential election.

“This case has nothing to do with your personal politics or your feelings about a particular political issue,” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass told potential jurors on Thursday. “It’s not a referendum on the Trump Presidency, a popularity contest, or any indication of who you plan to vote for this fall. This case is about whether this man broke the law.”

Trump’s lawyers are expected to focus their efforts on going after the credibility of prosecution witnesses, suggesting the case itself is politically motivated and arguing the former president never intended to commit a crime.

The trial has thrust alleged illegality into the center of the 2024 presidential campaign, as Trump spends his days in a Manhattan courtroom to fight off one of the four criminal cases against him. The opening statements come the same week as Trump’s lawyers head to the Supreme Court to try to advance Trump’s claim of presidential immunity in his federal election interference case.

“This is a giant witch hunt to try and hurt a campaign that’s beating the worst president in history,” Trump said on Friday.

Eighteen jurors have been sworn in to hear the case, and prosecutors plan to present at least 15 days of testimony to prove their case.

What is the prosecution’s theory of the case?

The indictment against the former president focuses on 34 business records — 12 ledger entries, 11 checks, and 11 invoices — that Trump allegedly falsified in order to disguise payments to his former lawyer Michael Cohen. According to prosecutors, Trump had labeled the payments as legal expenses, but the payments were actually used in part to repay Cohen for a $130,000 payment to buy the silence of adult film actress Stormy Daniels regarding a long-denied affair with Trump.

Prosecutors allege that the payment was just one example of a broader scheme by Trump to hide information from voters ahead of the 2016 election.

According to prosecutors, the scheme began in August 2015, when Trump and Cohen met with the publisher of the National Enquirer, who agreed to act as the “eyes and ears” of the campaign to identify and kill negative stories.

Months later, the company behind the National Enquirer made a $30,000 payment to a doorman who was shopping around a false story that Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock, according to prosecutors. In June 2016 — one month before Trump became the Republican Party nominee — American Media Inc. made a $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who alleged to have had a lengthy affair with Trump, which he denies.

“That is a scheme to buy and suppress negative information to help Mr. Trump’s chances of winning the election,” Bragg said about the case at a press conference announcing the indictment in 2023.

Prosecutors say the payment to Daniels came as the Trump campaign was struggling with the aftermath of the release of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump can be heard bragging about grabbing women.

“Indeed, the evidence will demonstrate that the release of the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape caused a panic within the campaign about [the] defendant’s electoral prospects and ultimately served as the catalyst for consummating the Stormy Daniels payoff,” prosecutors wrote in a filing last month.

Prosecutors also plan to introduce evidence to demonstrate Trump’s “consciousness of guilt,” including an effort to allegedly intimidate witnesses like Cohen from cooperating with investigators.

“The defendant was attempting to intimidate the likely witnesses against him, but the jury doesn’t even have to work that hard because the defendant himself has publicly embraced the overt strategy of going after his perceived enemies,” Steinglass said Monday.

What is Trump’s defense?

Trump’s lawyers have suggested that one of their main defenses will be highlighting that the former president never intended to commit a crime, including the fact that he relied on lawyers to orchestrate the alleged payments.

“I was paying a lawyer and I marked it down as a legal expense, some accountant,” Trump said last week. “Legal expense — that’s what you’re supposed to call it.”

Trump’s lawyers are also expected to hammer the credibility of the state’s witnesses, including Cohen, who previously pleaded guilty to federal charges associated with the alleged scheme, as well as other charges including lying to Congress in what Cohen says was an effort to protect Trump.

“We are going to be very up-front about the fact that several of the witnesses in this case have what you might consider to be some baggage,” Steinglass told potential jurors last week.

Some of the witnesses, according to prosecutors, have made inconsistent statements about the alleged conduct, have received immunity for their testimony, or have made media appearances to discuss their conduct.

Trump has also suggested on three separate occasions that he intends to testify during the trial in his own defense.

If Trump takes the stand, prosecutors hope to question the former president about a dozen past court findings in an effort to damage his credibility.

Who are the jurors?

After a lengthy jury selection process last week, Judge Juan Merchan swore in 12 jurors and six alternatives to hear the case.

The jury is composed of seven men and five women, the majority of whom have college degrees. They work a variety of jobs, including investment banking, teaching, physical therapy, and corporate law.

If any of the jurors need to be dismissed during the trial, they would be replaced by one of the six alternate jurors, including a woman who works in creative operations for a clothing company, a contract specialist, an audio professional, and an asset manager.

Who are the first witnesses?

Prosecutors have mentioned a long list of potential witnesses — including Cohen, Daniels, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, longtime Trump aide Hope Hicks, and others — but have not yet disclosed their first witness, who could take the stand as early as Monday.

Last week, prosecutors expressed concerns that Trump might attack the initial witness on social media if he learned who they are. Merchan declined to order prosecutors to disclose their identity, calling their concerns about Trump “understandable.”

Steinglass ultimately offered a compromise, promising to tell the defense team the name of the first witness on Sunday under one condition.

“If that should be tweeted, that will be the last time we extend that courtesy,” Steinglass said.

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