Opening statements completed at Trump’s NYC hush money trial

NEW YORK — Donald Trump returned Monday to the Manhattan criminal courthouse on Monday, where his historic hush money trial proceeded with opening statements and the prosecution’s first witness.

The former president had a difficult first week in court as jury selection got underway. He apparently fell asleep at the defense table, was forced to listen to how potential jurors dragged him online, railed against officials outside the courtroom doors and was threatened with a fresh round of sanctions. His fourth bid to delay the case in two weeks failed Friday.

Here’s what happened Monday:

David Pecker, the former CEO of American Media, took his seat as the first witness in the historic trial.

“I was chairman, president and CEO,” said the 72-year-old, who is testifying for the prosecution.

In his opening arguments, prosecutor Matthew Colangelo explained that the “catch and kill” conspiracy started with an August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower between Trump, Michael Cohen, and Pecker and that they would follow “through on every aspect of this scheme.”

Pecker would be the Trump campaign’s “eyes and ears,” using his tabloids and magazines to post flattering stories about the then-candidate and damaging ones about his competitors,” Colangelo said.

Pecker testified as to how American Media functioned.

“I had the final say on the celebrity side of the industry, at least with the tabloids,” Pecker said. “We used checkbook journalism and paid for stories.”

Editors had to clear expenses of more than $10,000 with him.

Juist before 12:30 p.m. Eastern, Monday’s early end time, Pecker's testimony was cut. None of the jurors looked at Trump as he watched them file out of the courtroom.

In the opening statements Monday, Colangelo said: “Members of the jury, this case is about a criminal conspiracy and a cover-up — the defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election.

“Then he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in ... New York business records over and over and over again.”

Colangelo says the “catch and kill” conspiracy started with the August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower between Trump, Cohen and Pecker.

The prosecutor walked the jury through the hush money recipients including a Trump Tower doorman and Karen McDougal, a model Trump allegedly had an affair with in 2006.

Colangelo said jurors will see “the flurry of text messages” and phone calls between the architects of the hush money plan when they learned the former Playboy model was planning to go public about a “romantic and sexual relationship with the defendant while he was married that lasted nearly a year.”

At points, Trump appeared to be bothered by the prosecutors’ words as he spoke to lawyer Todd Blanche.

The prosecutor spoke about the infamous “grab them by the p---y” Access Hollywood tape released in the lead-up to the 2016 election and the concern it would “irreparably damage his viability as a candidate.”

“With pressure mounting and Election Day fast approaching, Donald Trump agreed to the payoff (to Stormy Daniels) and directed Cohen to proceed,” the prosecutor said.

Colangelo says no candidate wants unflattering info reported about them, but “this was not spin or (communications) strategy.”

“It was election fraud, plain and simple.”

The defense followed with its opening statement.

“Spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence the election. It’s called democracy,” Blanche argued.

Blanche laid out the defense’s case for Trump’s innocence, emphasizing that the burden of proof is on prosecutors, and telling the jury: “He’s also a man. He’s a husband. He’s a father. And he’s a person, just like you and me.”

The story is “not as simple as the people just described,” Blanche said, saying that Trump had “nothing to do” with the stack of checks and paperwork that represents the 34 felony counts.

Trump was attentive, looking at Blanche as he spoke, unlike Colangelo.

Blanche undercut expected star witness Cohen, calling him a liar and convicted perjurer, who’s “obsessed with Trump” and wants to see him locked up.

“I submit to you he cannot be trusted,” Blanche said.

Blanche finished by saying there’s nothing illegal about Trump, Cohen and Pecker’s scheme, using the term “catch and kill” in a mocking tone.

“The people use the word conspiracy,” he said. “You will see that there are 34 counts in this indictment. Conspiracy is not one of them.”

He told the jury to simply listen to the evidence and use common sense: “If you do that, there will be a very swift not guilty verdict.”

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee is charged with 34 felony counts of falsification of New York business records that allege he camouflaged payment for an illegal hush money scheme to his former lawyer, Cohen, by falsely logging it in the books as reimbursement for legal services.

The charges carry up to four years in prison, which Trump is unlikely to face as a first-time, nonviolent offender, should he be convicted. But the trial is eating into his campaign schedule just over six months out from this year’s presidential election, and a conviction could disqualify him in the minds of some voters.

As he vies for the presidency once again, Trump faces 88 felonies across four states alleging crime sprees that started the year before he won the White House until the year he left. He denies allegations in his various cases that he plotted to subvert democracy and illegally hoarded classified documents.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg alleges that Trump devised a hush money scheme soon after he launched his first bid for the presidency at an August 2015 Trump Tower meeting between him, his then-lawyer Cohen, and Pecker, who was then the former CEO of American Media, then publisher of The National Enquirer.

When he takes the stand, Cohen — who in 2018 received a three-year federal prison term after pleading guilty to related campaign finance charges — is expected to walk the jury through the plot to bury rumors about his boss’ alleged infidelity and an eleventh-hour dash to prevent the 2016 electorate from learning about Daniels.

The porn star, who is expected to testify, alleges she slept with Trump at a July 2006 charity golf tournament event in Lake Tahoe shortly after Melania Trump gave birth to Barron Trump and that Trump paid her into silence via Cohen and AMI before the election. She’s described her tryst with Trump as “getting cornered coming out of a bathroom” and not an “affair.”

Another expected witness allegedly paid off on the eve of the election, former Playboy model McDougal, claims she also slept with Trump at the golf tournament during a heated 10-month affair.

Prosecutors say Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 and facilitated Pecker’s AMI in paying off McDougal for $150,000 and also a doorman at Trump Tower for $30,000, who wanted to sell his allegations about Trump fathering a child out of wedlock. Trump’s ex-fixer and AMI admitted to their roles in Cohen’s 2018 federal case.

In the week since his trial got underway, prosecutors have accused Trump of breaking a gag order prohibiting him from publicly attacking those involved in the trial no less than 10 times. They’ve asked Judge Juan Merchan to fine him thousands of dollars for the offending posts on his Truth Social website, which the judge is expected to mull at a hearing Tuesday.

Despite expectations that the jury selection process in the high-stakes case would take weeks, the panel of seven men and five women who will be tasked with weighing the first criminal case against a former U.S. president took just three days to assemble. Six alternate jurors had been selected by midday Friday.

By the end of the week’s proceedings, the gravity of the case had set in with some potential jurors, who said they no longer felt they could be impartial. One woman broke down into tears during proceedings, and another asked to be relieved when her friends and family guessed she’d been chosen to serve.

The jurors’ identities will remain anonymous to the public, but Trump and his team know them. Unlike in other high-profile court proceedings in recent years at the downtown courthouses, they have not been partially sequestered, which is when court officials arrange their transport to and from the trial.

On Friday, Trump failed to convince an appeals court to delay the trial while he tries to get it moved out of Manhattan. He’s required to be in court in person every day, with Merchan denying a request to let him come in late on Thursday so he can attend Supreme Court arguments in D.C. aimed at dodging his federal election subversion case.