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Opening statements to get underway in former President Trump's hush money trial

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Opening statements start today in the New York criminal trial of former President Donald Trump.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The case stems from the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, and it involves Trump's former attorney and personal fixer Michael Cohen, the publisher of the National Enquirer and adult film star Stormy Daniels.

MARTIN: NPR's Andrea Bernstein has been covering the case. All right. The trial is about so-called hush money and falsifying business records. How do prosecutors want to set the table about what allegedly happened?

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: This trial is, in many ways, about the end of Donald Trump's life as a New Yorker, as he is desperately trying to cross a kind of creaky bridge to become president. In his old life, he was a real estate mogul, a tabloid celebrity, a kind of enfant terrible, a bad boy of the city's elite. It has many of the kinds of characters that Trump surrounded himself with in New York, lawyers with questionable associations, a porn star, a Playboy model, a tabloid publisher and the accountants and employees Trump surrounded himself with who were well-versed, as we've come to learn, in the massaging of numbers and records.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, all this officially got started last week. What was learned then?

BERNSTEIN: According to the DA, at the very beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, so in August of 2015, there was a meeting in Trump Tower between Trump, his personal attorney and Trump Organization vice president at the time, Michael Cohen, and the publisher of AMI, the group that owned the National Enquirer, David Pecker. And Pecker told Trump, according to the DA, that he would be his eyes and ears for negative stories, and if he saw them, he would implement a strategy of catch and kill.

MARTÍNEZ: Catch and kill, meaning that he'd buy the story and then just make it go away.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. The idea was that people would come to the National Enquirer with negative stories about Trump and that Pecker, basically, would buy the rights to them and then deep-six them. So then in October of 2016, right before Election Day, not long, after the "Access Hollywood" tape became public, the campaign is in a panic. Michael Cohen ends up paying Stormy Daniels out of his own pocket to keep her quiet. And then, when Trump reimburses him, it's entered as, quote, "a legal retainer" 34 times, which is the basis for the 34 counts of falsifying business records.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, how will Trump defend himself?

BERNSTEIN: He and his team have already been, for months, if not years, trying to tear down Cohen's credibility. Cohen has, after all, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and lying to banks, and more recently said that he didn't even tell the truth when he was being sentenced for those crimes. And Trump said in the courthouse hallway last week he was doing what Cohen, his lawyer, told him to do. Trump has said it was his family he was trying to keep in the dark, not the electorate. All it takes is one juror to hold a reasonable doubt to prevent a conviction in this case.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Who do we think the first witness will be?

BERNSTEIN: So we aren't sure, because the DA isn't giving names in advance for fear Trump will disparage the witnesses, but most likely, the National Enquirer's David Pecker. Unlike Cohen, Pecker is not a convicted liar, and he has a role at the very beginning of this drama, the one about the real estate mogul who wanted to be president, his lawyer, the porn star and some questionable payments.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thanks a lot.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Andrea Bernstein
[Copyright 2024 NPR]