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Trump hush money trial: what we’ve learned so far

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By Andy Sullivan, Luc Cohen and Jack Queen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Former President Donald Trump is on trial in New York on criminal charges of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 presidential election.

Legal experts view the case as the least consequential of the four criminal prosecutions Trump faces, but it may be the only one to go to trial before the Republican’s Nov. 5 election rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden.

The trial is not in session on Wednesday. It is expected to resume on Thursday with further testimony from former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker.

Here is what we have learned so far:

JUDGE IS SKEPTICAL OF TRUMP’S FREE SPEECH CLAIMS

Justice Juan Merchan has imposed a gag order meant to prohibit Trump from criticizing witnesses and some court officials. Trump has called expected witnesses “scumbags” and has cited Merchan’s daughter, who has worked for Democratic politicians, to argue that he is not getting a fair trial.

Merchan has shown little patience for the defense’s argument that Trump is simply defending himself from political attacks.

On Tuesday, Merchan told defense lawyer Todd Blanche that he had no evidence or case law to back up that claim. 

“You’re presented nothing,” he said. “I have to tell you right now, you’re losing all credibility with the court.”

TRUMP BEMOANS LACK OF SUPPORTERS

Trump is used to being greeted by huge crowds of boisterous supporters at his campaign rallies and as he travels for his four criminal cases, particularly in Florida. On Monday, he called on them to turn out for peaceful demonstrations at courthouses across the country, but few were on hand when he arrived at the downtown Manhattan courthouse. 

“We have more police presence than anyone’s ever seen, for blocks you can’t get near this courthouse,” Trump said outside the courtroom on Tuesday.

Police have erected barricades around the courthouse, but nearby streets and plazas are open to the public — including the square where a man set himself on fire last Friday. The courthouse itself remains open to the public as well, according to spokesperson Al Baker.

PROSECUTORS: ELECTION FRAUD, NOT SEX SCANDAL

The criminal charges are based on paperwork. Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records for labeling $420,000 in payments to his personal lawyer Michael Cohen as legal fees; prosecutors say he was actually reimbursing Cohen for paying $130,000 to buy the silence of Daniels.

But prosecutors are trying to convince the jury that the conduct at issue is much broader.

In an opening statement on Monday, prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said Cohen’s hush money payment to Daniels amounted to an illegal campaign expenditure used to hide important information from voters. “It was election fraud, pure and simple,” he said.

Prosecutors need to prove that the paperwork at issue was covering up other criminal behavior in order to qualify as a felony that could, in theory, lead to a prison sentence.

COHEN’S CREDIBILITY

Cohen has cooperated with the prosecution and is expected to be a star witness in the case. However, his credibility is certain to be an issue. He has admitted to lying in the past to protect Trump and served a prison sentence after pleading guilty to federal campaign-finance charges stemming from his payment to Daniels.

In his opening statement on Monday, Blanche made clear he will try to discredit Cohen. 

“He has a goal – an obsession – with getting Trump,” Blanche said. “I submit to you that he cannot be trusted.”

Prosecutors are aware of this potential hole in their case as well. Colangelo said on Monday that Cohen’s testimony would buttressed by phone records, text messages and other documentary evidence.

TRUMP’S TABLOID FRIENDS

Trump was a staple character in New York and national tabloid newspapers for decades before he entered politics, and one of his oldest allies is dishing about their relationship on the witness stand.

Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker testified on Tuesday that he and Trump traded tips about celebrities and discussed the idea of a magazine called “Trump Style.” 

He said he agreed in August 2015 to serve as Trump’s “eyes and ears” and watch out for rumors or stories that could damage his presidential bid. That policy led the magazine to pay two people who were peddling stories about Trump’s sexual behavior, he said — a practice known as “catch and kill” that prevented them from talking to other outlets.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Jack Queen in New York and Andy Sullivan in Washington; additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio)

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