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Opening Statements in Trump’s Criminal Trial: Five Takeaways

Opening Statements in Trump’s Criminal Trial: Five Takeaways

Monday marked another key moment in the criminal trial of Donald J. Trump: opening statements, during which the former president listened quietly to the prosecution’s allegations of crimes, and the defense’s counterargument that he was a simple man, wrongly accused.

The jury that will decide Mr. Trump’s case concentrated intently on the statements, which began the presentation of what will be weeks of testimony and other evidence, all in a tense courtroom in Lower Manhattan.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee once more, Mr. Trump, 77, is charged with falsifying 34 business records in an attempt to cover up a payment to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, in the days before the 2016 election. Ms. Daniels, who may testify, says that she and Mr. Trump had a sexual encounter in 2006, a claim the former president denies.

Mr. Trump has also denied the 34 felony charges, calling them orchestrated by Democrats; if convicted, the former president could face probation or up to four years in prison.

Here are five takeaways from Mr. Trump’s fifth day on trial:

The charges faced by Mr. Trump may sound bland — “falsifying business records” doesn’t really set the heart racing — but the prosecution made clear on Monday that it plans on painting a much broader picture.

Matthew Colangelo, a prosecutor, laid out in his opening statement a tale that touched on tabloid journalism, tawdry affairs and covertly recorded phone calls. Jurors will likely be told about events inside fancy hotel rooms, Trump Tower and even the Oval Office. And the stakes? The presidency.

All that suggests that the case will keep jurors wide-awake during the six or so weeks it is projected to take. Indeed, when asked if they wanted paper and pens to take notes, more than half of the people in the jury box (12 jurors and six alternates) raised their hands.

Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer, Todd Blanche, used his opening statement to cast Mr. Trump’s actions leading to this case as run-of-the-mill business, and said that Mr. Trump is defending himself at trial, just as “any of us would do.”

He argued that the use of a nondisclosure agreement — the document Ms. Daniels signed after receiving the payment — was typical among the wealthy and the famous and “nothing illegal.” He continued that there was nothing wrong with trying to influence an election, adding: “It’s called democracy.”

Mr. Blanche also attacked Mr. Cohen, a former lawyer and fixer for Mr. Trump. He said Mr. Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance crimes in 2018, was a “criminal” who “can’t be trusted.” He added that Ms. Daniels was “biased” against Mr. Trump and made a living off her story about the sexual encounter.

He called the heart of the prosecution case just “34 pieces of paper” that don’t involve Mr. Trump.

On Mr. Trump’s way into the courtroom on Monday, he addressed reporters for about three minutes and blasted a range of perceived enemies, including New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, and the judge in a recent civil fraud case that resulted in a $454 million judgment against him.

But Mr. Trump’s behavior during opening statements reflected that he understood the gravity of the moment.

Mr. Trump made no outbursts during the prosecution’s opening statement, although he occasionally showed displeasure: He shook his head slightly at arguments that he orchestrated a scheme to corrupt the presidential election and then more strenuously when prosecutors said he was guilty of felonies.

During his own side’s opening statement, Mr. Trump sat largely motionless and expressionless watching his lawyer Mr. Blanche. Mr. Trump’s behavior was muted compared with his volatility during past Manhattan court appearances.

But at the conclusion of the trial day, Mr. Trump took his preferred spot in front of a television camera in the hallway, and spoke for more than nine minutes, attacking the prosecutor’s case — once again — as unfair.

Prosecutors’ first witness was David Pecker, the longtime publisher of The National Enquirer. He ambled to the stand and promptly gave a lesson in the ways of tabloid journalism, including the purchasing of articles — anything more than $10,000, he had to approve — and the significance of putting a famous face right out front.

“The only thing that was important is the cover of a magazine,” Mr. Pecker testified.

In about 30 minutes of testimony, Mr. Pecker also laid out trade secrets on sourcing, saying hotel workers and limo drivers could be a font of information on the rich and famous.

He seemed at ease: laughing at a prosecutor’s jokes, and sometimes directly addressing the jury just a few feet away.

Over the past five trial days, the judge overseeing the case, Juan M. Merchan, has shown that he is eager to keep this trial on schedule. He seems serious about keeping his word to the jurors that the trial will last six weeks.

On Monday, truncated by a juror’s dental emergency and the Passover holiday, he decided to start with the first witness — Mr. Pecker — despite having only half an hour left on his schedule.

On Tuesday, the court will first consider a prosecution motion to hold Mr. Trump in contempt over recent comments that they say violated a gag order meant to keep him from attacking participants in the trial and their families.

Then, Mr. Pecker will continue on the stand, probably diving deeper into the “catch-and-kill” scheme used to buy up — and cover up — unflattering stories, a central element of the prosecution’s narrative.

Court will end early again, at 2 p.m., for further observance of Passover and then will have its weekly Wednesday break.

But there is little indication that as the weeks pass, Justice Merchan will let the pace slacken.

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