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Four takeaways from the first week of testimony in Trump’s hush money trial

todayApril 30, 2024


Former U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Todd Blanche, attorney for Trump, right, leave Manhattan criminal court in New York, U.S., on Friday, April 26, 2024. (Curtis Means/Daily Mail/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) — Donald Trump’s criminal hush money trial in New York centers on dozens of business records, testimony from witnesses who prosecutors acknowledge might have “baggage,” and a maze of emails and text messages that prosecutors hope to weave into a sturdy case against the former president.

But during their opening statements last week, prosecutors simplified their case down to just seven words for the jury.

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

Over the first four days of testimony in the trial, prosecutors have begun to lay the groundwork of their case as they try to show Trump attempted to illegally influence the 2016 election and falsified business records to hide the true purpose of payments to his then-lawyer Michael Cohen in 2017.

“This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a cover-up, an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of a presidential election, and then the steps that Donald Trump took to conceal that illegal election fraud,” Colangelo said.

Defense lawyers told the jury that the prosecutors got their story wrong, recasting the allegations as Trump trying to protect his family against false allegations as he was trying to win an election.

“President Trump fought back, like he always does, and like he’s entitled to do, to protect his family, his reputation and his brand, and that is not a crime,” defense lawyer Todd Blanche said.

Jurors have so far heard from three witnesses — the former publisher of the National Enquirer, Trump’s longtime executive assistant, and Michael Cohen’s banker — and testimony in the case is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.

Trump takes a hardline defense

Trump attorney Todd Blanche laid out a hardline defense in his opening statement, arguing that Trump never committed any crimes and characterizing Stormy Daniels’ allegations of an affair with Trump as a “false claim of a sexual encounter.”

“The story that you just heard, you will learn, is not true,” Blanche told jurors. “None of this is a crime.”

Blanche appeared to admit that Trump and the National Enquirer worked together to avoid bad press ahead of the 2016 election, but he argued the agreement was fully legal and routine for politicians.

“There is nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy,” Blanche said. The prosecution, he said, “put something sinister on this idea, as if it was a crime. You’ll learn it’s not.”

When addressing the allegations that Trump falsified business records in 2017, Blanche argued that Trump was too busy “running the country” to be concerned with invoices requested by Cohen and processed by Trump Organization accountants.

Notably absent from Blanche’s opening was any suggestion that the criminal case amounted to election inference ahead of the 2024 election. In filings over the last year, defense lawyers had rigorously argued that the case was politically motivated by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, but Judge Juan Merchan precluded defense attorneys from making that argument to the jury.

Blanche also described Trump as a family man in his opening statement, not only to humanize Trump but to suggest his motivation to kill negative stories was to “protect his family.”

“He’s not just our former President. He’s not just Donald Trump that you’ve seen on TV and read about and seen photos of,” Blanche said. “He’s also a man. He’s a husband. He’s a father. And he’s a person, just like you and just like me.”

The campaign’s ‘eyes and ears’

In deciding on their first witness — a choice that often sets the tone for the trial — prosecutors turned to former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker.

Prosecutors alleged that Pecker engaged in a conspiracy with Trump and Cohen to influence the 2016 election — including flagging negative stories about Trump’s alleged interactions with women, running negative stories about Trump’s rivals, and pushing positive stories about Trump himself — that began with a meeting at Trump Tower in August 2015.

“They asked me what can I do and what my magazines could do to help the campaign,” Pecker testified about the meeting where he said he agreed to be the “eyes and ears” of Trump’s presidential campaign.

“If I hear anything negative about yourself or if I hear anything about women selling stories … I would notify Michael Cohen and then he would be able to have them killed in another magazine or have them not be published or somebody would have to purchase them,” Pecker said about his agreement with Trump and Cohen.

Pecker testified that his company, American Media Inc., paid a former Trump Tower doorman $30,000 for a false story that Trump had an illegitimate child, and former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for the exclusive rights to her story of a months-long affair with Trump, which he has denied.

According to Pecker, the motivation to catch the stories was mainly to honor his agreement with Trump.

“We didn’t want the story to embarrass Mr. Trump or embarrass or hurt the campaign,” Pecker said when asked about the McDougal story.

Defense lawyers attempted to characterize the National Enquirer’s actions on Trump’s behalf as business decisions that are routine for politicians and celebrities. Pecker also testified that some of the stories he ran for Trump — including articles attacking his opponents — were “mutually beneficial” because they helped the National Enquirer sell more copies.

While Pecker said that AMI coordinated hundreds of thousands of nondisclosure agreements, he testified that the Trump arrangement was unique.

“How many of those other NDAs had … you, the CEO of AMI, coordinated with a presidential candidate for the benefit of the campaign?” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass asked.

“It’s the only one,” Pecker said.

Pecker also offered his take on Trump’s business approach that appeared to contradict the hand-offs approach that defense attorneys suggested in their opening statement, in which they argued that Trump was not intimately involved in paying the fraudulent invoices at the center of the case.

“I would describe him as almost as a micromanager from what I saw,” Pecker said.

Contact entries in the computer system

Trump’s longtime executive assistant Rhona Graff took the stand on Friday as the second prosecution witness. She testified pursuant to a subpoena and said her lawyers were paid by the Trump Organization.

Graff — who served as Trump’s gatekeeper as he ascended from real estate mogul to reality television star to president — testified that she created contact entries for both McDougal and Daniels in the Trump Organization’s computer system for Trump. McDougal’s contact entities included multiple addresses, a phone number, and email. Daniel’s contact was listed as “Stormy” and had one cell phone number.

Graff also testified that she had a “vague recollection” of seeing Daniels in Trump Tower on the same floor as the former president’s office. She suggested that Trump was considering casting Daniels on the Celebrity Apprentice at the time.

In her book, Daniels recounted a meeting in Trump Tower in 2007 when Trump was flirting with the idea of casting her in his television series.

“He met us, so excited to show us all the memorabilia in his office, which seemed cluttered,” Daniels wrote in her book.

During cross-examination, Graff served functionally as a character witness for the former president, describing Trump as a kind boss who respected her intelligence.

“Sometimes, if it was a long day in the office … he poked his head in and would say, ‘Go home to your family,” Graff said. “It was very thoughtful of him.”

Graff, who for decades sat just feet from Trump’s office, testified that becoming a television star changed the public perception of Trump.

“I think it elevated him to a whole other platform, from being primarily known as a businessman to being an entertainer — almost at that point — rock star status,” Graff said.

Cohen’s shell company

Friday’s testimony concluded with a banker who was involved in the formation of the shell company that Cohen allegedly used to pay Daniels $130,000 just days ahead of the 2016 election.

Former First Republic managing director Gary Farro said that he first began working with Cohen in 2015 after one of his colleagues left the bank.

“I can only tell you what I was told — that I was selected because of my knowledge and my ability to handle, um, individuals that may be a little challenging,” Farro said about taking over Cohen’s accounts. “Frankly, I didn’t find him that difficult.”

Farro testified that on Oct. 26, 2016, he received an urgent call from Cohen, who wanted to create an account for a new real estate consulting company “to collect fees for investment consulting work he does for real estate deals.”

According to prosecutors, the day after the account was formed, Cohen wired Daniel’s lawyer $130,000 from the account in exchange for her silence about her alleged affair with Trump.

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