For most casual observers of former President Donald Trump’s debut criminal trial in New York, adult film actress Stormy Daniels is a central figure. But prosecutors widened the aperture on the historic case through a sweeping narrative about election influence that went beyond any single hush-money scheme.

“It was election fraud, pure and simple,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo told jurors on Monday morning, 

All 34 felony counts against the former president charge him with falsifying business records to reimburse Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen for hush-money payments to Daniels. During two fateful phone calls, Trump and Cohen allegedly devised a complicated system of hush money and reimbursements, involving a shell company, alleged tax deceptions, and disguised monthly payments, inflating a $130,000 payoff to more than twice its size: $420,000. 

Colangelo unpacked that system well into his taut opening statement, clocking in at less than one hour. However, the prosecutor laid out a long backstory of the 2016 presidential election before even mentioning Daniels’ name. 

“This case is about a criminal conspiracy and a cover-up,” Colangelo told the jury. “The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election,” he continued. “Then, he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in his New York business records over and over and over again.”

Foregrounding David Pecker, Backgrounding Stormy Daniels

In the prosecutor’s narration, the co-conspirators included Trump, Cohen, and David Pecker, the former CEO of the National Enquirer’s parent company American Media Inc. (AMI). All three figures have been under the glare of prosecutors, in some form, on suspicion of campaign finance violations related to the 2016 presidential election. 

In mid-2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to a number of offenses in the Southern District of New York (SDNY), including violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act. Once Cohen was sentenced later that year, SDNY revealed that they reached a non-prosecution agreement with AMI, obligating the company to ratchet up their internal compliance procedures to conform with federal campaign finance laws. 

That development had been confined to a footnote of political history — until Monday, when it played a central role in the historic prosecution of a U.S. president.

Pecker, who ultimately became the first witness against Trump, himself had not been accused of wrongdoing until prosecutors cast him as the former president’s “co-conspirator” in a three-pronged plot to corrupt the election. 

Under the prosecution’s theory, Pecker agreed that AMI’s chain of tabloids would publish flattering stories about Trump, unflattering stories about his rivals, and generally act as the “eyes and ears” of the former president’s 2016 campaign, all without disclosure to campaign-finance authorities. 

Unpacking “Catch-and-Kill”

The most visible aspect of this alleged conspiracy involved “catch-and-kill” schemes aimed at three targets, starting with a Trump Tower meeting where the trio agreed to pay $30,000 to doorman Dino Sajudin, who peddled a false rumor that Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock.

“The evidence will show that this was a highly unusual deal,” Colangelo said. “Even for tabloid journalism, it was a lot more money than they would usually pay to a source.”

As the trial’s debut witness, Pecker candidly spoke of his onetime media empire’s mercenary brand of newsgathering.

“On the celebrity side of the magazine industry, at least on the tabloid side, we used checkbook journalism, and we paid for stories,” he said. 

AMI caught wind of former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s allegations next, and the Enquirer’s then-editor in chief Dylan Howard described them as a “blockbuster Trump story,” of a sexual relationship that allegedly lasted nearly a year. She would be paid $150,000 to silence her account, and in a seemingly incriminating detail, McDougal and Sajudin would be released from their nondisclosure agreements only after the election, according to the prosecutor.

Colangelo explored the other two payoffs before turning to Daniels, the woman seemingly at the center of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case. Even then, the prosecutor would first unpack one more important piece of context.

The ‘Access Hollywood’ Tape’s ‘Explosive’ Impact

In October 2016, the Washington Post would publish the “Access Hollywood” tape capturing Trump’s infamous “hot mic” moment. Colangelo lifted a transcript of Trump’s comments on the footage, replacing the former president’s boastful bravado with a prosecutor’s cold  recitation. 

“You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful women,” Colangelo said, repeating Trump’s words. “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. When you are a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

Colangelo only had been able to recite the transcript in light of a series of pre-trial rulings by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, who refused to let the jury see the tape itself, finding the footage would unduly prejudice Trump.

As the prosecutor recounted, Trump’s campaign scrambled to mitigate the tape’s “immediate and explosive” impact, as prominent allies withdrew endorsements and condemned the then-candidate’s language. 

“They knew it was damaging not only because Trump bragged about sexual assault,” Colangelo said. “They knew it was damaging not only because the language on the tape was crude and vulgar. The campaign was also worried about the damage the tape would cause precisely because it was on video, seeing and hearing a candidate in his own words, in his own voice, in his own body language, his own gestures has a much greater impact on voters than words on paper.”

Only after this lengthy preamble did Colangelo dive into allegations by Stormy Daniels, whose hush money payments ultimately sparked the criminal charges.  

Stormy’s Lawyer Frets: “What Have We Done?”

Even after finally unpacking Daniels’ story, the prosecution put her account within its broader narration of Trump’s scrambling 2016 presidential campaign. 

“One day after the Access Hollywood tape was released, Dylan Howard […] told David Pecker that another woman had come forward with the claim of a sexual encounter that she had had with the defendant while he was married,” Colangelo said.

The chronology here is crucial, setting into motion a chain of events that would ultimately result in 34 felony charges. 

Only because Pecker had never been reimbursed for the other hush money payments, prosecutors asserted, AMI would not open its checkbook again one last time before Election Day. So two weeks before the election, Trump and Cohen allegedly finalized arrangements during two phone calls, memorialized in records obtained by the prosecution. 

After these calls, Cohen formed his shell company Essential Consultants LLC as the vehicle to funnel $130,000 — money that he obtained from a home equity loan from First Republic Bank — to Keith Davidson, an attorney for Daniels. 

“Cohen made that payment at Donald Trump’s direction and for his benefit, and he did it with a specific goal of influencing the outcome of the election,” Colangelo told jurors. 

The prosecution promised to reveal a blockbuster text message indicating that the effort succeeded: On election night 2016, as Trump edged closer to being declared the winner, Davidson sent Howard a text message: “What have we done?”

Trump Defense’s Theory of the Case

Trump’s lead attorney Todd Blanche denies that his client falsified business records, insisting that the $420,000 paid to Cohen — in monthly increments of $35,000 — were in fact legal expenses for the former president’s erstwhile attorney and fixer.

During the defense opening statement, Blanche asserted that the payment was not a reimbursement at all, only payments for legal services rendered. Interestingly, both the prosecution and the defense offer the same reasoning in making their cases: the $420,000 payment is significantly higher than the hush-money payoff. 

In the prosecution’s view, this is because Cohen charged Trump for the $130,000 Daniels payment and a separate $50,000 expense; doubled it for taxes, to equal $360,000; and then, padded it with a $60,000 end of year bonus. (See Just Security’s prior coverage for more information about the system.)

Colangelo claims that the differential between $130,000 and $420,000 shows just how eager Trump was to cover up the alleged affairs. 

“Now, you will see evidence at trial that Donald Trump was a very frugal businessman,” Colangelo said. “He believed in pinching pennies. He believed in watching every dollar. He believed in negotiating every bill.”

Explaining this seemingly out-of-character exception, Colangelo added: “Donald Trump’s willingness to do so here shows just how important it was to him to hide the true nature of Cohen’s illegal payment to Ms. Daniels and the overall election conspiracy that they had launched in August of 2015.”

Blanche asked the jury to reach a drastically different conclusion.

“Ask yourself: Would a frugal businessman, would a man who pinches pennies repay $130,000 debt to the tune of $420,000?” he asked them.

As to Daniels, both the prosecution and defense appeared inclined to cast her as a smaller player in the case.

“I’m going to say something else about her testimony, and this is important: It doesn’t matter,” Blanche told jurors. “What I mean by that is, I expect you will learn that Ms. Daniels doesn’t have any idea. She doesn’t know anything about the charged 34 counts in this case. She has no idea what Michael Cohen wrote on the invoice. She has no idea how it was booked at Trump Tower. And she has no idea about the checks that are also charged in this indictment.”

If the prosecution’s witness list reflects their priorities, Bragg may be inclined to agree. Pecker, the first man prosecutors put before the jury, returns on Tuesday.

IMAGE: NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 22: Former U.S. President Donald Trump sits at the defendant’s table for his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 22, 2024 in New York City. Trump was charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records last year. (Photo by Angela Weiss – Pool/Getty Images)