Prosecution lays out 'criminal conspiracy' in historic Trump trial

Former US president and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump departs following his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York on April 22, 2024. [AFP]

Donald Trump engaged in "election fraud" by paying hush money to a porn star just days before the 2016 White House vote, prosecutors said Monday at the first-ever criminal trial of a former US president.

"This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a cover-up," Assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo said. "He orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election."

Laying out the prosecution's case for the jury, Colangelo said Trump falsified business records to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels over a 2006 sexual encounter that could have impacted his presidential bid.

"It was election fraud, pure and simple," he said.

Trump, 77, dressed in a dark blue suit and blue tie with an American flag pin on his lapel, sat at the defense table flanked by his lawyers, staring straight ahead as the prosecutor delivered his opening remarks.

The case poses substantial risks to the Republican presidential candidate, coming less than seven months before his November election rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden.

Prosecution witnesses are expected to include Daniels and Trump's former fixer Michael Cohen, who arranged the alleged payment to the adult film actress.

"President Trump did not commit any crimes," Todd Blanche, one of his attorneys, said in his opening statement. "The Manhattan DA should never have brought this case.

"I have a spoiler alert: there's nothing wrong with trying to influence an election," Blanche said. "It's called democracy."

David Pecker, former publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid, was the first witness called by prosecutors, who allege he was used to bury negative stories about Trump, a policy known as "catch and kill."

Pecker was only briefly on the stand before court was adjourned for the day by Judge Juan Merchan. It will resume on Tuesday.

Campaign trail

Trump, speaking to reporters in a hallway after the court session, again insisted he had done nothing wrong and claimed the case was brought to derail his 2024 White House bid.

"This is a Biden witch hunt to keep me off the campaign trail," he said.

The trial will keep Trump in court for four days a week over a possibly six-to-eight-week period.

He faces 34 counts of falsifying business records  for reimbursements made to Cohen, his lawyer, for the $130,000 "hush money" payment to Daniels.

Blanche, Trump's attorney, attacked the credibility of Cohen, who served prison time for tax evasion and campaign finance violations, and Daniels in his opening remarks.

"He's a convicted felon," Blanche said of Cohen. "And he also is a convicted perjurer."

Daniels "saw her chance to make a lot of money, $130,000, and it worked," he said. "And since this story came out in 2018, became public, she's made hundreds of thousands of dollars because of it."

Trump has separately been indicted on charges of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election won by Biden and for hoarding secret documents after leaving the White House.

Those cases have been repeatedly delayed, however, due to his strategy of challenging every legal step.

Merchan, on the other hand, has run the New York trial on a tight schedule.

Trump has railed against the case, particularly a partial gag order imposed by Merchan to prevent him from publicly attacking witnesses, prosecutors and relatives of court staff.

A hearing will be held Tuesday at which Merchan will decide if Trump is already in contempt of court due to outbursts during jury selection.

The identities of the 12 jurors and six alternates are being kept secret for their own protection.

A unanimous verdict will be required to convict Trump, who has been ordered to attend each day of the trial.

Security was tight Monday after a man set himself on fire last week outside the courthouse in an unrelated but gruesome incident.

In a previous case this year in New York -- in civil court -- Trump was ordered to pay $355 million, rising to $454 million with interest, after being found liable for inflating his assets to benefit from favorable loans and insurance terms.

The demand was frozen pending an appeal -- on condition Trump secure a bond that would be executed if he lost his legal challenge. That bond was later set at $175 million.

After some legal haggling, the New York attorney general's office told AFP on Monday it had resolved the issues over the money, which will be held as cash in an account exclusively controlled by the underwriter.