Trump accused of trying to corrupt 2016 election with ‘hush money’ scheme

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Manhattan prosecutors accused Donald Trump of lying “over and over again” about payments made in the days before the 2016 election to prevent claims of an extramarital affair with a porn actor becoming public, as opening arguments began in the first criminal trial against a former US president.

The 77-year-old “orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election”, assistant district attorney Matthew Colangelo told the seven men and five women chosen to decide the case. Trump went on to “cover up” the transactions because “he wanted to conceal his and others’ criminal conduct”, Colangelo added.

Trump railed against the court and prosecutors on social media and once again denounced the case as a witch hunt on his way into the courtroom on Monday morning. “This is done as election interference, everybody knows it,” the presumptive 2024 Republican nominee for the White House told reporters. 

Seated at the defence table in the courtroom, he scowled silently at the judge and jury during opening statements, but did not meet the gaze of district attorney Alvin Bragg, who brought the case.

The start of the trial comes just over a year after Bragg brought the first criminal charges against a former US president, indicting Trump for allegedly disguising payments of $130,000 made in the run-up to the 2016 election to buy the silence of a porn actor who claimed she had a brief affair with the reality television star a decade prior.

During the prosecution’s opening argument, Colangelo detailed how Trump and his inner circle allegedly deployed a “catch and kill” strategy to buy the silence of Stormy Daniels, who was threatening to go to the press with her story of how she had an tryst with the then-reality television star in 2006 — an encounter the former president has denied.

Daniels was paid $130,000 after the publication of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump was heard bragging about grabbing women’s genitals. It caused panic in his campaign just a month before the 2016 vote, adding to the urgency of preventing a story about his infidelities coming out, Colangelo told the jury.

“This was a planned, co-ordinated, long-running conspiracy . . . to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures,” Colangelo said of the payments. “It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

Like any criminal defendant, Trump is required to be in attendance every day of what is expected to be a six-week trial, a requirement that he has complained will limit his campaigning ahead of November’s election. The court will break on Wednesdays if the case is proceeding on schedule, Justice Juan Merchan said last week.

Last week, 12 jurors and six alternates were chosen from a pool of almost 200 New Yorkers from the borough of Manhattan, who were carefully vetted to ensure they did not harbour insurmountable bias towards Trump. All said they could be impartial in deciding the facts of the case, although some expressed distaste for his policies and persona.

The hush money case is the first against Trump to go to trial, but the former president still faces criminal charges in three different courts over his alleged attempts to thwart the peaceful transition of power after the 2020 election, and over his retention of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago mansion in Florida. It is unclear when the other criminal cases will go to trial.

Trump also faces a number of civil proceedings, and is appealing against a nearly half-billion dollar civil fraud judgment awarded to the New York attorney-general earlier this year.

Another milestone in Trump’s legal travails will be reached later this week, when the US Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether he can claim presidential immunity for acts that he has been charged with that took place while he was in office. 

The outcome of that challenge has no bearing over the New York case, which has been brought under state rather than federal law. Merchan has already denied a request from Trump’s team that certain tweets and public comments made while he was in office should be excluded from the case.

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