Why Trump criminal trial is about more than hush money

UniqueThis 11 Apr 15

It’s often described as “the hush money case.”

But former President Donald Trump would not be facing an unprecedented criminal trial – the first ever to involve a past and possibly future chief executive of the United States – if all he had done was pay porn star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about their alleged affair. Paying hush money on its own isn’t generally illegal.

The so-called hush money case has been billed as one of the less important lawsuits facing former President Donald Trump. But it’s the one that is underway – and it goes beyond payments over an alleged affair.

What Mr. Trump instead has been charged with is orchestrating a cover-up to hide payments via fake invoices, checks, and ledgers – all to ensure that Ms. Daniels’ story did not become public and affect votes.

“The allegations are, in substance, that Donald Trump falsified business records to conceal an agreement with others to unlawfully influence the 2016 presidential election,” reads the first sentence of Judge Juan Merchan’s description of the case for potential jurors.

Thus the unprecedented trial, which began Monday in a Manhattan courtroom, promises to be both more sweeping and factually drier than its “hush money” description might suggest. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has charged Mr. Trump with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. The former president has pleaded not guilty and denied the allegations, as he has in other criminal cases against him.

It’s often described as “the hush money case.”

But former President Donald Trump would not be facing an unprecedented criminal trial – the first ever to involve a past and possibly future chief executive of the United States – if all he had done was pay porn star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about their alleged affair. Paying hush money on its own isn’t generally illegal.

What Mr. Trump instead has been charged with is orchestrating a cover-up to hide those payments via fake invoices, checks, and ledgers – all to ensure that Ms. Daniels’ story did not become public and affect votes.

The so-called hush money case has been billed as one of the less important lawsuits facing former President Donald Trump. But it’s the one that is underway – and it goes beyond payments over an alleged affair.

“The allegations are, in substance, that Donald Trump falsified business records to conceal an agreement with others to unlawfully influence the 2016 presidential election,” reads the first sentence of Judge Juan Merchan’s description of the case for potential jurors.

Thus the unprecedented trial, which began Monday in a Manhattan courtroom, promises to be both more sweeping and factually drier than its “hush money” description might suggest. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has charged Mr. Trump with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. The former president has pleaded not guilty and denied the allegations, as he has in all the criminal cases against him.

“It’s a complex case and I think there hasn’t been enough attention on just how complex it’s going to be for the prosecution to prove,” says Paul Collins, professor of legal studies and political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Delays in other trials

So far, the most notable thing about the New York election interference trial may be that it has begun. Mr. Trump and his lawyers tried everything they could to push back the start date, filing motion after motion to try to get Judge Merchan off the case and generally slow down pre-trial progress.

Similar delay tactics have been more successful in the three other criminal cases Mr. Trump faces: the federal case on retention of classified documents, the federal case on allegations of interference in the 2020 election, and the Georgia state case on election interference.

At one point, the Manhattan trial seemed set to be the final one in that series, chronologically. But delays in the schedules of the others have now made it the first – and possibly the only – criminal case the former president will undergo prior to the November election.

Initial proceedings Monday were quiet as the prosecution and defense teams discussed what evidence will be allowed and other points of law with Judge Merchan. They were sleepy enough that Mr. Trump’s head drooped and he appeared to briefly fall asleep, according to New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump stand outside a Manhattan court on April 15, 2024, as his first criminal trial gets underway.

The atmosphere became more charged when, after lunch, the first group of potential jurors entered the courtroom and the first criminal proceedings against a former U.S. president officially began.

Judge Merchan welcomed them, pointed out Mr. Trump, and described the nature of the upcoming trial, according to reports from the courtroom. 

“The people are served by whatever verdict” the jury decides, the presiding judge said.

Over the next two weeks or so, the defense and prosecution will pick, choose, or strike potential jurors as they try to assemble a jury to their liking. Manhattan is a blue district where many potential jurors may not be politically amenable to Mr. Trump – but the former president only needs one committed juror to prevent a guilty verdict, which must be unanimous.

Events before Trump was president

Of all the criminal cases Mr. Trump faces, the Manhattan trial deals with the earliest events. Its allegations involve actions Mr. Trump took prior to his 2016 election, while the others cover actions he made while president, or an ex-president. In that sense, its proceedings may be something of a blast from the past – particularly when Mr. Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen testifies for the prosecution, as he’s currently scheduled to do.

Mr. Cohen was at the center of the payment scheme that funneled $130,000 to Ms. Daniels, according to prosecutors. He has said he took out a home equity line of credit and paid Ms. Daniels in October, 2016, to keep her from discussing a sexual relationship she said she had with Mr. Trump in 2006.

Mr. Trump, who married his third wife, Melania Trump, in 2005, has denied having sex with Ms. Daniels.

Mr. Cohen also alleges that Mr. Trump agreed to pay him back $420,000 for his efforts, in $35,000 monthly installments. That sum included a bonus for him and the costs of arranging for some online polls to skew in Mr. Trump’s favor.

Mr. Trump made these payments via checks from the Trump Organization, noted as “legal services.” The number of checks, ledgers, and other business documents falsified in this effort is what accounts for the number of charges now pending against Mr. Trump.

Prosecutors thus will not have to prove that Mr. Trump had a physical encounter with Ms. Daniels to win their case. They will instead focus on proving that the former president broke the law in the methods he employed to cover up her account, and that he and his associates were motivated to do so by worries that the story would sway voters in November, 2016.

Among the other notable people who might appear as witnesses in the case, read out to prospective jurors by Judge Merchan, were Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, Jared Kushner, and Melania Trump. Not all will end up being called, but their names alone give a sense of the atmosphere that could develop around the trial.

The prosecution will rely heavily on a paper trail of documentary evidence in the effort to prove their allegations of financial chicanery. Still, “it’s going to be almost a circus in terms of the potential witnesses in this case, this cast of characters,” says Professor Collins. “We’re talking porn stars, Playboy models, convicted liars.”