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Donald Trump

Trump's hush money trial reveals his sordid, cynical manipulations behind the scenes

The first week of Donald Trump's criminal trial demonstrated that there is still a lot the public can learn as the evidence reveals the machinations of the man who was and may again be president.

Michael Warren
The Dispatch

How much do we really understand about how Donald Trump operates behind the scenes? The former president’s ongoing criminal trial may give us new insight into how he and the people around him deal with political crises in the moment − in this case, during the final months of the 2016 election.

Even before Trump’s descent down the Trump Tower escalator in 2015, he had for decades been a tabloid mainstay who became a household name as much for his business and personal dramas as his successes. So much of Trump’s activity is public, narrated in real time by Trump himself to give us a warped account of what is going on as we’re learning about it.

And his political career has created an oversaturated market of Trump coverage, with countless tell-all books and reported insider accounts of how Trump’s campaign, his White House and his post-presidency political apparatus really work. The veracity and utility of these accounts vary, and many are plainly colored by the biases of the sources or narrators.

Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower to attend his trail Friday in New York.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s evidence may be defensible as far as a jury is concerned. But that evidence likely will go a long way to telling in detail − with real-time text messages and even a voice recording of Trump − a seamy story of payoffs to mistresses in an agreement with a tabloid publisher. And all of it will be told in the context of a criminal trial, with witnesses testifying under oath.

National Enquirer helped to kill stories unfavorable to Trump

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo, in his opening statement last Monday, discussed the arrangement between Trump and his then-lawyer Michael Cohen and the publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, as a “conspiracy” designed to help Trump avoid embarrassing stories coming out about him before the 2016 election. 

Pecker has already testified that the “catch-and-kill” agreement with Cohen, in which the Enquirer would buy the rights to a damaging story related to Trump and not publish it, was forged in a 2015 meeting at Trump Tower after Trump launched his presidential campaign that June. In exchange, Cohen would feed the Enquirer negative, salacious stories about Trump’s Republican rivals, according to Pecker. On the stand Tuesday, Pecker said he told Trump at this meeting that he would be his “eyes and ears.”

“If I hear anything negative about yourself, or if I hear anything about women selling stories, I would notify Michael Cohen, as I did over the last several years,” Pecker recalled telling Trump that August.

David Pecker's testimony in Trump trial:Trump, a porn star and the National Enquirer. Can politics get any seedier than this?

Colangelo told the jurors to expect to hear about the negotiations by the Enquirer to buy the rights for the story of an alleged affair with Trump from the woman herself, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, in the summer of 2016. Cohen’s frequent communication with Pecker about the state of those negotiations will make it into evidence.

“You are going to see the flurry of text messages, the barrage of phone calls around those conversations and around that meeting,” the prosecutor said during his opening argument.

Colangelo said prosecutors will share in court an audio recording made by Cohen of his September 2016 conversation with Trump planning the creation of a shell company to pay American Media Inc., the parent of the Enquirer, to catch and kill McDougal’s story.

The arrangement never came to fruition after Pecker got “cold feet” but matches Trump’s approach when it came to the payoff at the center of this trial, the one to Stormy Daniels, the prosecutor said.

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Text message is key evidence about election scheme

One of the more intriguing pieces of evidence Colangelo previewed in his opening statement is a text message the prosecution will use to argue that all involved in the scheme knew it was giving an assist to Trump’s electoral chances. The text, from the lawyer for Daniels (who also represented McDougal) to Enquirer Editor-in-Chief Dylan Howard, was sent on the night of the 2016 election once it became clear Trump might actually win.

What have we done?” reads the message − a visceral reaction from players of a noisome game who are seeing the consequences of their actions.

Again, the legal consequences for this sort of real-time insight into Trump’s operation might not matter when it comes to convincing a jury that the former president is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of falsifying business records. And it remains untested whether voters in a general election can and will be moved by learning more unsavory aspects of a man whose unsavory character is well-known and baked into their perception of him.

Nonetheless, what the first week of Trump’s trial demonstrated is that there is still a lot the public can learn as the evidence reveals the machinations of the man who was and may again be president.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch, where this piece was first published. He previously was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard.

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