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Key takeaways from the opening statements in Donald Trump's hush money trial

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Key takeaways from the opening statements in Donald Trump's hush money trial
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Key takeaways from the opening statements in Donald Trump's hush money trial

2024-04-23 06:24 Last Updated At:06:30

NEW YORK (AP) — Monday's opening statements in the first criminal trial of a former American president provided a clear roadmap of how prosecutors will try to make the case that Donald Trump broke the law, and how the defense plans to fight the charges on multiple fronts.

Lawyers presented dueling narratives as jurors got their first glimpse into the prosecution accusing Trump of falsifying business records as part of a scheme to squelch negative stories about him during his 2016 presidential campaign.

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Former president Donald Trump, center, awaits the start of proceedings at Manhattan criminal court, Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. Opening statements in Donald Trump's historic hush money trial are set to begin. Trump is accused of falsifying internal business records as part of an alleged scheme to bury stories he thought might hurt his presidential campaign in 2016. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, Pool)

NEW YORK (AP) — Monday's opening statements in the first criminal trial of a former American president provided a clear roadmap of how prosecutors will try to make the case that Donald Trump broke the law, and how the defense plans to fight the charges on multiple fronts.

Donald Trump stands as the jury files into the courtroom at the start of the trial in Manhattan criminal court Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Donald Trump stands as the jury files into the courtroom at the start of the trial in Manhattan criminal court Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Former president Donald Trump, center, awaits the start of proceedings at Manhattan criminal court, Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. Opening statements in Donald Trump's historic hush money trial are set to begin. Trump is accused of falsifying internal business records as part of an alleged scheme to bury stories he thought might hurt his presidential campaign in 2016. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, Pool)

Former president Donald Trump, center, awaits the start of proceedings at Manhattan criminal court, Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. Opening statements in Donald Trump's historic hush money trial are set to begin. Trump is accused of falsifying internal business records as part of an alleged scheme to bury stories he thought might hurt his presidential campaign in 2016. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, Pool)

Former president Donald Trump speaks to the media after the first day of opening arguments in his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court for falsifying documents related to hush money payments, in New York, NY, on Monday, April 22, 2024. The former President is expected to spend the next 6 or so weeks in attendance at his trial for falsification of business records, to cover up payments to Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who allegedly had an encounter with the President before he was in office. Photographer: Victor J. Blue for The Washington Post/ Pool

Former president Donald Trump speaks to the media after the first day of opening arguments in his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court for falsifying documents related to hush money payments, in New York, NY, on Monday, April 22, 2024. The former President is expected to spend the next 6 or so weeks in attendance at his trial for falsification of business records, to cover up payments to Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who allegedly had an encounter with the President before he was in office. Photographer: Victor J. Blue for The Washington Post/ Pool

Witness David Pecker, far right, talks on the witness stand while Donald Trump, far left, looks on as assistant district attorney Joshua Steingless asks questions with Judge Juan Merchan presiding in Manhattan criminal court Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Witness David Pecker, far right, talks on the witness stand while Donald Trump, far left, looks on as assistant district attorney Joshua Steingless asks questions with Judge Juan Merchan presiding in Manhattan criminal court Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks outside the Manhattan Criminal Court in his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs in New York on Monday, April 22, 2024. (Angela Weiss/Pool Photo via AP)

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks outside the Manhattan Criminal Court in his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs in New York on Monday, April 22, 2024. (Angela Weiss/Pool Photo via AP)

Still to come are weeks of what's likely to be dramatic and embarrassing testimony about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee's personal life as he simultaneously campaigns to return to the White House in November.

Here's a look at some key takeaways from opening statements:

Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying internal Trump Organization business records. But prosecutors made clear they do not want jurors to view this as a routine paper case. Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said the heart of the case is a scheme to “corrupt” the 2016 election by silencing people who were about to come forward with embarrassing stories Trump feared would hurt his campaign.

“No politician wants bad press," Colangelo said. “But the evidence at trial will show that this was not spin or communication strategy. This was a planned, coordinated, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures to silence people who had something bad to say about his behavior.” He added: “It was election fraud, pure and simple.”

The business records charges stem from things like invoices and checks that were deemed legal expenses in Trump Organization records when prosecutors say they were really reimbursements to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen for a $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels. Daniels was threatening to go public with claims she had an extramarital sexual encounter with Trump. He says it never happened.

Prosecutors' characterizations appear designed to combat suggestions by some pundits that the case — perhaps the only one that will go to trial before the November election — isn't as serious as the other three prosecutions he's facing. Those cases accuse Trump of trying to overturn the 2020 election he lost to President Joe Biden and illegally retaining classified documents after he left the White House.

Trump, meanwhile, sought to downplay the accusations while leaving the courtroom on Monday, calling it all a “bookkeeping" case and “a very minor thing.” But he, too, has said it’s all about an election — the one this November. Trump has repeatedly claimed that the case is part of a sweeping Democratic attempt to harm his chances at reclaiming the presidency.

Trump’s attorney used his opening statement to attack the case as baseless, saying the former president did nothing illegal.

The attorney, Todd Blanche, challenged prosecutors’ claim that Trump agreed to pay Daniels to aid his campaign, saying Trump was trying to “protect his family, his reputation and his brand."

Blanche indicated the defense will argue that after all the very point of a presidential campaign is to try to influence an election.

"It’s called democracy,” Blanche told jurors. “They put something sinister on this idea, as if it was a crime. You’ll learn it’s not.”

Blanche also portrayed the ledger entries at issue in the case as pro forma actions performed by a Trump Organization employee. Trump “had nothing to do with” the allegedly false business records, “except that he signed the checks, in the White House, while he was running the country,” Blanche said. And he argued that the records’ references to legal expenses weren’t false, since Cohen was Trump’s personal lawyer at the time.

The 34 counts in the indictment are related to the payment to Daniels. But prosecutors plan to introduce evidence about a payoff to another woman — former Playboy model Karen McDougal — who claimed a sexual encounter with Trump, as well as to a Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have a story about Trump having a child out of wedlock. Trump says they were all lies.

Prosecutors said they will show Trump was at the center of the scheme to silence the women, telling jurors they will hear Trump in his voice talking about the plan to pay McDougal. Cohen arranged for the publisher of the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid to pay McDougal $150,000 but not print the story in a practice known as “catch-and-kill.”

Colangelo told jurors that prosecutors will play for them a recording Cohen secretly made during a meeting with Trump weeks before the 2016 election. In the recording, which first became public in 2018, Trump is heard saying: “What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?”

Trump “desperately did not want this information about Karen McDougal to become public because he was worried about its effect on the election," Colangelo said.

The defense's opening statement previewed what will be a key strategy of the defense: trying to discredit Cohen, a Trump loyalist turned critic and expected star witness for the prosecution. Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the hush money payments in 2018 and and served prison time.

Whether jurors believe Cohen, who says he arranged the payments to the women at Trump's direction, could make or break the case for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's office.

Trump's lawyer highlighted Cohen's criminal record, describing him as a serial liar who turned against Trump after he was not given a job in the administration and found himself in legal trouble. Blanche said Cohen's “entire financial livelihood depends on President Trump’s destruction,” noting he hosts podcasts and has written books bashing his ex-boss.

“He has a goal and an obsession with getting Trump,” Blanche said. “I submit to you that he cannot be trusted.”

Anticipating the defense attacks on Cohen, the prosecution promised to be upfront about the “mistakes” the former Trump attorney has made. But Colangelo said “you can credit Michael Cohen's testimony" despite his past.

“I suspect the defense will go to great lengths to get you to reject his testimony precisely because it is so damning,” the prosecutor said.

Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker is the first witness for prosecutors, who say that Trump’s alleged scheme to conceal potentially damaging information from voters began with a 2015 Trump Tower meeting among the then-candidate, Pecker and Cohen. Pecker took the witness stand Monday before court broke for the day and his testimony is expected to continue Tuesday.

At the meeting, Pecker — a longtime Trump friend — agreed to aid Trump’s campaign by running favorable pieces about him, smearing his opponents, scouting unflattering stories about him and flagging them to Cohen for “catch-and-kill” deals. Those included the claims made by Daniels, McDougal and the former Trump Tower doorman, Dino Sajudin, prosecutors say. Trump says all were false.

Pecker will likely be asked about all the alleged efforts made by the Enquirer’s then-owner, American Media Inc., on Trump’s behalf. Federal prosecutors agreed in 2018 not to prosecute American Media in exchange for its cooperation in a campaign finance investigation that led to Cohen’s guilty plea, and the Federal Election Commission fined the company $187,500, calling the McDougal deal a “prohibited corporate in-kind contribution.”

Pecker’s brief turn on the stand Monday was mainly just about his background and other basic facts, though he did say the Enquirer practiced “checkbook journalism” — paying for stories — and that he had the final say on any story about a famous person.

The prosecutor referred to Trump during his opening statement as “the defendant.” Trump's lawyer took a different tack, calling him “President Trump.”

“We will call him President Trump, out of respect for the office that he held,” Blanche said. At the same time, Trump's lawyer sought to portray Trump as an everyman, describing him as a husband, father and fellow New Yorker.

“He’s, in some ways, larger than life. But he’s also here in this courtroom, doing what any of us would do: defending himself,” Blanche said.

Trump sat quietly while listening to opening statements, occasionally passing notes to his lawyers and whispering in their ears. But outside of the courtroom, he continued his pattern of trying to capitalize politically on the case that will require him to spend his days in a courtroom rather than on the campaign trail.

“This is what they’re trying to take me off the trail for. Checks being paid to a lawyer,” Trump said.

Richer reported from Washington. Associated Press reporter Jake Offenhartz in New York contributed.

Former president Donald Trump, center, awaits the start of proceedings at Manhattan criminal court, Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. Opening statements in Donald Trump's historic hush money trial are set to begin. Trump is accused of falsifying internal business records as part of an alleged scheme to bury stories he thought might hurt his presidential campaign in 2016. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, Pool)

Former president Donald Trump, center, awaits the start of proceedings at Manhattan criminal court, Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. Opening statements in Donald Trump's historic hush money trial are set to begin. Trump is accused of falsifying internal business records as part of an alleged scheme to bury stories he thought might hurt his presidential campaign in 2016. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, Pool)

Donald Trump stands as the jury files into the courtroom at the start of the trial in Manhattan criminal court Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Donald Trump stands as the jury files into the courtroom at the start of the trial in Manhattan criminal court Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Former president Donald Trump, center, awaits the start of proceedings at Manhattan criminal court, Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. Opening statements in Donald Trump's historic hush money trial are set to begin. Trump is accused of falsifying internal business records as part of an alleged scheme to bury stories he thought might hurt his presidential campaign in 2016. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, Pool)

Former president Donald Trump, center, awaits the start of proceedings at Manhattan criminal court, Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. Opening statements in Donald Trump's historic hush money trial are set to begin. Trump is accused of falsifying internal business records as part of an alleged scheme to bury stories he thought might hurt his presidential campaign in 2016. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, Pool)

Former president Donald Trump speaks to the media after the first day of opening arguments in his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court for falsifying documents related to hush money payments, in New York, NY, on Monday, April 22, 2024. The former President is expected to spend the next 6 or so weeks in attendance at his trial for falsification of business records, to cover up payments to Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who allegedly had an encounter with the President before he was in office. Photographer: Victor J. Blue for The Washington Post/ Pool

Former president Donald Trump speaks to the media after the first day of opening arguments in his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court for falsifying documents related to hush money payments, in New York, NY, on Monday, April 22, 2024. The former President is expected to spend the next 6 or so weeks in attendance at his trial for falsification of business records, to cover up payments to Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who allegedly had an encounter with the President before he was in office. Photographer: Victor J. Blue for The Washington Post/ Pool

Witness David Pecker, far right, talks on the witness stand while Donald Trump, far left, looks on as assistant district attorney Joshua Steingless asks questions with Judge Juan Merchan presiding in Manhattan criminal court Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Witness David Pecker, far right, talks on the witness stand while Donald Trump, far left, looks on as assistant district attorney Joshua Steingless asks questions with Judge Juan Merchan presiding in Manhattan criminal court Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks outside the Manhattan Criminal Court in his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs in New York on Monday, April 22, 2024. (Angela Weiss/Pool Photo via AP)

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks outside the Manhattan Criminal Court in his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs in New York on Monday, April 22, 2024. (Angela Weiss/Pool Photo via AP)

DENVER (AP) — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed two bills into law Friday that overhaul state oversight of the funeral home industry after a series of gruesome discoveries, including 190 discomposing bodies in a facility, families being sent fake ashes and the unauthorized sale of body parts.

The cases put Colorado's lax funeral home regulations — some of the weakest in the nation — in the spotlight and rocked hundreds of already grieving families.

Some families had ceremonially spread ashes that turned out to be fake. Others said they had nightmares about what their loved ones might have looked like in a decayed state.

“When grieving the loss of a loved one, the last thing a family should worry about is the trustworthiness and professionalism of those entrusted to care for the person who has passed," Polis said in a statement.

The new laws bring Colorado in line with most other states.

One requires regulators to routinely inspect funeral homes and give them more enforcement power. Another implements licensing for funeral directors and other workers in the industry. They would need to pass background checks and a national exam while possessing degrees and work experience.

Previously, funeral home directors in Colorado didn't have to graduate from high school, let alone have a degree.

The funeral home industry was generally on board with the changes though some expressed concern that strict requirements for funeral home directors were unnecessary and would make it difficult to find hirable applicants.

The bill signings follow a rocky year for Colorado funeral homes.

In early October, neighbors noticed a putrid smell coming from a building in the town of Penrose about two hours south of Denver. Authorities soon found 190 decaying bodies there including adults, infants and fetuses.

Some were stacked atop each other. Decomposition fluid covered the floors while flies and maggots swarmed.

Almost two dozen bodies dated to 2019 and some 60 more were from 2020. As the bodies were identified, families who had received ashes learned the cremains weren't their loved ones.

In most states, funeral homes are routinely inspected but no such rules were on the books in Colorado. The owners of the funeral home were arrested in November and collectively face hundreds of charges of abusing corpses and other counts.

Just months later, in February, a woman's body was found in the back of hearse where a suburban Denver funeral home had left it for over a year. At least 30 sets of cremated remains were found stashed throughout the funeral director's home.

Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, contributed to this report.

FILE - Colorado Governor Jared Polis delivers the 2024 State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature in the House of Representatives in the State Capitol, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, in Denver. Polis is set to sign two bills Friday, May 24, that overhaul the state's oversight of the funeral home industry after a series of gruesome discoveries, including 190 discomposing bodies in a facility, families being sent fake ashes and the unauthorized sale of body parts.(Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via AP, File)

FILE - Colorado Governor Jared Polis delivers the 2024 State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature in the House of Representatives in the State Capitol, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, in Denver. Polis is set to sign two bills Friday, May 24, that overhaul the state's oversight of the funeral home industry after a series of gruesome discoveries, including 190 discomposing bodies in a facility, families being sent fake ashes and the unauthorized sale of body parts.(Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via AP, File)

FILE - Fremont County coroner Randy Keller, left, and other authorities unload materials that will be used to put up tents at the Return to Nature Funeral Home where over 100 bodies have been improperly stored, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Penrose, Colo. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is set to sign two bills Friday, May 24, 2024, that overhaul the state's oversight of the funeral home industry after a series of gruesome discoveries, including 190 discomposing bodies in a facility, families being sent fake ashes and the unauthorized sale of body parts.(Parker Seibold/The Gazette via AP, File)

FILE - Fremont County coroner Randy Keller, left, and other authorities unload materials that will be used to put up tents at the Return to Nature Funeral Home where over 100 bodies have been improperly stored, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Penrose, Colo. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is set to sign two bills Friday, May 24, 2024, that overhaul the state's oversight of the funeral home industry after a series of gruesome discoveries, including 190 discomposing bodies in a facility, families being sent fake ashes and the unauthorized sale of body parts.(Parker Seibold/The Gazette via AP, File)

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