Trump Develops Creative Strategy to Evade Accountability for Numerous Alleged Crimes

Trump Develops Creative Strategy to Evade Accountability for Numerous Alleged Crimes

On Monday, the jury and reporters heard opening arguments in People of New York v. Donald J. Trump, offering us our best glimpse yet at the cases each side will make—and also at how Donald Trump will respond when forced to silently listen to damning evidence of his alleged crimes described straight to his face.

The answer to the latter: Trump appears to be intent on only hearing from the cocoon of sycophants and admirers he has built around himself. He seemed to completely ignore the prosecution’s opening arguments as they described their “election fraud” case against the former president for his role in covering up hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and others in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

From my vantage point in the courtroom on Monday—sitting directly behind the defendant, about seven rows behind him—Trump’s head was pointed down toward the TV monitor in front of him the entire time Matthew Colangelo, the senior counsel to District Attorney Alvin Bragg, gave the people’s opening argument. Trump didn’t once appear to look at Colangelo—or even the jury, from what I saw—during this time. Indeed, a reporter next to me, who had been using binoculars to look at the screens at the front of the room that showed Trump’s face, said that his eyes appeared to be literally closed for much of the presentation.

By contrast, as soon as his attorney, Todd Blanche, began the defense’s presentation, Trump perked up and stared intently at his lawyer. Indeed, when he left the courtroom, he had his longest stop-and-chat with the press yet, seeming to regurgitate much of Blanche’s case to reporters, with comments trashing Biden and complaining about being forced off the campaign trail thrown in for good measure.

What was that case Blanche will be making on his client’s behalf? Blanche repeatedly reminded the jury that Trump is a former president and that he will refer to him as “President Trump” (and perhaps not the more customary “my client”) “out of respect for the office.”

Trump, though, isn’t just a former president. “He’s also a man; he’s a husband, he’s a father, he’s a person just like you and just like me,” Blanche added. The stuff of Clarence Darrow, this was not. Blanche continued with what would amount to the defense’s case: The prosecution’s documents charges are convoluted and not even truly criminal; the primary witnesses, Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels, can’t be trusted; and this prosecution is for alleged crimes that are really old (most of the evidence, he informed jurors, was “from years and years ago, pre-COVID,” as if the pandemic offered a clean sheet, wiping out everyone’s crimes).

Blanche laid out exactly how Trump paid Cohen (for what the defense claims were legal services and prosecutors claim was a hush money reimbursement to Daniels), before indignantly declaring: “None of this was a crime.”

“What on earth is a crime? What is a crime about what I just described?” Blanche asked the jury, in reference to the various accounting procedures of the Trump Organization. “The 34 counts, ladies and gentleman, are literally just 34 pieces of paper.”

Those 34 pieces of paper, of course, lay out the trail of money that went from Trump to Cohen to pay back the money that went to Daniels to allegedly keep her quiet on the eve of the 2016 election, as is expected to be corroborated by Daniels’ and Cohen’s testimony. This is perhaps why the key point of Blanche’s opening—and, we expect, of the defense’s case—was focused on trashing Daniels and Cohen.

Blanche depicted Cohen as a convicted tax cheat, fraudster, and perjurer who was “obsessed with President Trump,” attempting for years to enter his orbit and then, once the two parted ways bitterly, making it his entire public persona to attack Trump in books, podcasts, and TV appearances (including in comments on the eve of the trial).

Blanche also attempted to describe Daniels as a “sinister” liar who took part in a plot “to embarrass Trump and his family” with a “false claim of a sexual encounter with President Trump back in 2008.” (The alleged encounter took place in 2006, and this was likely a mistake by Blanche.)

The problem for Blanche is that he tried repeatedly to stretch these attacks on Daniels and Cohen beyond the bounds that the judge had previously allowed. When Blanche attempted to describe Daniels as having tried to “extort President Trump,” that was quickly objected to; the objection was sustained, and the remarks were stricken from the record. Blanche also repeatedly tried to enter into the proceedings a claim that Cohen perjured himself in Trump’s recent civil fraud trial when he refused to take responsibility for tax crimes. (Cohen pleaded guilty to perjury once before, for statements made during congressional testimony in 2018.) Again, the judge repeatedly upheld the prosecution’s objections to these comments and for a second time interrupted Blanche’s opening argument to bring the lawyers to the bench, presumably to warn the defense not to again delve into an area that was off-limits.

During the prosecution’s opening, meanwhile, Colangelo faced not one such objection, even as he was unable to maintain the president’s attention. What did Trump miss by seeming to ignore Colangelo? The prosecution made the case that the stakes in this case are much higher than a hush money payment to a “porn star.”

Colangelo described in detail the scheme that Trump allegedly orchestrated with the owner of the National Enquirer, American Media Inc., in the weeks after he announced his presidential run, to “catch and kill” damaging stories, publish positive stories, and also publish negative ones trashing GOP rivals like Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz. Colangelo laid out how this was a “long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures.” These events are so important to the prosecution’s case that their opening witness on Monday was David Pecker, the former CEO of AMI. (For his part, Trump appeared to look up to the witness stand when his old friend was testifying.)

“It was election fraud, pure and simple,” Colangelo declared. “We’ll never know—and it doesn’t matter—if this conspiracy was the difference-maker in a close election.”

Colangelo asserted that after AMI paid off Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal to cover up a story alleging that Trump had an affair with her, Trump was too cheap to pay AMI back—leaving Trump and Cohen on their own when it came to paying to Daniels to cover up that story on the eve of the election. Finally, Colangelo described the entire process for reimbursing Cohen that resulted in the false documents charges.

Blanche’s response to this, it’s worth noting, was basically to blow it all off. “I have a spoiler alert,” he declared. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy. They put something sinister on this idea as if it’s a crime. It’s not.”

The judges who have previously looked at this issue have decided that, yes, it is a crime to violate campaign finance law to unlawfully influence an election—which is why Trump will be sitting in front of a jury and prosecutors in Manhattan for the next six weeks or so, apparently ignoring them. (For their parts, the jurors seemed to stare straight ahead and not look Trump in the face each time they exited and entered the courtroom, despite walking directly in front of him and Trump facing them as they went in and out.)

Throughout the day, the jurors appeared to be in rapt attention for every aspect of the start of the trial; the judge’s elaborate, lengthy (and to many in the press corps, boring) jury instructions as well as both the defense and prosecution’s opening cases. More than half of the group of 12 jurors and six alternates, in fact, requested pens and pads to take notes in the middle of the first witnesses’ opening testimony. They seem to care way more than Trump does.

Perhaps that attention won’t be maintained as the days and weeks wear on. Monday was a big day, more for the symbolic purposes of the official start of this trial than the actual substance—big-name reporters like Rachel Maddow who hadn’t been there for jury selection were among the press corps on Monday, while the district attorney himself was back in court for the first time since the first day of jury selection last week. The more explosive witnesses will come later in the trial, even as David Pecker, the former CEO of AMI at the center of the catch-and-kill scheme, began his testimony by introducing himself and his journalistic products to the jury. Monday was also the shortest day of the trial yet—proceedings ended early due to the start of the Passover holiday and one juror having a medical appointment.

Tuesday is anticipated to be an even shorter day, with Pecker resuming testimony and jurors working for just a few hours. It will start, however, with the bang of a contempt hearing over nearly half a dozen statements Trump has made targeting witnesses in likely violation of a gag order. We’ll see if Trump can focus a bit more when he’s likely given his first sanction in this proceeding and warned not to do it again.

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