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What charges does Trump face in historic criminal trial?

Opening statements are set to take place in Donald Trump’s criminal trial, the first ever of a former US president, on charges of falsifying business records to conceal hush money paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election.

Mr Trump, the Republican candidate challenging Democratic President Joe Biden in the 5 November US election, has pleaded not guilty.

Here is an explanation of the charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and Mr Trump’s possible defences.

What is Donald Trump accused of?

Mr Bragg’s office last year charged Mr Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up a $130,000 (€122,000) payment that Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen made to Ms Daniels, in the waning days of the 2016 campaign for her silence about a sexual encounter she says she had with Mr Trump a decade earlier.

Prosecutors have said that was part of a broader “catch-and-kill” scheme to suppress negative news stories about Mr Trump before the 2016 election in which Mr Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Mr Cohen has also said he and Mr Trump discussed a $150,000 (€141,000) payment made by American Media, publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid, to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to keep quiet about an affair she says she had with Mr Trump.

The tabloid never published a story.

Mr Trump denies both sexual relationships and has called the case apolitically motivated “witch hunt”.

He has admitted to reimbursing Mr Cohen for his payment to Ms Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

What laws would that violate?

According to prosecutors, Mr Trump disguised his 2017 reimbursement checks to Mr Cohen for the payment to Ms Daniels as retainer fees for legal services in records maintained by his New York-based family real estate company, the Trump Organization.

Each of the 34 counts stem from a check, ledger entry or invoice from Mr Trump’s reimbursement to Mr Cohen.

It is against New York state law to make a false entry in a company’s records.

While falsification of business records on its own is a misdemeanor, it is considered a felony punishable by up to four years in prison if it is done to conceal or further other crimes.

In this case, Mr Bragg said those other crimes include alleged election law violations and tax law violations.

Federal law in 2016 capped individual contributions to campaigns at $2,700 (€2,535), and New York state law makes it a misdemeanor to conspire to promote a candidacy by “unlawful means.”

Mr Bragg said Mr Trump’s 11 checks to Mr Cohen in 2017 totaled $420,000 (€394,000).

That included reimbursements for the payment to Ms Daniels and $50,000 (€47,000) for other expenses Mr Cohen incurred while working on Mr Trump’s campaign, as well as $180,000 (€169,000) to account for taxes Mr Cohen would have had to pay for falsely reporting the money as income rather than a reimbursement, according to prosecutors.

The checks also included a $60,000 (€56,000) bonus for Mr Cohen’s work for the Trump Organization, prosecutors said.

Stormy Daniels being photographed in New York last month

What could Donald Trump’s defence be?

Mr Trump may argue that Mr Cohen acted on his own when paying Ms Daniels.

He may also argue that the purpose of silencing Ms Daniels and Ms McDougal was to spare him and his family the embarrassment of public attention to alleged extramarital affairs, not to help his campaign.

He may also try to undercut Mr Cohen’s credibility as a witness, including by pointing out that he has admitted to perjuring himself before the US Congress.

Mr Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal charges of causing an unlawful campaign contribution and making an excessive campaign contribution tied to the hush money scheme.

The US Attorney’s office in Manhattan has not charged Mr Trump, who it referred to in its charging document against Mr Cohen as “Individual-1,” with any crime.

In an interview with Reuters in December 2018, Mr Trump said the payment to Ms Daniels “wasn’t a campaign contribution” and “there was no violation based on what we did”.

How could Mr Bragg overcome Mr Trump’s arguments?

While Mr Cohen’s perjury conviction could provide fertile ground for Mr Trump’s lawyers, Mr Cohen has already been sentenced and served time.

That could blunt any attempt by Mr Trump to argue that Mr Cohen is falsely implicating him to try to win a lenient sentence, a common argument criminal defendants make against cooperating witnesses.

Mr Cohen also recorded a conversation he and Mr Trump had about the payment to Ms McDougal.

Prosecutors have said the two of them met with former AMI chief executive David Pecker to plot the “catch-and-kill” scheme.

Testimony from Mr Pecker and Mr Cohen’ s recording, if played for the jury, could undermine Mr Trump’s arguments.

American Media reached a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in 2018, after admitting it worked with Mr Trump’s campaign to make the payment to Ms McDougal.

What would the consequences be if Mr Trump is convicted?

Felony falsification of business records carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison.

However, others convicted of that offense alone have been sentenced to less than one year.

Any sentence would be determined by the judge in the case, Justice Juan Merchan, based on a range of factors.

Mr Trump would almost certainly appeal any conviction.


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