Trump on trial: what will happen in court today?

Ex-president faces 34 charges of falsifying business documents around payment of ‘hush money’ to adult film actor Stormy Daniels

Donald Trump will on Monday become the first president in the history of the United States to face a criminal trial when proceedings begin in Manhattan. He faces 34 charges of falsifying business documents which revolve around the payment of “hush money” to the adult film actor Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. The “hush” in question concerned the details of an affair between Trump and Daniels a decade earlier. The opening day will bring with it the usual carnival of salacious headlines, sensationalism, a cast of the disgraced and the disgraceful, a blaze of media attention and the familiar protests from Trump that the entire case is a Democratic-sponsored construct designed to impede him from his campaign to return to the White House.

The charges, brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, are the culmination of a long-running legal interrogation of Trump by officials in the city where he literally carved his name and built his image. Bragg, one of the many officials who has drawn explicit criticism from Trump, leaned on his record of investigating the former president’s business dealings when he became Manhattan’s first black district attorney in 2021. His predecessor, Cyrus Vance jnr, had considered indicting the former president but decided against. In announcing the charges last April, Bragg, who is in personality a world removed from the publicity and attention this case will generate, downplayed the salacious backstory and focused squarely on presenting the case as a falsification of business records.

“This is the business capital of the world. We regularly do cases involving false business statements. The bedrock – in fact, the basis for business integrity and a well-functioning business marketplace – is true and accurate record-keeping. That’s the charge that’s brought here, falsifying New York State business records.”

All well and good but the extraordinary nature of the business in records could lead to explosive testimony, not least because of the composition of the likely witnesses. Speaking at Mar-a-Lago on Friday, Trump said he was ready to take the stand.

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“Yeah, I would testify, absolutely. It’s a scam. That’s not a trial. That’s a scam. If you read the legal scholars, they say there is not even a case there. That’s election interference by the Biden administration: they actually took one of their top guys and put it into the DA’s office to run it. It’s a shame. You read Jonathan Turley, Andrew McCarthy, you read the legal scholars, every single one of them said the whole thing is a scam. It’s not even a crime.”

Daniels, recently the subject of a sympathetic feature length documentary, is expected to be a star witness as is Michael Cohen, the former attorney to Trump (from 2006 to 2018) who was often labelled as the president’s “fixer”. It was Cohen who arranged the payment of $130,000, in 2016, to keep quiet, a payment sometimes referred to as “go-away” money. Although this was payment was not illegal, district attorney Bragg, in examining the payments to Cohen, found that the monthly retainers paid to Cohen were tantamount to the falsification of business records, and charged each invoice and cheque as a separate charge, leading to the total of 34.

Cohen was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to multiple charges of campaign finance violations, which he claimed he carried out at Trump’s instigation in order to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. He also pleaded guilty to lying to US congressional committees. He was disbarred from practising law in the state of New York, was released after six months due to Covid concerns in the summer of 2020, sued Trump, was counter-sued in a case that was dropped and has characterised his former client as a “fraud” and a “bully”.

That Cohen is a key witness in the case will weaken the prosecution. Trump has repeatedly defied a gag order issued in March by judge Juan Merchan. Loren Merchan, his daughter, works at Authentic Campaigns, whose portfolio includes campaign events and fundraising for several high-profile Democratic candidates, including work for the Biden/Harris campaign in 2020.

“The attacks are relentless because that’s what he does,” Cohen said in an MSNBC interview on Saturday.

“He attacks the judge, he attacks the judge’s daughter, he attacks witnesses, he attacks anyone and everyone thinking that this is a positive strategy. It doesn’t work. So, I’m concerned. And a little apprehensive.”

The Manhattan trial may be the only criminal charges facing Trump to go to trial before the November elections and while a guilty conviction carries a possible jail sentence, many commentators are dubious about the likelihood of a guilty finding.

The veteran law professor, Alan Dershowitz, said at the weekend that while he has never voted for Trump and has no intention of doing so, “I have to tell you after 60 years of practising criminal law I don’t think I have ever seen a weaker case than this New York case. It was a New York misdemeanour turned into a felony by alleging some violation of federal law which the Feds refused to prosecute on under the absurd theory that Bragg is using in this case; Alexander Hamilton could have been put in jail. He paid hush money to prevent an affair with a married woman from coming forward. This is an awful prosecution, and it would have never brought against anybody except in the political context.”

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