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Trump Trial To Determine If He Illegally Cheated To Win In ’16

Trump Trial To Determine If He Illegally Cheated To Win In ’16
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WASHINGTON ― Would Donald Trump ever have become president if he hadn’t paid off porn star Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet in the days before the 2016 election?

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The answer is impossible to know, but the premise of the question forms the basis of the very first criminal trial of a former president in American history: whether Trump’s scheme to keep Daniels’ claim of a 2006 affair with him under wraps was, in fact, a crime for which the coup-attempting former president should be punished.

While “hush money case” has become the shorthand to describe the first of Trump’s four criminal cases to go to trial, particularly among Trump defenders who wish to diminish it, that is not how it will be described to prospective jurors Monday at the scheduled start of jury selection. Judge Juan Merchan’s first sentence of a 223-word summary describing the case to jurors reads: “The allegations are, in substance, that Donald Trump falsified business records to conceal an agreement with others to unlawfully influence the 2016 presidential election.”

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who brought the 34-count indictment against Trump just over a year ago, will argue that the ledger entries and other business documents Trump created claiming that he was paying lawyer Michael Cohen for “legal services” when in reality he was repaying him for the $130,000 check he delivered to Daniels, were felonies under New York law.

“The core is not money for sex,” Bragg told New York’s public radio affiliate last year. “We would say it’s about conspiring to corrupt a presidential election and then lying in New York business records to cover it up.”

Trump’s campaign did not respond to HuffPost’s queries for this report. He has primarily argued on social media and in his campaign speeches that the case was brought to hurt his efforts to regain the presidency, another piece of the “witch hunt” that he claims the “deep state” is conducting against him.

He repeated those claims Friday during a brief news conference. “It’s not even a crime,” he said. “It’s very unfair that we have this judge who hates Trump.”

It’s unclear precisely how long the trial will last or even how many days it will take to seat a jury, although estimates suggest it could stretch into June.

Merchan, in an April 8 letter to prosecutors and defense lawyers, noted the logistical challenges involved in trying a former president and presumptive major party nominee who travels with a substantial Secret Service detail. “In a case where security concerns are implicated every time anyone enters or exits the courtroom, or mingles around the corridors, moving the entire jury panel is no simple task,” Merchan wrote.

Bragg’s filing accompanying the indictment lays out the plan Trump and his ally David Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer, developed to “catch and kill” stories that could hurt Trump’s presidential campaign. The scheme also involved paying off a doorman at a Trump building, who claimed Trump had a fathered a child outside his marriages, as well as a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, who also claimed she’d had an affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007. Neither of those payments, though, were made by Cohen, and the actual indictment only involves Trump’s reimbursements to him.

Former President Donald Trump attends a hearing at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on Feb. 15 ahead of a trial on charges that he illegally covered up payments made before the 2016 election that were intended to keep porn star Stormy Daniels from speaking out about an alleged affair with Trump.

BRENDAN MCDERMID/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

To what extent Trump’s successful pre-election silencing of Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, played a role in his narrow 2016 win is unclear. Trump lost the national popular vote by 2.9 million ballots but won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by a combined 77,744 votes, which gave him a healthy Electoral College victory.

After watching his poll numbers crater after the Oct. 7, 2016, release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which he bragged that his celebrity allowed him to grab women by the genitals, Trump slowly recovered over the coming weeks as Russia’s spy agencies and their ally, Julian Assange, on a near daily basis released stolen emails designed to hurt Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

A shift back to a discussion of Trump’s attitudes toward women could easily have swayed the relatively small number of voters needed in those three states to have altered the outcome, said Josh Schwerin, a Democratic consultant who worked on Clinton’s campaign that year. “It’s certainly true that the 2016 election was close enough that you can point to just about anything as being enough to swing it one way or the other,” he said.

Some Republicans are unconvinced. “If Trump on tape saying what he liked to do to women didn’t move voting women away from him, their stories certainly wouldn’t,” said Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chair who is now a prominent Trump critic. “Daniels and McDougal would just be two women he paid to grab ’em by their private parts. Sad.”

David Kochel, who worked for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign in the 2016 primaries, said he also doubted that Daniels’ story coming out in the final weeks of the campaign would have crippled Trump. “It was all priced in to his bad-boy, playboy brand,” he said.

Whether it would have cost Trump the election, of course, does not matter in terms of his criminal trial. Prosecutors must only prove that Trump had Cohen make the payment to Daniels for the purpose of influencing the election and that he subsequently created fake business records to disguise the purpose of the reimbursements.

“I think the case is strong as a matter of both evidence and New York law,” said Norm Eisen, a White House lawyer under former President Barack Obama who recently published a book about the New York prosecution. “If Bragg proves that theory of the case, and I think he will, he will establish this was no minor hush-money peccadillo but a serious democracy crime.”

Trump faces three other felony criminal prosecutions ― two of them based on his attempt to remain in power despite having lost reelection in 2020.

A federal indictment could go to trial as early as late August, depending on the timing of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on his claim that he is immune from prosecution. A Georgia state prosecution based on his attempt to overturn his election loss in that state could also start later this year.

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An unrelated second federal prosecution based on his refusal to turn over secret documents he took with him from the White House to his South Florida country club has not yet been set for trial.

And in a separate civil case, a New York jury last year found that Trump had sexually penetrated writer E. Jean Carroll against her will in an incident in the 1990s, finding him liable for sexual abuse. The federal judge in the case later clarified that Trump’s actions were rape in the “common modern parlance.”



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