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How a hush-money scandal surrounding a porn star led to the first criminal trial against Trump

NEW YORK (AP) — It was the kind of tawdry story Donald Trump would have enjoyed in politics: a porn actress claiming to have had sex.

But on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, Trump feared the story — which he says is false — would cost him votes. So, prosecutors say, he arranged a payment to Stormy Daniels to keep quiet.

Now, after years of fits and starts before an indictment last year, Trump will go on trial Monday in New York on state charges related to the sex scandal he and his aides tried to cover up.

Barring a last-minute delay, this will be the first of Trump’s four criminal cases to go to trial. It will be an unprecedented event in American history: the first criminal trial of a former president.

It wasn’t always clear that the hush money allegations would even lead to charges — let alone be the first to go to trial. It is perhaps the least dangerous of Trump’s charges, with others involving government secrets and threats to democracy.

Yet it’s almost certain to be the most salacious, with expected testimony about alleged marital infidelity, a supermarket tabloid’s complicity in a cover-up, and payoffs orchestrated by a former Trump loyalist who now counts himself among the ex- president calculates.

Many details of the case have been public since 2018, when federal prosecutors charged Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen with campaign finance crimes in connection with a scheme to bury not only Daniels’ claims but other potentially damaging stories from Trump’s playboy past.

They later accused Trump of directing Cohen’s efforts, obliquely identifying him in the lawsuits as “Individual-1.” Justice Department policy prohibits charging a sitting president with a crime, and nothing came of it.

In the years that followed, the tantalizing story of sex, politics and cover-up largely disappeared from the headlines — overshadowed by an investigation into Russian election interference, Trump’s two impeachments and allegations that he plotted to overturn his 2020 election and secret documents had hoarded after he left office.

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Former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. investigated the circumstances of a $130,000 payout Cohen made to Daniels and declined to take the politically explosive step of filing charges against Trump.

The district attorney’s office was so unsure about the hush money case that it became known among prosecutors as the “zombie case.” They revisited it and then abandoned it as they pursued Trump on multiple fronts over the past five years: Twice going to the Supreme Court to obtain his tax records and prosecuting his company and a top executive for tax fraud.

Vance’s successor, Alvin Bragg, a Democrat who took office in January 2022, saw the hush money case differently.

The grand jury convened in January 2023. She heard from Cohen, now an outspoken critic of his ex-boss, and other witnesses, including the former publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid, who helped Trump by buying and suppressing some negative stories. practice known as ‘catch-and-kill’.

The grand jury voted to indict on March 30, 2023, on allegations that Trump falsified his company’s internal records to cover up the true nature of payments made to Cohen to compensate him for his work, covering up potentially embarrassing stories. The charges are felonies punishable by up to four years in prison, although there is no guarantee a conviction will result in prison time.

Trump denies the allegations and says prosecutors are engaged in “election interference” and a “witch hunt.” He has pleaded not guilty.

In a lawsuit, Bragg’s office portrayed the prosecution as a new case of Trump’s election interference, accusing the Republican of orchestrating an “elaborate and corrupt criminal scheme to conceal damaging information from the voting public” and “impairing the integrity of undermine the 2016 presidential elections. ”

In the charging paperwork, prosecutors detailed a multi-part scheme dating to the early days of Trump’s 2016 campaign to suppress stories alleging he had had extramarital sexual encounters.

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Before the Daniels payment, prosecutors said, Cohen arranged for the National Enquirer to pay $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claimed she had a months-long affair with Trump. The tabloid also paid $30,000 to a Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have a story about a child he claimed Trump had out of wedlock.

Trump, reeling from the October surprise of the never-before-seen 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape in which he bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, then ordered Cohen to arrange payment to Daniels, who fussed to come forward with her claims that she had a sexual encounter during a 2006 celebrity golf outing in Lake Tahoe, California, according to the complaint.

Trump’s arraignment, five days after the indictment, was a spectacle that attracted hordes of news media, supporters and protesters. His trial will take place in the same courtroom – and in the same cauldron.

After the indictment against Trump in New York, others quickly followed suit.

Within 70 days, special counsel Jack Smith accused Trump in Florida of keeping classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate. Fifty-four days after that, Smith accused Trump in Washington, DC, of ​​attempting to undermine the 2020 election in the lead-up to the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Two weeks later, Atlanta District Attorney Fani Willis charged Trump with racketeering and other charges in a similar election subversion case.

Although the case has moved quickly in New York, it appears increasingly unlikely that Trump’s other criminal cases will go to trial before the November election.

The Atlanta case has been delayed by allegations of improper conduct against the top prosecutor, the Washington case by an appeal to the Supreme Court over a legally untested immunity issue, and the Florida prosecution by a slew of unresolved motions.

“Partly it’s just that there are fewer of those practical obstacles to moving the case forward, and maybe in some ways this is a simpler case,” said Alex Reinert, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. City.

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Trump has also repeatedly tried to delay the trial in New York. His lawyers were rebuffed three times this week as they tried to get a state appeals court to delay the case.

In the allegations of large payments to suppress an election-year sex story, the case has some cautionary parallels with the Justice Department’s failed prosecution of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who was charged with campaign finance crimes in connection with the secret nearly $1 million. provided by two wealthy donors who helped hide his pregnant mistress during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries.

Defense lawyers argued that the money was intended to conceal the affair from his cancer-stricken wife, not to boost his election chances. Edwards was ultimately acquitted on one charge, while a jury deadlocked on five other counts.

Jeremy Saland, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who now works as a criminal defense attorney, said the size of the case makes Bragg believe he has a more winnable case against Trump.

“He has to go into the courtroom believing he has the goods,” Saland said. “Otherwise, it could be catastrophic for America’s psyche — for a former president to be prosecuted in a case that ultimately falls flat on its face and even if it isn’t true, seems like a sham.”

But he said if the allegations are proven, they would still amount to “significant misconduct by someone who was vying to become the leader of the free world at the time.” For those who say, “Come on, it’s just hush money,” he said, he believed “we are holding our elected officials to a higher standard and subjecting them to more scrutiny, and rightly so.”

__ Tucker reported from Washington.

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