Trump Attorneys Say No Crime Occurred as Prosecutors Argue ‘Hush Money’ Payment Was Part of Criminal Conspiracy

New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan issued a decision allowing prosecutors to ask President Trump about past cases but limiting them to specific points.
Trump Attorneys Say No Crime Occurred as Prosecutors Argue ‘Hush Money’ Payment Was Part of Criminal Conspiracy
Former President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at Manhattan Criminal Court to attend his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs in New York, on April 22, 2024. (Angela Weiss/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Catherine Yang
Michael Washburn
4/22/2024
Updated:
4/23/2024
0:00

In the “hush money” trial of former President Donald Trump, the prosecution and defense outlined their cases before a jury on April 22, with the Manhattan district attorney’s office alleging that the 34 counts of falsifying business records levied against the former president were part of a criminal conspiracy and cover-up and the defense arguing that no crimes were committed in the sequence of events summarized by prosecutors.

Prosecutors need to convince the jury that the allegedly falsified business records were created in order to cover up a larger crime. Exactly what the larger crime is was not stated in the indictment, as prosecutors argued that it was not required. In court, they’ve alleged a violation of state law, a conspiracy to promote or prevent the election of any individual to public office through unlawful means.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo delivered the opening statement for the prosecution, and attorney Todd Blanche spoke in defense of President Trump.

Before attorneys addressed the jury, New York State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan issued a decision allowing prosecutors to ask President Trump about past cases but limiting them to specific points.

If President Trump testifies, which he has said he will, prosecutors will elicit testimony that he was found to have violated state executive law in his civil fraud case—which he is appealing—and was fined $5,000 for a gag order violation after a post was found to have been left up on a campaign site after the judge ordered that it be deleted. They will also bring forth testimony that he was found liable for defamation in two cases brought by writer E. Jean Carroll and that damages were awarded by a jury.

Evidence From 2015

The prosecution and defense both warned the jury that much of the testimony they will hear is about events from as far back as 2015, with Mr. Colangelo reminding jurors they agreed during selection that they would bear this in mind if they heard discrepancies between witnesses’ testimonies and some inaccuracies of such long-ago events.

It all began in Trump Tower in 2015, Mr. Colangelo said, when then-candidate Trump, David Pecker, and Michael Cohen had a meeting about killing unfavorable stories about the candidate.

Mr. Pecker, the first witness, was the CEO of American Media Inc., which published mainly celebrity magazines, including the tabloid National Enquirer. He has signed a non-prosecution agreement that protects him and the media company in exchange for his testimony.

“Those three men came up with a scheme to influence the election by concealing information about Trump to help him get elected,” Mr. Colangelo said.

Michael Cohen’s Role

Mr. Colangelo described Mr. Cohen as President Trump’s “fixer.”

He argued that Mr. Cohen’s job “really was to take care of problems for the defendant” and that he had no retainer agreement as a lawyer for President Trump in 2017 when he filed several invoices that were recorded as retainer’s fees in the Trump Organization ledger.

Mr. Colangelo told the jury that National Enquirer would run stories by Mr. Cohen for then-candidate Trump’s review and that Mr. Cohen had conferred with former Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg to come up with a “clever” way to repay him for a $130,000 payment he made to adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, better known by her stage name, Stormy Daniels.

Mr. Cohen and Mr. Weisselberg had agreed to add $50,000 to the $130,000 repayment, then agreed to double it to account for taxes, then added another $60,000 as a year-end bonus, Mr. Colangelo said, arguing they had the figures and sums in Mr. Weisselberg’s own hand that would be shown as evidence.

“You will see evidence at trial that Donald Trump was a very frugal businessman who believed in pinching pennies, watching every dollar, negotiating every bill—it’s all over the books that he’s written,” Mr. Colangelo said. “But when it came time to pay Michael Cohen back for the catch and kill deal, you'll see that he didn’t negotiate the price down; he doubled it.

“Neither Trump nor the Trump Organization could write a check to Cohen for $130,000 with a memo line that said ’reimbursement for porn star.'” Therefore, the 11 invoices listed as legal services were a “lie,” he argued.

Mr. Blanche confirmed that Mr. Cohen would play a central role in the case but argued the jury could not take his word for several reasons.

Mr. Cohen comments about President Trump frequently on social media and in media appearances and is one of his most vocal critics.

Mr. Blanche argued that Mr. Cohen not only “rants and raves” about President Trump but also has “talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump go to prison” and just yesterday said he wanted to see the former president in an orange prison jumpsuit.

Mr. Blanche described Mr. Cohen as a “criminal,” pointing to his record of being disbarred and being convicted as a felon and perjurer.

“You'll hear that he was loyal; he was very loyal to President Trump and the companies for years. But Mr. Cohen was also a criminal. Apart from his work for the Trump companies, he cheated on his taxes. He lied to banks,” Mr. Blanche said. “In 2018, he got caught.”

“The decision he made was to blame President Trump for virtually all his problems,” Mr. Blanche argued.

‘Catch and Kill’: Conspiracy or Standard Practice?

Attorneys on both sides described the “catch and kill” scheme as a tactic employed by media outlets such as mass-market tabloids.

Mr. Colangelo told the jury it was a practice wherein a publication would buy information and have the source sign a nondisclosure agreement and then decline to publish the story, effectively hiding it. He argued that Mr. Pecker, Mr. Cohen, and President Trump’s agreement to use this tactic amounted to a criminal conspiracy.

“This was not spin; this was a planned, coordinated conspiracy to influence the 2020 election to silence people who had something bad to say about his behavior, using doctored records,” Mr. Colangelo argued. “It was election fraud.”

He then outlined two other instances of “catch and kill” not charged in the indictment. Mr. Pecker paid $30,000 for a doorman’s story alleging that President Trump fathered a child out of wedlock, and then $150,000 to purchase a story from a former Playboy model about an alleged year-long affair.
There were disputes about repayment and a scheme to sell the rights to the second story to President Trump, Mr. Colangelo said. The fact that Mr. Pecker did not release the two individuals from their nondisclosure agreements until after the election showed fraud, he argued.

“The evidence will show that Pecker was not acting as a publisher; he was acting as a coconspirator,” Mr. Colangelo said, adding that Mr. Pecker was invited to the White House in the summer of 2017 for a thank-you dinner.

Mr. Blanche countered that publishers regularly use nondisclosure agreements this way and that it is not illegal. He cast Ms. Clifford’s claim as extortion and “an attempt to embarrass President Trump and embarrass his family.”

He said Ms. Clifford and Mr. Trump had met in 2008, when Mr. Trump was running the show “The Apprentice.” Since then, Mr. Blanche argued, Ms. Clifford has “made a life out of these communications” and made hundreds of thousands of dollars from it through media appearances, a book, and a documentary. He said her claims had been false and timed close to the election for the purposes of extortion.

Furthermore, trying to influence an election was also not illegal, Mr. Blanche argued.

“You also heard a lot of communication about the 2016 election,” he said. “Spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy.”

“The reality is that there is nothing illegal about what happened,” Mr. Blanche argued.

“Use your common sense. We’re New Yorkers; that’s why we’re here. You told the court you would put aside whatever view you have about President Trump, the fact that he’s running,” he said. “If you do that, there will be a very swift non-guilty verdict.”

Catherine Yang is a reporter for The Epoch Times based in New York.