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Trump’s Moment of Accountability

Imagining the opening statement to the jury in ‘People of New York v. Trump.’
April 6, 2023
Trump’s Moment of Accountability
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages)

One way evaluate the strength of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s evidence against Donald Trump is to envision how a prosecutor would present the case in his opening statement to a jury. Judge for yourself from this hypothetical opening, drawn from the indictment, the accompanying statement of facts, and Bragg’s Tuesday press conference.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,

This is a case about hiding the truth from the people to get elected president. The coverup was worse than the crime.

The coverup involved the defendant, Donald J. Trump, making false entries in business records to keep the truth secret after he’d suppressed it on the eve of the 2016 election. The victims were the American people and American history.

The defendant set out to fool the voters, and he got himself elected. But accounts become due. This is his moment of accountability to the law and to you.

Testimony and documents will prove that the defendant ran a three-part “catch and kill” scheme on the eve of the 2016 election. He engaged in a pattern and practice of buying silence to deprive voters of knowledge of material facts as they exercised their sacred right to choose the nation’s leader.

Then, the evidence will show, the man sitting right over there <pointing to Trump> disguised “hush money” reimbursements as “legal fees.” Why cover up the repayments? The hush money had advanced the defendant’s candidacy and therefore, under campaign finance laws, should have been reported as contributions to his campaigns. Tax violations and false statements to the government were also part of the scheme.

You will hear testimony that in June 2015, the defendant held a meeting in Trump Tower with his friend, David Pecker, the National Enquirer’s publisher, and with the defendant’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. They privately agreed to buy the silence of anyone circulating stories that could harm the defendant’s candidacy.

Mr. Pecker and Mr. Cohen will testify to their parts in the scheme. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court to the unlawful plan, admitting that it was directed by the defendant. He served time in prison.

Step one: In the fall of 2015, a former Trump Tower doorman spread a rumor that the defendant had fathered an out-of-wedlock child. Mr. Pecker paid the doorman $30,000 to squelch that story, even before Pecker realized that it could not be verified. That’s how desperate the collaborators were to “catch and kill” potential scandals.

We wouldn’t be here if that were the end of it.

In June 2016, Karen McDougal alleged that she had an extramarital relationship with the defendant. Mr. Pecker, Mr. Cohen, and the defendant met again. They agreed that Pecker would pay her $150,000 for exclusive rights to her story.

You will hear a tape recording of that conversation, including the defendant’s own words.

Let me pause here. The defense will tell you that Cohen and Pecker cannot be believed—that they are motivated to lie. But tape recordings have no motivation to lie.

You can believe both men because documents, texts, emails, notes, checks, and tapes corroborate the truth of what they are telling you.

Now the third leg of the scheme, a $130,000 payment to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels. On the eve of the election, she let it be known that she could publicly tell all about her “one-night stand” with the defendant years earlier.

The agreement with her lawyer to pay for her silence occurred three days after the infamous Access Hollywood scandal broke, heightening the potential threat of Ms. Daniels’s information to the defendant’s candidacy. Two strikes and he could have been out.

Once the deal was arranged, the defendant instructed Cohen to delay the payment until after the election. That way, the defendant said, he could avoid paying because, win or lose, the story wouldn’t matter. So much for the tale the defense will tell you that the defendant was merely hiding the affair from his wife.

Meanwhile, Ms. Daniels was not about to be stalled past the election. She insisted and Cohen arranged a payment to her of $130,000 in October 2016.

You will see cancelled checks showing that over the next year, the defendant reimbursed Cohen for his payment to Daniels with multiple personal checks from the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust. You will hear Mr. Cohen’s testimony that the defendant’s notes on the check stubs characterizing the reimbursements as “legal services” were false.

And you will see repayments to Cohen totaling more than double the $130,000. That way, after Cohen declared them as income on his taxes, he would come out whole, and with a bonus to boot.

We will show you the notes from the Trump Organization’s Chief Financial Officer that corroborate Cohen’s testimony explaining the amount of the payment. Corroboration, corroboration, corroboration.

While the defendant is a politician, this case is about law, not politics. All politics must be set aside. Only when our evidence proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt do we charge or convict individuals of crime. When we have that evidence, as we do here, it does not matter if you were president or if you are running for president. No one is above the law.

Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former assistant U.S. attorney and former Supreme Court advocate, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.