Trump "Hush Money" Trial Gets Underway With Opening Statements, First Witness

Jurors in former President Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York got their first glimpse Monday of the arguments both sides plan to make over the course of the historic proceedings, with the prosecution and defense teams presenting their opening statements as Trump looked on.

Monday, April 22nd 2024, 3:57 pm

By: CBS News


Jurors in former President Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York got their first glimpse Monday of the arguments both sides plan to make over the course of the historic proceedings, with the prosecution and defense teams presenting their opening statements as Trump looked on.

Prosecutors also called their first witness to the stand: David Pecker, the former CEO of American Media Inc., or AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer. The state alleges Pecker helped Trump during the 2016 campaign by burying negative stories about him and attacking his rivals.

Pecker testified for less than a half hour before the court adjourned for the day. He will resume testimony on Tuesday, after a hearing over whether Trump should be held in contempt of court for defying a gag order imposed by the judge in the case.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, allegedly to cover up a "hush money" payment before the 2016 election. He has pleaded not guilty. An attorney from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's office said the reimbursements were part of a scheme that amounted to "election fraud, pure and simple." Trump's lawyer argued that his client did not commit a crime, and said he has been charged on flimsy evidence from an untrustworthy key witness.

Arriving at the courthouse, Trump claimed the trial was "election interference" and part of an effort to keep him off the campaign trail. He called the case a "witch hunt" and "a shame."

The proceedings are not being televised, since New York law doesn't allow recording of criminal proceedings. CBS News had reporters in the courtroom and in a nearby overflow room watching the trial.

Lawyers from Bragg's office had 40 minutes to present their opening statements, and Trump's attorneys had 25 minutes. Matthew Colangelo, a member of Bragg's team, kicked things off for the prosecution, laying out the central allegations in the case.

Just days before the 2016 election, Trump's attorney at the time, Michael Cohen, paid $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence about an alleged sexual encounter she said she had with Trump years earlier. Trump denies the encounter.

Colangelo said Cohen made the payment "at the defendant's direction, and did it to influence the election." He portrayed the payment as part of a scheme concocted by Trump, Cohen and Pecker to bury negative stories about Trump and attack his rivals. The plan was hatched at a meeting at Trump Tower in 2015, Colangelo said.

"Together they conspired to influence the 2016 presidential election," Colangelo told the jury, saying Pecker agreed to act as Trump's "eyes and ears" during the 2016 campaign. Pecker is expected to be the first witness called by the prosecution after opening statements.

Colangelo laid out the "catch and kill" tactic allegedly used by Pecker and Dylan Howard, the Enquirer's editor, to shield Trump from negative stories. The practice involved buying the rights to someone's story and then declining to publish the account, effectively keeping it hidden. They also used the Enquirer to publish unflattering stories about Trump's rivals.

Prosecutors allege AMI, the Enquirer's parent company, employed the "catch and kill" tactic twice before the payment to Daniels. One instance involved a $150,000 payment to a former Playboy model to secure the rights to her story. The model, Karen McDougal, also alleged an affair with Trump, which he denies. Colangelo told jurors they would hear a recording of Cohen promising to set up a shell company to buy the rights to McDougal's story from the Enquirer to reimburse Pecker for the purchase.

In the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, Daniels' lawyer approached the Enquirer about selling the rights to her story as well, Colangelo said. Howard put the lawyer in touch with Cohen, who negotiated the $130,000 payment, according to prosecutors. Colangelo said Trump hoped to delay the deal until after the election, and then not pay at all. Cohen ultimately transferred the money to Daniels' attorney just days before Election Day.

"This was a planned, coordinated, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election to help Donald Trump get elected," Colangelo told the jury. "It was election fraud, pure and simple."

Trump reimbursed Cohen for the payment in 12 monthly installments during the first year of his presidency, portraying them as checks for ongoing legal services in an illegal scheme to conceal their true purpose, according to prosecutors. Cohen ultimately received $420,000 — more than double the $130,000 payment to Daniels.

"Donald Trump was a very frugal businessman. He believed in pinching pennies. He believed in watching every dollar. He believed in negotiating every bill. He ran the Trump Organization with total control. You'll hear testimony about his relentless focus on the bottom line. With Cohen and the 'catch and kill' deal, he didn't negotiate the price down, he doubled it," Colangelo said. "And you'll hear evidence that the Trump Organization was not in the practice of paying twice what they owed for anything."

The Defense's Statement

Todd Blanche, an attorney for Trump, delivered the defense's opening statement after Colangelo. He said the jury is "going to learn that this was not a payback."

"Think for a moment of what the People just told you. President Trump did not pay Mr. Cohen back $130,000. President Trump paid Michael Cohen $420,000," Blanche said, as Trump watched him. "Would a frugal businessman, would a man who 'pinches pennies,' repay a $130,000 debt to the tune of $420,000?"

He said the $35,000 that Cohen received each month was for his services as Trump's personal attorney, not as reimbursement for the Daniels payment. He argued that Trump "had nothing to do with the 34 pieces of paper….except that he signed them in the White House, while he was running the country." Each charge in the indictment refers to a record created to document a payment to Cohen.

"There's nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It's called democracy. They've put something sinister on this idea, as if it was a crime," Blanche continued. "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."

Blanche said Cohen is "obsessed" with Trump and has been for "many, many years." He argued that Cohen decided "to blame President Trump for all of his problems" when he was arrested on federal charges in 2018.

"He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump go to prison. He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump's family go to prison," Blanche said.

"He has a goal, and obsession, with getting Trump," he continued, adding later, "I submit to you that he cannot be trusted."

Blanche later noted that Cohen had lied under oath, and said Daniels had a grudge against Trump after not being cast on "The Apprentice" in 2007. Blanche claimed Daniels has profited from her allegations.

"I'll also say something else about her testimony: it doesn't matter," Blanche said, telling jurors she has "no idea" about the alleged crimes at the center of the case. "Her testimony, while salacious, does not matter."

Finally, he turned to the "catch and kill" tactic, saying it's not illegal and not a conspiracy.

"It's not a scheme, unless a scheme means something that doesn't matter, that's not illegal, that's not against the law," Blanche said.

David Pecker's Testimony

On the stand, Pecker testified broadly about AMI's operations and Howard's role as editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer. Pecker left the company in 2020.

Under questioning by prosecutor Joshua Steinglass, Pecker said he had the final say over what Steinglass described as particularly "juicy" stories.

"We used checkbook journalism," Pecker said, describing how editors were empowered to spend up to $10,000 on sourcing for stories, but that larger expenses "would have to be vetted and brought up to me for approval."

Pecker confirmed that Howard "kind of ran the network of sources for all of AMI's publications."

"As an editor of a tabloid magazine, you develop over the years a group of sources, and the sources might be the people who work in hotels, the people who work for lawyers, people who work for various different aspects a celebrity might be using — for example, like a limousine service."

Pecker said he had heard that Howard is now living in his native Australia, with a spinal condition that makes international travel impossible.

After less than 30 minutes, Merchan adjourned the court for the day and implored jurors not to discuss the case outside the courthouse.

"Please put the case out of your mind," he said. "Don't think about it. Don't talk about it. And don't read anything about it."

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