Is Trump’s Trial Really About ‘Hush Money’? - The World News

Is Trump’s Trial Really About ‘Hush Money’?

As former President Donald Trump’s first criminal trial begins, there is one battle taking place in a Manhattan courtroom, where he faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

But there is another fight taking place in the court of public opinion, which concerns a much more basic question: What should this trial even be called?

Many media outlets — including The New York Times — have used “hush-money trial” as a shorthand for the proceedings. It’s a nod to the fact that Trump is accused of directing a payoff, and then falsifying business records, to cover up a potential sex scandal involving a porn star.

Alvin Bragg, the district attorney in Manhattan, has argued that the case is about something much bigger: that the payment, made to Stormy Daniels, was part of an effort to hide information from voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

“It’s an election interference case,” he said in an interview on NY1 in January.

Trump, who has always understood the power of catchy shorthand, is trying to label the case the “Biden trial,” falsely claiming that the charges have been orchestrated by the president to influence the 2024 election.

Disagreement over the most basic facts is a fixture of American politics, particularly when Trump is involved. He has described the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, as a beautiful day. He wrongly says the 2020 election was stolen. So it is not surprising that he has tried to reframe his trial as interference in the 2024 election — even as he tries to wield it to his benefit by using it to grab attention in New York and solicit funds across the country.

Crucially, the judge, Juan Merchan, seems to echo Bragg’s framing of the case — and it is his interpretation that could matter most.

“The allegations are in substance, that Donald Trump falsified business records to conceal an agreement with others to unlawfully influence the 2016 presidential election,” Merchan wrote in a court filing, outlining how he plans to explain the case to jurors.

Last year, when Bragg first announced he was indicting Trump, the case seemed legalistic and complex.

Trump’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, had made a $130,000 payment to Daniels to buy her silence about a sexual encounter she said she had with Trump, who denies the encounter. Trump, Bragg said, had disguised records relating to the payments he made to Cohen to reimburse him.

“True and accurate business records are important everywhere,” Bragg said when he detailed the charges. That’s not the sexiest way to describe the case, which instead became known as the hush-money trial.

In that appearance, Bragg never used the exact phrase “hush money.” He argued that the bookkeeping violations were made to cover up at least one of three different crimes, including the campaign finance violations for which Cohen was convicted in 2018.

“That payment,” Bragg said at the time, “was to hide damaging information from the voting public.”

Bragg and his team sprinkled the idea of influencing the election throughout key documents in the case, and he brought it up in his public interviews.

“The case is not — the core of it’s not — money for sex,” he said in a radio interview on WNYC in late December. “We would say it’s about conspiring to corrupt a presidential election and then lying in New York business records to cover it up.”

It is a somewhat novel theory that has been the subject of ping-ponging opinion pieces from legal experts, but was validated by a federal judge when Trump’s lawyers tried to move the case to federal court.

Trump’s lawyers have worked hard to tamp down any suggestion that the hush-money payment was intended to influence the 2016 election. Rather, they say, he just wanted to save himself from public embarrassment.

“Attempts by a candidate to keep certain matters personal are neither inappropriate nor illegal,” they wrote in one filing.

Publicly, though, Trump and his allies have used a different tactic. Trump has taken to inaccurately calling it the “Biden trial,” even though President Biden’s administration has nothing to do with the case. The case against Cohen was prosecuted by federal prosecutors during Trump’s term; the Department of Justice has never brought charges against Trump himself in this case.

“Bragg is stepping in for what the D.O.J. didn’t do,” said Jed Handelsman Shugerman, a law professor who has been critical of Bragg’s case. But for Trump to call the case the “Biden trial,” he said, is to ignore the distance federal prosecutors have deliberately kept from this case.

Still, Trump is pressing his baseless claim that the trial is part of a plot by Democrats to influence the 2024 election. In one filing, his lawyers said the case was depriving the public of its right to see Trump campaign.

It is an “I’m rubber, you’re glue” strategy that evokes the way Trump laid claim to the concept of “fake news.” It is also baseless and somewhat absurd, experts say.

Calling the prosecution of a political candidate election interference “would allow anyone to frustrate any kind of prosecution of wrongdoing by simply declaring, ‘I’m running for office,’” said Alberto Gonzales, a Republican who served as attorney general during the administration of President George W. Bush. “To me, it’s silly.”

Dan Richman, a former federal prosecutor and a professor of law at Columbia, said, “Having been impeached twice for efforts to interfere with elections and now having his hush-money payment also framed that way, Trump seems to think his base enjoys the playground turnaround of accusing others of doing what one is charged with doing.”

I asked Ben Protess, Maggie Haberman and Jonah Bromwich, some of my colleagues covering the trial, how they prefer to refer to the case. They prefer clearer terms that tell more of the story. Trump, they told me, is more accurately being accused of a “sex scandal cover-up,” or of “falsifying records to cover up a sex scandal that threatened to derail his 2016 campaign.”

And then there is a group that prefers not to refer to the case at all. That would be President Biden and his aides, who are seeking to create a contrast with Trump without the impression that they are trying to benefit from his legal travails.

But Biden’s campaign hasn’t completely resisted dipping into shorthand of its own. On Monday, campaign officials emailed reporters a news release ostensibly about abortion rights that contained several conspicuous words. It said that Trump’s strategy on abortion won’t “payoff” and said Trump’s campaign was “fast asleep” on the issue — just as he seemed to be at one point in the courtroom on Monday.

Last week, we looked at Speaker Mike Johnson’s delicate dance with Trump. Today, my colleague Annie Karni explains how he needs to tread carefully with Democrats, too.

Speaker Mike Johnson is trying to push aid to Ukraine through the House over his own party’s objections. For that, he’ll need the Democrats.

If House Democrats were to provide the crucial votes for the aid, it would be the second time in two years that Republican leaders have had to turn to the minority party to rescue them from their own recalcitrant right-wing colleagues.

Given Republicans’ opposition, Johnson will need Democrats’ support on the aid for Kyiv itself. But before he even gets to that, he will need their votes on a procedural motion, known as a rule, to bring the legislation to the floor, something the minority party almost never backs in the House.

That puts Democrats once again in a strange but strong position, wielding substantial influence.

The dynamic also increases the likelihood that Johnson will need Democrats again — to save his precarious speakership, now under threat from two members of his party, Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. They are enraged at his strategy for sending aid to Ukraine and every day appear to be edging closer to calling a vote to oust him from his post.

Read the full story here.

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