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Trump could avoid trial this year on 2020 election charges. Is the hush money case a worthy proxy?

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Trump could avoid trial this year on 2020 election charges. Is the hush money case a worthy proxy?
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Trump could avoid trial this year on 2020 election charges. Is the hush money case a worthy proxy?

2024-04-23 20:43 Last Updated At:20:50

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former President Donald Trump faces serious charges in two cases over whether he attempted to subvert the Constitution by overturning the results of a fair election and illegally remain in power.

Yet it’s a New York case centered on payments to silence an adult film actor that might provide the only legal reckoning this year on whether the Republican tried to undermine a pillar of American democracy.

Trump is charged in the hush money case with trying to falsify business records, but it was hard to tell that as the trial opened Monday.

Lead prosecutor Matthew Colangelo wasted little time during opening statements tying the case to Trump's campaigning during his first run for the presidency. He said the payments made to Stormy Daniels amounted to "a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election."

Whether the jury accepts that connection will be pivotal for Trump's fate. The presumptive GOP nominee faces charges related to falsifying business records that would typically be misdemeanors unless the alleged act could be tied to another crime. Prosecutors were able to charge them as felonies because they allege that the false records were part of an effort to cover up state and federal election law violations — though that’s still not the type of direct election interference that Trump is charged with elsewhere.

Trump has referred to the New York trial and the three other criminal cases against him as a form of election interference, suggesting without evidence that they're part of a Democratic plan to undermine his campaign to return to the White House.

“I’m here instead of being able to be in Pennsylvania and Georgia and lots of other places campaigning, and it’s very unfair,” he told reporters before Monday's court session.

While the charges are felonies, the New York case is seen as the least consequential against the former president. In the two election cases, Trump is accused of more direct involvement in trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

He faces a four-count federal indictment in Washington in connection with his actions in the run-up to the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021. He and others were charged in Georgia with violating the state’s anti-racketeering law by scheming to illegally overturn his 2020 loss to Democrat Joe Biden. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him in those cases and a fourth charging him with mishandling classified documents.

All the other cases are tied up in appeals that are expected to delay any trials until after the November election. If that happens, the New York case will stand as the only legal test during the campaign of whether Trump attempted to illegally manipulate an election — and the case isn't even about the election results he tried to overthrow.

On Monday, Trump's attorney quickly moved to undercut the idea that a case in which the charges center on record-keeping could seriously be considered an effort to illegally undermine an election.

“I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy,” said his attorney, Todd Blanche. “They put something sinister on this idea, as if it’s a crime. You’ll learn it’s not.”

Some legal experts monitoring the cases against Trump said they were skeptical of connecting the payments to a form of “election interference.” Doing so also runs the risk of diminishing the gravity of the other charges in the public mind.

Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota Law School professor and former associate White House counsel during the George W. Bush administration, said he believed the facts of the case met the evidence needed to determine whether a felony had been committed that violated campaign law, but added, “The election interference part, I have a little bit of trouble on this.”

Richard Hasen, a UCLA law school professor, said the New York case does not compare to the other election-related charges Trump faces.

“We can draw a fairly bright line between attempting to change vote totals to flip a presidential election and failing to disclose embarrassing information on a government form,” he wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times column.

In an email, Hasen said New York prosecutors were calling the case election interference “because that boosts what may be the only case heard before the election.”

Some said prosecutors’ decision to characterize the New York case as election interference seemed to be a strategy designed to raise its visibility.

“When (Manhattan District Attorney) Alvin Bragg calls it an election interference case, that’s more of a public relations strategy,” said Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown Law and former federal prosecutor. “I think there was concern that people were looking at the other prosecutions and they weren’t discussing the Manhattan case.”

Declaring the case a hush money trial made it seem less important than the others and “so they’ve styled it ... as a case about election interference. But again, what he’s charged with is falsifying business records.”

Trump has denied having a sexual encounter with Daniels and his lawyers argue that the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses.

The key question in the prosecution's argument is why were the business records falsified, said Chris Edelson, an American University assistant professor of government. Their allegation is that “Trump was preventing voters from making an informed decision in the election.”

It's an argument he believes prosecutors can make. “I think that the prosecutors will have to explain this to the jury. I don’t think it’s impossible to do,” he said.

The New York trial revolves around allegations of a $130,000 payment that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer, made to Daniels to prevent her claims of a sexual encounter with Trump from becoming public in the final days of the 2016 race.

“Candidates want to suppress bad news about them. But there’s a difference between trying to limit people knowing about that information and about breaking the law to keep them from finding out,” said Andrew Warren, a former state attorney in Florida who was suspended by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and is running for his old office while his court battle continues.

Warren said he believes the case has always been about more than the payments. If it is accepted as a hush money case, “Trump wins," he said. "If there was intent to deceive the voters, the prosecution wins.”

This artist depiction shows defense attorney Todd Blanche pointing at former President Donald Trump while giving his opening statement to the jury in Manhattan criminal court Monday, April 22, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

This artist depiction shows defense attorney Todd Blanche pointing at former President Donald Trump while giving his opening statement to the jury 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)

HOUSTON (AP) — As the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency toured the Houston area on Tuesday to assess the damage from last week’s deadly storms, local officials reassured residents still without power that their lights would be back on and they could soon begin rebuilding their lives.

Houston Mayor John Whitmire said crews with CenterPoint Energy had been working hard to restore power to residents dealing with temperatures of about 90 degrees (32 Celsius) and heat indexes approaching 100 degrees (38 Celsius).

At the height of the power outages, nearly 1 million people in the Houston area were without electricity. By Tuesday evening, that was down to less than 95,000.

“We’re on top of it. No one is being neglected,” Whitmire said.

The widespread destruction of last Thursday’s storms left at least eight dead and brought much of Houston to a standstill. Thunderstorms and hurricane-force winds tore through the city, reducing businesses and other structures to piles of debris, uprooting trees and shattering glass from downtown skyscrapers. A tornado also touched down near the northwest Houston suburb of Cypress.

Some downtown streets remained closed as crews continued cleaning up glass as the strong winds damaged 3,250 windows on high-rise buildings. Officials said it could take months to repair all the windows.

The deadly winds tore through a wide swath of Harris County, where Houston is located, causing damage and knocking out the power in both lower income and wealthier neighborhoods.

Last week’s storms took place as the Houston area and several Texas counties to the north were still recovering from flooding caused by heavy rainfall in late April and early May.

FEMA has approved small business loans and federal disaster assistance, which can help pay for temporary housing and repairs, for both weather events.

More than 48,000 people in the affected counties that were declared disaster areas have already applied for assistance, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said Tuesday. The agency has already issued more than $1 million in help to residents.

“We know that thousands in the region are still without power. So again, I encourage you to continue to check in on your loved ones, your neighbors, your vulnerable individuals in your communities and make sure that they’re OK,” Criswell said.

Lisa Reed, a teacher who lives in the Cloverleaf neighborhood in east Harris County, had been without power for four days before finally getting it back Monday evening.

“I felt exhilarated. It was real good to be just back in my own home,” Reed said.

But Reed said one of her daughters and her son, who both live nearby, were still without power on Tuesday. Even with the power back on, some of Reed’s neighbors were dealing with sparking wires and other electrical problems.

“It’s frustrating seeing people struggle. You wish you could do more,” she said. “Everyone doesn’t have the resources.”

Harris County Commissioner Lesley Briones, whose home still didn’t have power on Tuesday, said the deadly storms have had a severe impact on many lower-income residents.

In one area in the Spring Branch neighborhood in northwest Harris County, many damaged apartment complexes are “completely unlivable” with damaged roofs and debris that is not being cleaned up by landlords or owners. Briones said many of the families in these complexes are living paycheck to paycheck.

“The choice is to stay in these substandard, unlivable conditions or be homeless. And so, we are working actively on the long-term legal issues,” she said.

Michelle Hundley, a spokesperson for CenterPoint Energy, said the utility provider still expected to restore power to more than 90% of customers by Wednesday. If someone didn’t have power by Wednesday, it would most likely be due to damaged equipment at their home that the homeowner would need to fix.

“Certainly our linemen and all of our employees are very diligent in working to make sure that your electricity is up and running, and we will do the absolute best that we can,” Hundley said.

Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said some underserved communities might feel left out “because they see lights in nicer-looking neighborhoods go up. I just want to say you’re not forgotten. You’re not left behind.”

Authorities had initially reported the deadly storms were being blamed for at least seven deaths. On Sunday, authorities raised the total to eight to include a man who died from carbon monoxide poisoning while running a generator after his power went out.

Follow Juan A. Lozano: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, fourth from left, visits an apartment complex damaged by severe storms the previous week at Spring Branch in Houston, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, fourth from left, visits an apartment complex damaged by severe storms the previous week at Spring Branch in Houston, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, center, visits an apartment complex damaged by severe storms with Houston Mayor John Whitmire, right, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Spring Branch in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, center, visits an apartment complex damaged by severe storms with Houston Mayor John Whitmire, right, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Spring Branch in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell talks to parents while visiting damaged Sinclair Elementary School, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Timbergrove in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell talks to parents while visiting damaged Sinclair Elementary School, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Timbergrove in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, center, visits an apartment complex damaged by severe storms at Spring Branch in Houston, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, center, visits an apartment complex damaged by severe storms at Spring Branch in Houston, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell joins Houston elected officials in a press conference regarding recovery and assistance after last week's storms, Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at Fondé Community Center in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell joins Houston elected officials in a press conference regarding recovery and assistance after last week's storms, Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at Fondé Community Center in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee uses a portable fan provided by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo's staff while visiting damaged Sinclair Elementary School, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Timbergrove in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee uses a portable fan provided by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo's staff while visiting damaged Sinclair Elementary School, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Timbergrove in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

From front left, Francisco Sánchez Jr., associate administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Disaster Recovery & Resilience, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo visit Sinclair Elementary School after it was damaged by severe storms from the previous week, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Timbergrove in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

From front left, Francisco Sánchez Jr., associate administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Disaster Recovery & Resilience, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo visit Sinclair Elementary School after it was damaged by severe storms from the previous week, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Timbergrove in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Utility trucks line Grovewood Lane to assist recovery from last week's severe storms, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Timbergrove in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Utility trucks line Grovewood Lane to assist recovery from last week's severe storms, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Timbergrove in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

People affected by recent severe storms wait in line for assistance at a FEMA mobile unit Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Spring Branch Family Development Center in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

People affected by recent severe storms wait in line for assistance at a FEMA mobile unit Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Spring Branch Family Development Center in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, blue FEMA hat, visits an apartment complex damaged by severe storms with Houston Mayor John Whitmire, to her right, and Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Lesley Briones, to her left, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Spring Branch in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, blue FEMA hat, visits an apartment complex damaged by severe storms with Houston Mayor John Whitmire, to her right, and Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Lesley Briones, to her left, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at Spring Branch in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Lisa Reed, a teacher, sits outside her home in the Harris County neighborhood of Cloverleaf near Houston on Sunday, May 19, 2024. Reed said she sat outside because it was too hot to be inside since her home was still without electricity because of last week's storms in the Houston area. The powerful storms knocked down a tree in Reed's front yard, smashing it through the windshield of a family truck. (AP Photo/ Juan A. Lozano)

Lisa Reed, a teacher, sits outside her home in the Harris County neighborhood of Cloverleaf near Houston on Sunday, May 19, 2024. Reed said she sat outside because it was too hot to be inside since her home was still without electricity because of last week's storms in the Houston area. The powerful storms knocked down a tree in Reed's front yard, smashing it through the windshield of a family truck. (AP Photo/ Juan A. Lozano)

FILE - Glass falls from above as workers clean out shattered glass at the Wells Fargo building as clean up from the previous week's storm continues in downtown Houston, Monday, May 20, 2024. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP, file)

FILE - Glass falls from above as workers clean out shattered glass at the Wells Fargo building as clean up from the previous week's storm continues in downtown Houston, Monday, May 20, 2024. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP, file)

FILE - Workers clean out shattered glass at the Wells Fargo building as clean up from the previous week's storm continues in downtown Houston, Monday, May 20, 2024. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP, file)

FILE - Workers clean out shattered glass at the Wells Fargo building as clean up from the previous week's storm continues in downtown Houston, Monday, May 20, 2024. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP, file)

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