Snoozy Trump Wakes Up as Prosecutor Calls Him a Liar

Victor J. Blue/Reuters
Victor J. Blue/Reuters

Opening statements had not yet begun on Monday when former President Donald Trump dozed off for the first time.

He quickly opened his eyes when defense attorney Todd Blanche slid him a note, as prosecutors prepared to kick off opening arguments in the historic trial, which hinges on accusations that the former president falsified business records over a $130,000 hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels in an effort to keep her quiet as the 2016 presidential election loomed.

Trump Pushes the Limits of His Gag Order in Post-Trial Rant

The trial marks the only time in American history that a former commander-in-chief has been tried on criminal charges. If convicted, Trump faces four years behind bars.

“You must decide this case on the evidence,” Judge Juan Merchan instructed the jury.

Trump’s eyes appeared to close again as Merchan continued laying out the ground rules to the five women and seven men from various parts of Manhattan who were seated as jurors last week, along with six alternates who were also present in the jury box.

The first day of proceedings gave both sides an opportunity to offer their initial arguments to the jury, who paid rapt attention even as the 45th president looked as if he’d rather be anywhere else. Prosecutors called their first witness, former tabloid king David Pecker, who took the stand to describe how “checkbook journalism” worked in this case.The session ended early, at 12:30 p.m. rather than the usual 4:30, because one of the jurors had been suffering from a toothache that required an emergency visit to the dentist, Merchan announced at the outset.

Reporters were under strict instructions from Merchan not to be too descriptive about the members of the jury, so as not to make them easily identifiable to the public and to protect their safety outside the courtroom.

Trump’s a Fraud When It Comes to Law and Order and ‘Backing the Blue’

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo kicked off opening arguments, laying out the prosecution’s case against Trump, accusing him of orchestrating a “criminal scheme” that would “corrupt” the 2016 election.

“This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a cover-up ,” Colangelo said, arguing that he lied “over and over again.”

He said Trump, Cohen, and National Enquirer boss Pecker “formed a conspiracy” to silence adult film star Stormy Daniels, who claimed she had a one-night stand with the married Trump, and ensure voters never found out about their alleged affair, as well as another alleged affair with a Playboy model, as well as an embarrassing story about a Trump Tower doorman who had a love child with his maid.

“All in all, the defendant disguised his reimbursements to Michael Cohen” by way of falsified checks and ledger entries that amounted to “a criminal scheme,” Colangelo argued.

“Then he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in his New York business records over and over and over again,” Colangelo said as Trump, no longer dozing off, stared straight ahead.

Trump also launched a conspiracy with Pecker, who took direction from Trump to bury negative stories about him while slamming his opponents, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who was also vying for the GOP presidential nomination at the time, according to the prosecutor.

This, Colangelo told the jury, “is called catch-and-kill.”

“Trump and Pecker and Cohen carried out three different catch-and-kill deals to help him get elected,” said Colangelo.

The schemes involved “the candidate’s fixer actively colluding with a media enterprise… to keep [negative information] from coming out before the election.”

First, Colangelo said, Trump Tower doorman Dino Sajudin claimed that Trump had a love child with his maid, and directed Pecker to pay $30,000 to keep quiet about it. The second allegedly involved Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal and Pecker’s $150,000 payment in September 2016 for her story of having an affair with Trump, who was married at the time, locking up the rights and ensuring the tale never saw the light of day. Trump “desperately did not want this information about Karen McDougal to become public because he was concerned about the election,” Colangelo went on.

But Trump was slow in paying the money back to Pecker, who “became frustrated” and began to believe he’d never get his money back, Colangelo said. So, to prove his boss’ good intent, Colangelo said Cohen recorded himself speaking to Trump about the scheme. Trump said on the tape, which the jury will hear at trial, that he would set up a shell company to pay Pecker back for “advisory services,” according to Colangelo.

Colangelo then brought up the infamous “hot mic” moment that depicted Trump “bragging about sexual assault.”

“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump was heard saying. “You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

It was released one month before election day, causing an “immediate and explosive” reaction from allies, prompting the Republican National Committee to explore the possibility of replacing Trump as a candidate.

A day after the damaging tape came out, the National Enquirer’s editor-in-chief told Pecker that Daniels had come forward with a story about an affair she claimed to have had with Trump. According to Colangelo, Trump convinced Cohen to use his own money to “keep Stormy Daniels quiet” just two weeks before the 2016 presidential election.

Trump then repaid Cohen after he took the Oval Office, cooking his books to hide any wrongdoing, said Colangelo. It was, he said, “a grossed up way” to disguise the payment, Colangelo said.

He then admitted that Cohen “has made mistakes in the past.” He lied about the payments “to protect his boss,” and went to prison for it, warming the jury up to the idea of hearing from a convicted felon as a witness.

“Focus on the facts,” Colangelo continued. “Focus on the logical inferences that follow from those facts… Donald Trump is guilty of 34 counts of falsifying busines records in the first degree.”

When Blanche took over and addressed the jury, he started, “President Trump is innocent. President Trump did not commit any crimes.”

Trump fixed his gaze on Blanche as the defense attorney repeated his client’s familiar talking point that the case should never have been brought and insisted the former president is “cloaked in innocence.” He told the jurors that Trump is, “in some ways, larger than life,” noting that “he has earned” the title of “president,” and he would be calling him that in court “out of respect for the office he held from 2017 to 2021.”

“He’s not just our former president, he’s not just the Donald Trump you’ve seen on TV and read about. He’s also a man, he’s a husband, he’s a father. He is a person just like you and just like me.”

Blanche then argued to the jury, “The story you just heard is not true.”

He said the payments from Trump to Cohen which make up the 34 criminal counts “are really just 34 pieces of paper.” Blanche claimed that Trump was merely paying a retainer to Cohen, and that this was not a crime.

“You’re going to learn that this was not a payback,” Blanche said. “... Listen, the ‘ledger’ was just a fancy way of… keeping track of what you’re spending money on.”

Trump, according to Blanche, “is not responsible for something Mr. Cohen may have done.”

“They put something sinister on this idea, as if it was a crime,” Blanche went on.

Shortly after noon, Pecker took the stand as the trial’s first witness. He gave his age as 72, said he has a bachelor’s degree from Pace University, and that he is now self-employed. “My previous employer was American Media, AMI,” he said.

In response to questioning by ADA Joshua Steinglass, Pecker described himself as the company’s former chairman, president, and CEO. He said he gave editors up to $10,000 to spend on a story, admitting it was “checkbook journalism.” If anyone wanted to spend more than that, the request had to go through him, Pecker said. He also explained that he had “final say” over the conglomerate’s coverage, particularly with celebrity stories.

Pecker, who was subpoenaed to testify on Monday, had two AMI email addresses, he said—one for regular correspondence, and one for “sensitive” issues. Steinglass brought up Dylan Howard, asking Pecker if he knew him. Yes, Pecker replied. Trump stared straight at Pecker during his testimony; Pecker directed his answers to Steinglass and to the jury and did not appear to look at Trump at all.

The trial will begin its second day on Tuesday, beginning at 9:30 a.m.

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