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Donald Trump committed election fraud ahead of the vote that put him in the White House, the prosecution in his hush-money trial said in opening statements Monday, painting his efforts to suppress a porn star’s tale of extramarital sex as a bid to corrupt democracy.

Manhattan assistant district attorney Matthew Colangelo played up the historic importance of the 34 charges against Mr. Trump, who is accused of falsifying company documents to hide a US$130,000 payment to the porn star, Stormy Daniels, two weeks before the 2016 election.

He described the case, the first criminal trial of a former president, as dealing with “a criminal conspiracy of fraud” and “election fraud, pure and simple.”

“The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election,” Mr. Colangelo told a state court in Manhattan. “Then, he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in his New York business records over and over and over again.”

Todd Blanche, Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer, alternated between arguing that there was nothing illegal about the payoff plan and suggesting the former president may not have been directly involved in the details.

“I have a spoiler alert: There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election. It’s called democracy,” Mr. Blanche said. “There’s nothing wrong with a nondisclosure agreement” such as the one Michael Cohen, who was then working as a fixer for Mr. Trump, paid Ms. Daniels to sign, he added.

Mr. Blanche dismissed the case as a “bookkeeping” dispute and called the charges “really just 34 pieces of paper.”

The Manhattan case is the least severe of Mr. Trump’s four criminal indictments, which also include prosecutions for trying to overturn the 2020 election. But it may be the only one to be tried before the former president attempts to recapture the White House in November. The prosecution’s decision to play up the election interference angle reinforces the thematic connection to the other cases, which could help elevate the accusations beyond a matter of personal indiscretion.

The prosecution’s first witness, former tabloid publisher David Pecker, is expected to establish that he, Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen crafted a “catch-and-kill” plan before the 2016 election to buy off people with embarrassing stories about the candidate.

Mr. Pecker, a grinning, slim 72-year-old with slicked-back grey hair, testified only briefly Monday before court broke early for the start of Passover.

He told court his publications used “chequebook journalism” to land stories. Editors were authorized to spend up to US$10,000, with anything more requiring his authorization. He said he was directly involved in deciding which stories would run. “The only thing that matters is the cover of a magazine,” he said.

Mr. Pecker’s former company, American Media Inc., or AMI, which owns the National Enquirer and Star supermarket tabloids, paid a fine to federal elections regulators over the hush-money scheme.

Earlier during Monday’s proceedings, Mr. Colangelo said the prosecution will present evidence that shows Mr. Trump, Mr. Pecker and Mr. Cohen made their arrangement at Trump Tower in 2015, shortly after the real estate mogul launched his presidential campaign. The trio “formed a conspiracy at that meeting to influence the election by concealing negative information about Mr. Trump,” he said. AMI, he added, would become the candidate’s “eyes and ears.”

AMI bought the stories of two people who claimed to have compromising material on Mr. Trump, including Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate who said she and Mr. Trump had a months-long affair. AMI paid her US$150,000.

After Mr. Trump failed to pay AMI back, Mr. Cohen made the next payoff himself. This was in the case of Ms. Daniels, who says she had sex with Mr. Trump at a 2006 golf tournament. He denies it.

Mr. Cohen took the money out of his home equity line of credit and routed it through a shell company to Ms. Daniels’s lawyer. Mr. Trump subsequently paid him back with a string of US$35,000 cheques totalling US$420,000, meant to cover the payoff, taxes, other expenses and a bonus for Mr. Cohen.

The payments were falsely booked by the Trump Organization as a legal retainer for Mr. Cohen via 34 invoices, cheques and ledger entries, even though no such retainer existed, the prosecution alleges. Because the records were falsified to hide the payout to Ms. Daniels, which violated federal political donation caps, prosecutors say, the crimes are felonies rather than misdemeanours.

Mr. Colangelo said court would see calls and messages between Mr. Pecker and Mr. Cohen arranging the payments, and a tape Mr. Cohen made of Mr. Trump discussing the scheme.

On at least two occasions, he said, the arrangements reached directly into the White House. Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen finalized the repayment plan at an Oval Office meeting in early 2017. That summer, the then-president invited Mr. Pecker over. “The defendant hosted a thank-you dinner to thank Pecker and AMI for their contributions to his campaign,” he said.

Mr. Blanche tried to pre-emptively discredit Mr. Cohen, who served time in federal prison after a 2018 plea deal over the hush money and is expected to be the central prosecution witness. The defence lawyer portrayed Mr. Cohen as having “an obsession” with seeing Mr. Trump “go to jail” so Mr. Cohen could cash in with his podcast and book deals.

Mr. Blanche said Mr. Trump was “not on the hook” for Mr. Cohen’s actions, signalling a strategy of trying to shift blame for the payoff to Mr. Trump’s subordinates.

Mr. Colangelo objected as Mr. Blanche characterized Ms. Daniels’s story as “false” and “almost an attempt” to “extort.” The objections were mostly sustained by Judge Juan Merchan.

The trial continues Tuesday with a prosecution motion that Mr. Trump be held in contempt of court for repeatedly violating a gag order meant to stop him from intimidating witnesses. Mr. Pecker’s testimony will resume after.

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