Updated Apr 22, 2024 - Politics & Policy

"It's called democracy": Inside the Trump trial's opening statements

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Photo: Victor J. Blue - Pool/Getty Images

Prosecutors in Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York used their opening statement to lay out a bold — and potentially risky — thesis: "Trump orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election."

Why it matters: Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg wants his case — widely considered the weakest of the four indictments Trump faces — to be viewed beyond the context of a sordid, years-old sex scandal.

  • "This was a planned, coordinated, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures," prosecutor Matthew Colangelo argued.
  • "I have a spoiler alert," Trump attorney Todd Blanche countered. "There's nothing wrong with trying to influence the election. It's called democracy."

The big picture: These dueling narratives will color each side's presentations as a jury of 12 New Yorkers considers whether to convict a former president for the first time in U.S. history.

  • To the prosecution, Trump's alleged scheme to pay hush money to cover up negative stories during his 2016 campaign was "election fraud, pure and simple."
  • To the defense, the 34 charges Trump faces for falsifying business records "are really just 34 pieces of paper" — a simple dispute over "bookkeeping."

Zoom in: The prosecution alleges that Trump, his former lawyer Michael Cohen and tabloid publisher David Pecker hatched a conspiracy in 2016 to "catch and kill" stories that could have damaged Trump's campaign.

  • Those included alleged affairs with adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, as well as an uncorroborated claim that Trump fathered a child out of wedlock with an ex-employee.
  • "Another story about sexual infidelity, especially with a porn star, on the heels of the 'Access Hollywood' tape, could have been devastating to his campaign," Colangelo said, referencing the 2005 recording of Trump boasting about grabbing women without their consent.

The other side: Blanche — declaring that Trump is "cloaked in innocence" — took repeated digs at the credibility of Cohen and Daniels, who are expected to be witnesses for the prosecution.

  • "Michael Cohen wanted a job in the [Trump] administration. He didn't get one," Blanche said, calling Trump's former fixer a "criminal" who's "obsessed" with the idea of sending Trump to jail.
  • "Daniels saw her chance to make a lot of money, $130,000, against Trump," Blanche said of the former adult film star, forecasting her testimony "salacious" but irrelevant to the charges.

The bottom line: Unlike his cases in Georgia and D.C., Trump has not been charged with crimes related to election interference in New York.

  • Bragg insists that's not necessary to prosecute the "cover-up," but opening statements made one thing clear: A conviction will require the jury to believe that Trump was willing to lie his way to victory in 2016.
  • For Trump, who continues to claim that his legal troubles amount to "election interference" by Democrats, the argument that he engaged in election fraud to win the White House is the ultimate gut punch.
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