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Trump’s defense comes into view, and more takeaways from opening statements at the hush money trial

NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s criminal trial got underway in earnest Monday as lawyers for the prosecution and defense delivered their opening statements, followed by about 20 minutes of testimony from the first prosecution witness: David Pecker, the former CEO of the National Enquirer’s publisher.

In his opening, Manhattan prosecutor Matthew Colangelo urged jurors to focus on the alleged overall scheme to influence the 2016 presidential election, starting with a 2015 Trump Tower meeting at which Trump, Pecker and Trump’s then-lawyer Michael Cohen agreed to execute a “catch and kill” arrangement by which Pecker’s tabloids would help Trump suppress negative stories. This, Colangelo said, was the “core of the conspiracy.”

That conspiracy, prosecutors say, became criminal when Cohen paid hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels on the eve of the election and when Trump allegedly falsified business records reflecting his reimbursement to Cohen.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche, meanwhile, said prosecutors were mischaracterizing Trump’s actions as improper or illegal.

“I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence the election,” Blanche told the jury. “It’s called democracy.”

Here are five takeaways from Monday’s proceedings:

A first glimpse at Donald Trump’s defense

It’s been long understood that prosecutors would present Trump’s actions as grave election interference, rather than merely a bid to avoid an embarrassing sex scandal. But coming into Monday, it was less clear what counternarrative Trump’s legal team would offer.

In a short, 30-minute opening statement, Blanche offered several lines of defense for the former president.

First, Blanche disputed a core claim underlying the prosecution’s case: that Trump reimbursed Cohen for the hush money payment to Daniels. Checks that Trump cut to Cohen in 2017 were actually for legitimate legal services Cohen provided, Blanche said.

“He was President Trump’s personal attorney. You will see documents, you will see emails,” Blanche told jurors. “His signature block in 2017 said, ‘Michael Cohen, personal attorney to President Trump.'”

“You will hear that he did legal work for President Trump and the first lady as his personal attorney.”

Second, Blanche said, Trump wasn’t personally involved with the invoices from Cohen or the way they were recorded at the Trump Organization. Those business records are at the heart of the felony charges against Trump.

And third, Blanche suggested that Trump entered into the non-disclosure agreement with Daniels not to prevent her claim of a decade-old sexual encounter with Trump from reaching voters, but to prevent her claim from reaching, say, Trump’s wife Melania.

Trump “fought back” against Daniels’ allegations, which Blanche described as false, ”to protect his family, his reputation, and his brand — and that is not a crime.”

Spotlight on Michael Cohen — and his credibility

Both sides used their openings to tackle a critical question that could decide the case: the reliability of Cohen, who is expected to be the prosecution’s star witness.

Cohen, Trump’s former attorney and fixer, previously pleaded guilty to a number of federal crimes, including making unlawful campaign contributions for his involvement in the hush money payments in 2016. He also has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress on Trump’s behalf.

Cohen’s record of deceit is sure to be a challenge for prosecutors. But at the end of his opening, Colangelo addressed the challenge head on. Trump’s defense team, Colangelo told jurors, will seek to undermine Cohen’s testimony “precisely because it’s so damning.”

Blanche, as expected, hammered Cohen’s credibility in his opening, telling jurors he cheated on his taxes, lied to banks and lied about side businesses he helmed.

And Blanche argued that Cohen has a vendetta against his former boss. Cohen, Blanche said, has an “obsession with getting Trump” and has created podcasts and filled his social media feeds with statements bashing the former president.

“He cannot be trusted,” Blanche said.

Lawyers become media critics

The journalism tactics of a supermarket tabloid will loom over the trial — and the opening statements revealed how the opposing sides view the National Enquirer’s practice of “catch and kill.”

Colangelo pointed to a trio of damaging Trump stories that were paid for prior to the 2016 election but were never published, including allegations by Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal that they had slept with Trump.

For prosecutors, the practice is evidence of a scheme between the 2016 Trump campaign and the tabloid to improperly influence the election.

But Trump’s defense said the tactic was just business as usual in the media.

“This sort of thing happens regularly where newspapers make decisions about what to publish, when to publish,” Blanche told jurors. “It’s not a scheme unless a scheme means something that doesn’t matter, something that’s not illegal.”

Prosecutors break out the “C”-word

In his opening statement, Colangelo referred several times to Trump having engaged in a “conspiracy,” in particular using the word to describe Trump’s alleged effort to influence the election. Trump is charged in two of his other criminal cases with criminal conspiracies to overturn his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 election, but conspiracy isn’t one of the crimes charged in the New York case. The only charges here are 34 counts of felony falsification of business records.

Colangelo’s use of the term conspiracy likely was meant to convey the prosecutors’ sweeping view of the scope of the crimes: The 34 counts against Trump, Colangelo seemed to be saying, are not isolated bookkeeping errors but are instead integral to a grand plot to deprive American voters of information on the eve of an election.

And prosecutors no doubt hope that their conspiracy framing will be all the more compelling when jurors hear from several of the individuals — including Cohen and Pecker — who they allege conspired with Trump.

Missing witnesses

Two of the people closest to the events in question, however, won’t appear in court.

Former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, whom prosecutors say was deeply involved in the decisions about the technical arrangements of the Daniels payment and the reimbursements to Cohen, will not be testifying. Weisselberg is currently serving his second prison sentence, this time for lying under oath when he testified at Trump’s civil fraud trial. His previous stint in prison came as a result of a conviction, alongside the Trump Organization itself, in a criminal tax fraud trial.

Though jurors won’t see Weisselberg on the witness stand, they will see a document with Weisselberg’s handwritten notes outlining the Cohen repayment scheme, Colangelo said during his opening statement.

The other possible witness missing in action is Dylan Howard, the former editor in chief of the National Enquirer who helped Pecker execute the “catch and kill” schemes to assist Trump. During Pecker’s brief initial testimony Monday, he said Howard, who now lives in Australia, has a “spinal condition” that prevents him from traveling internationally.

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