Trump Opening Statements: ‘Election Fraud,’ Fake News, And An Appeal To Exhaustion

Former President Donald Trump's Lawyer Todd Blanche leaves the courtroom for the day at Manhattan Criminal Court during Trump's trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, in N... Former President Donald Trump's Lawyer Todd Blanche leaves the courtroom for the day at Manhattan Criminal Court during Trump's trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, in New York City on April 19, 2024. A panel of 12 jurors was sworn in on April 18, 2024, for the unprecedented criminal trial of a former US president. (Photo by Mark Peterson / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MARK PETERSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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NEW YORK — Opening statements in the first-ever criminal trial of a former President kicked off Monday morning with prosecutors accusing Trump of “election fraud” as the defense asked jurors to take a jaundiced view of the case.

The courthouse and area outside were flooded with law enforcement, journalists, protestors, and spectators as the case began.

I got in line alongside other reporters at 5 a.m. to watch opening arguments as part of TPM’s extensive coverage of the first-ever criminal trial of a former President — an attempt at real accountability after nearly a decade of national political scandals driven by Trump.

Prosecutors sought to paint Trump as masterminding a plot which extended far beyond the creation of fake business records to cover up reimbursements to his attorney, Michael Cohen, for hush money payments. In their telling, the scheme became a broader attempt to “corrupt the 2016 election” by taking illegal steps to withhold critical information from the public. Prosecutors need to not only prove that Trump created fake business records, but that he did so in furtherance of another crime in order for this to qualify as a felony.

Todd Blanche, arguing for Trump, attempted to poke holes in prosecutors’ arguments, but himself made a broader point: the allegations, the case itself, and the circumstances under which they were brought are all tainted. Trump’s behavior was business-as-usual. Why care?

Flipping things on Trump

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo opened up with a 40-minute-long opening statement in which he accused Trump of orchestrating a broad conspiracy to corrupt the 2016 Presidential election by conspiring with a range of shady characters to kill potentially damaging stories about him and cover up the process.

It partly involved prosecutors taking allegations long flung by Trump and flipping them on him, suggesting that they were in fact the products of the sordid world which Trump has inhabited. That included Colangelo suggesting that Trump created fake news via his relationship with the “checkbook journalism” produced at National Enquirer, and that the hush money effort was “election fraud, pure and simple.”

It’s an old story, but Colangelo told it in a new way: he centered it both the release of the Access Hollywood tape and Trump’s own alleged complicity.

The first point helped establish motive and set a narrative: Trump had dithered over engaging in an agreement with AMI, National Enquirer’s parent company, to buy and sit on three damaging stories about him. Of those three, two were credible: that Trump had a tryst with Stormy Daniels, and an affair with ex-Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal.

Colangelo suggested that Trump only agreed to enter into the hush money arrangement after the Access Hollywood tape emerged, embarrassing Trump and forcing him to issue an extremely rare apology to the public.

“The impact of that video on the campaign was immediate and explosive,” Colangelo said.

After that, Colangelo said, Trump and those around him scrambled to quickly put the kibosh on the Stormy Daniels story.

Colangelo also framed the story around Trump’s own complicity.

The hush money scandal has been written about extensively, almost always with caveats about Trump’s own involvement. It’s been a murky point in all this: a machine operated to benefit Trump by paying to keep damaging stories out of public view. But the obvious question — did Trump, the man who controlled the machine, press the button to start it — has remained unanswered.

Colangelo suggested in his opening statement that the prosecution would try to provide an answer. At one point, he drew smirks by describing Trump as a “very frugal businessman” in relation to his habit of stiffing contractors.

But that aside fit into a larger point: it was incredibly unusual for Trump to agree to the complicated payment structure through which Cohen was paid, which itself suggests that the former President had to have known what was going on.

It “shows just how important it was to him to hide the true nature of Cohen’s illegal payment to Ms. Daniels and the overall election conspiracy that they had launched.”

Part of the question here — what evidence is there to show that Trump directed Michael Cohen to engage in the hush money scheme — will rest on the testimony Cohen can provide, and whether or not the jury finds him credible.

There are real problems there. Cohen spent years fighting and lying for Trump; after pleading guilty during the Mueller investigation, he then spent years since saying exactly the opposite of what he did when in Trump’s employ. He did time in prison, and has parlayed his experience with Trump into becoming a media personality.

Colangelo tried to head some of this off by addressing it directly during his opening statement, but it reveals a key issue for the prosecution: they need documentary evidence — beyond Cohen’s word — to prove that Trump directed the scheme.

That will come partly in the form of a cellphone recording which Cohen made of Trump in which they discussed how to buy the rights to McDougal’s story. It may also come in the form of other communications, including messages, emails, and more.

One example of the messages that prosecutors plan to introduce came in a message cited by Colangelo, in which McDougal’s attorney discussed Trump’s impending victory as it played out on Election Day 2016 with a senior AMI employee.

“What have we done?” the lawyer wrote.

Blanche calls for exhaustion

Blanche went through his opening statements by hitting the points that one would expect: Michael Cohen is deeply unreliable, there’s no legal issue with buying someone’s silence, the payments to Cohen were not reimbursements but in fact were payments for his work as personal attorney to Donald Trump.

But throughout, Blanche invited the jury to take a much more common view: this is all business as usual, nothing out of the ordinary.

“Use your common sense,” Blanche told the jury, which includes several corporate attorneys and finance MBAs. “We’re New Yorkers. It’s why we’re here.”

It was an appeal to the deep exhaustion around Trump’s various scandals. They’ve inundated the country since he came down the golden escalator in 2015, from the Access Hollywood tape to Trump-Russia to the first impeachment to January 6 and onward to today. All of that has fed a numbness and resignation.

It’s also feeds into to a more pernicious sense that Trump isn’t so much creating new norms as revealing old ones: that this is the way things have always been, and anyone who sees otherwise is simply naive.

Blanche integrated that view into his assault on various witnesses in the case: they were all terminally self-interested. Cohen’s “entire financial livelihood depends on President Trump’s destruction.” David Pecker, the former AMI CEO, simply was out “to sell magazines.”

It’s a reductive view of these people. But it goes further than that: it invites the kind of exhaustion and resignation that might impel a juror to set aside what prosecutors described as “a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election” in favor of Blanche’s view.

“Spoiler alert,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy.”

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