Updated April 22nd, 2024 at 20:52 IST

'Trump Tried to Corrupt 2016 Election': Prosecutors at Hush Money Trial

In the historic hush money trial in New York, prosecutors have alleged that Trump had planned a 'criminal scheme' to corrupt the 2016 election.

Former US President Donald Trump is facing an unprecedented hush money criminal trial in a New York court. | Image:AP
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New York: Donald Trump "orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt” the 2016 presidential election, a prosecutor told jurors Monday at the start of the former president's historic hush money trial. The opening statements marked the first time that prosecutors have presented a criminal case against a former president to a jury as they accuse Trump of a scheme aimed at preventing damaging stories about his personal life from becoming public.

“The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election. Then he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in his New York business records over and over and over again,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told jurors.

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The statements from prosecutors and later from Trump's lawyers are expected to give the 12-person jury and the voting public the clearest view yet of the allegations at the heart of the case, as well as insight into Trump's expected defence.

Unflattering details and ‘witch hunt’ allegations 

Attorneys will also introduce a colourful cast of characters who are expected to testify about the made-for-tabloids saga, including a porn actor who says she had a sexual encounter with Trump and the lawyer who prosecutors say paid her to keep quiet about it.

Trump arrived at the courthouse shortly before 09:00, minutes after castigating the case in capital letters on social media as “election interference” and a “witch hunt.”

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He faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records — a charge punishable by up to four years in prison — though it’s not clear if the judge would seek to put him behind bars.

A conviction would not preclude Trump from becoming president again, but because it is a state case, he would not be able to attempt to pardon himself if found guilty. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

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Unfolding as Trump vies to reclaim the White House, the trial will require him to spend his days in a courtroom rather than on the campaign trail, a reality he complained about Monday morning after his arrival when he lamented to reporters that he was “here instead of being able to be in Pennsylvania and Georgia and lots of other places campaigning, and it’s very unfair.”

Just as Trump sat through a jury selection process in which multiple prospective jurors expressed negative opinions about him, he'll be forced to remain in court as salacious and potentially unflattering details about his personal life are shared with the jury.

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Trump has nonetheless sought to turn his criminal defendant status into an asset for his campaign, fundraising off his legal jeopardy and repeatedly railing against a justice system that he has for years claimed is weaponised against him.

The case against Trump

Hearing the case is a jury that includes, among others, multiple lawyers, a sales professional, an investment banker and an English teacher.

As court began Monday, Judge Juan Merchan disclosed that one of the jurors selected for the case had conveyed reservations about participating, apparently because of the intense media attention. The juror was questioned privately but will remain on the case.

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The case will test jurors' ability to set aside any bias but also Trump's ability to abide by the court's restrictions, such as a gag order that bars him from attacking witnesses. Prosecutors are seeking fines against him for alleged violations of that order.

The case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg revisits a chapter from Trump’s history when his celebrity past collided with his political ambitions and, prosecutors say, he sought to prevent potentially damaging stories from surfacing through hush money payments.

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One such payment was a $130,000 sum that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer, gave to porn actor Stormy Daniels to prevent her claims of a sexual encounter with Trump from emerging into public shortly before the 2016 election.

Prosecutors say Trump obscured the true nature of the payments in internal records when his company reimbursed Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2018 and is expected to be a star witness for the prosecution.

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Trump has denied having a sexual encounter with Daniels, and his lawyers argue that the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses.

To convict Trump of a felony, prosecutors must show he not only falsified or caused business records to be entered falsely, which would be a misdemeanour, but that he did so to conceal another crime.

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The allegations don't accuse Trump of an egregious abuse of power like the federal case in Washington charging him with plotting to overturn the 2020 presidential election, or of flouting national security protocols like the federal case in Florida charging him with hoarding classified documents.

But the New York prosecution has taken on added importance because it may be the only one of the four cases against Trump that reaches trial before the November election. Appeals and legal wrangling have delayed the other three cases.

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Published April 22nd, 2024 at 20:47 IST