Trump masks his rage as ‘hush money’ trial starts

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The sight of a scowling Donald Trump sitting in a New York courtroom, flanked by lawyers, is by now so common that it no longer surprises.

Still, there was an added, unspoken tension when the former — and perhaps future — US president appeared in Manhattan criminal court on Monday morning. The charges he was facing — for his alleged role in making hush money payments to a former adult porn actor — are not civil, but criminal. Therefore, it is not just his reputation or his bank account that are at stake. This time, Trump is at risk of losing his freedom.

That might explain why he appeared more docile during opening arguments than he has in other recent civil trials concerning his business practices and defamation of a New York writer. Dressed in a white shirt and blue tie, Trump maintained his steely mien throughout an abbreviated two-and-a-half hour session. On one occasion, he shook his head when a government prosecutor told the court he had interfered with the 2016 election. For the most part, though, Trump was subdued.

Nor did he draw much of a crowd. His wife, Melania, and daughter, Ivanka, were nowhere to be seen. Instead, he had to settle for the moral support of Andrew Giuliani, the son of the former New York City mayor and his erstwhile lawyer Rudy.

Only a handful of partisans mingled on the heavily patrolled plaza outside the courthouse. A man in a Puerto Rico basketball jersey was conducting a circular argument with a Chinese woman who was waving a Trump flag at him and shouting: “American citizen!” Nearby, the pavement was still stained in the spot where a man espousing wild conspiracy theories set himself on fire on Friday.

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That gruesome event, beside a bank of television news cameras, contributed to the sense of a city going mad — be it the recent violence on the subways or anti-Israel protests at Columbia University that have prompted the administration to call in the police and cancel in-person classes.

As has become his courtroom practice, Trump saved his outrage for the hallway, where he fulminated before reporters about the injustice of it all.

“It’s a case as to book keeping, which is a very minor thing in terms of the law — in terms of all the violent crime that’s going on out there,” he said at one point, repeating an argument meant to puncture Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney. “This is what takes me off the campaign trail. Because I should be in Florida right now, I should be in Georgia right now, I should be in a lot of places campaigning, but I’m sitting here,” he added.

In a narrow sense, he may be correct. Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records to conceal a $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels to buy her silence on the eve of the 2016 election about a past liaison that he has denied.

In its particulars, however, the trial is sure to be about things far seedier than bookkeeping, as Matthew Colangelo, a lawyer for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, made clear in a roughly 30-minute opening argument.

Colangelo recited, in a bland tone, the now infamous comments Trump made in 2005 to a presenter for Access Hollywood, in which he boasted about his appeal to women and how he liked to “grab them by the pussy” — a line that has lost none of its cringe-inducing power since it was first aired eight years ago. In the tight contest against Hillary Clinton in 2016, tabloid news stories about other infidelities might have sunk Trump, Colangelo argued, saying: “We’ll never know.”

Trump looked stoic. In the days ahead, he may come face to face with Daniels and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate who also claimed to have had an affair with Trump. Both are listed as potential government witnesses.

As the boss looked on, Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, used his own opening argument to try to humanise a larger-than-life figure who may be the most famous person on the planet. Trump, he told jurors, was not just the former president and a celebrity: “He’s also a man. He’s a husband. He’s a father,” and one, “cloaked in innocence”.

By contrast, Blanche tore into the man who is expected to be one of the government’s top witnesses: Michael Cohen, the former Trump attorney and fixer who made the payment to Daniels and then, according to previous testimony before Congress, sought reimbursement from his boss for “legal services”.

“He’s an admitted liar,” Blanche said, adding that Cohen was “obsessed with President Trump — even to this day”.

Given the short session, the prosecution spent only a few minutes with their first witness: David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer and Palm Beach bon vivant. Pecker has previously confessed to helping his friend Trump buy and bury unflattering stories in a practice known as “catch and kill”.

He brought slicked-back hair and unexpected jollity into the courtroom on Monday. He also imparted a bit of tabloid publishing wisdom, telling jurors: “Being in the publishing industry for 40 years, I realised early in my career that the only thing that was important was the cover of the magazine.”

It was something Trump, the master of self-promotion, could have told them.

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