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Trump’s New York Criminal Trial Hears First Witness
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Trump’s New York Criminal Trial Hears First Witness

‘It was election fraud, pure and simple.’

Happy Wednesday! Our hats go off to the London marathon runner who correctly identified 21 of 25 wines he blind sampled during the race on Monday. “There was a real trio of bad ‘uns,” he said of the wines.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Senate voted 79-18 on Tuesday to pass the $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific advanced by the House over the weekend—with the legislation receiving more “yea” votes in the Senate than a similar package did in February. The Senate also passed as part of the package a measure that will force ByteDance, the Chinese technology company, to divest TikTok within nine months, under threat of a national ban of the app. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill on Wednesday, and the Department of Defense is reportedly already preparing to send $1 billion worth of weapons—including artillery and air defenses—to Ukraine, with Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder suggesting earlier this week that weapons could arrive in the war-torn country within days.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in China today for a three-day trip. According to a senior State Department official, Blinken will seek to address China’s continued support for Russia, its aggressive activity in the South China Sea, and its manufacturing overproduction. He’s the second Cabinet secretary to visit China this month after Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s visit to the country in early April.
  • A summary filing in special counsel Jack Smith’s case regarding former President Donald Trump’s mishandling of classified documents released on Monday revealed that Walt Nauta—Trump’s valet and co-defendant in the case—was told that, if Trump were reelected, he would receive a presidential pardon in 2024 “even if he gets charged with lying to the FBI.” This revelation came from an FBI interview in November 2022 with a witness identified as “Person 16.” Nauta—whom Smith alleges helped Trump hide classified documents from federal authorities—has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include lying to the FBI, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and corruptly concealing documents or records.
  • David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid and first witness in former president Donald Trump’s New York civil fraud case, testified on Tuesday that he agreed in 2015 to suppress potentially politically damaging stories about Trump in what Manhattan prosecutors argue ultimately amounted to criminal conspiracy to commit election fraud. Meanwhile, in a hearing the same day examining whether Trump breached an April 1 gag order—prohibiting him from commenting on witnesses and jurors in the case—Judge Juan Merchan did not issue a final decision but cautioned Trump attorney Todd Blanche that he was “losing all credibility with the court.”
  • On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced it has agreed to pay a total of $138.7 million to settle 139 claims stemming from sexual abuse allegations against former USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar, including claims that the FBI failed to sufficiently investigate reports of Nassar’s behavior. Nassar is currently serving a de facto life sentence without the possibility of parole for a bevy of felony crimes, including the sexual abuse of hundreds of victims. “These allegations should have been taken seriously from the outset,” said Benjamin C. Mizer, the acting associate attorney general. “While these settlements won’t undo the harm Nassar inflicted, our hope is that they will help give the victims of his crimes some of the critical support they need to continue healing.”
  • In a 3-2 vote on Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) banned the use of noncompete clauses—contractual agreements that generally restrict employees’ ability to leave one company and immediately work for its competitors—deeming the practice an “unfair method of competition.” The FTC estimates that nearly one in five Americans are bound by noncompetes, which the federal agency described as an “often exploitative practice.” Later on Tuesday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—a business association—announced it would sue the FTC to block the rule, saying in a statement it “sets a dangerous precedent for government micromanagement of business and can harm employers, workers, and our economy.”
  • Progressive Rep. Summer Lee of Pennsylvania fended off Democratic primary challenger Bhavini Patel by a 20-point margin on Tuesday after a campaign that centered around Lee’s strong opposition to the war in Gaza. Meanwhile, the November Senate race in the state is now set, with three-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr. squaring off against former hedge fund manager and Bush administration official Dave McCormick, who finished second in the 2022 GOP Senate primary against celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz. Both parties’ Tuesday’s Senate primaries were uncontested.
  • Former Rep. George Santos of New York—who in December became the sixth member ever to be expelled from Congress and currently faces 23 charges of felony fraud—announced on Tuesday that he was ending his independent campaign for New York’s 1st Congressional District. Santos said he chose to end his bid to avoid splitting the vote with incumbent GOP Rep. Nick LaLota thereby handing the seat to Democrats. Santos had represented New York’s 3rd Congressional District—now represented by Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi—but sought to pivot to the state’s more conservative-leaning 1st district before dropping out.

Another Case About Election Interference

Former U.S. President Donald Trump departs the Manhattan Criminal Court on April 23, 2024. (Photo by Yuki Iwamura-Pool/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump departs the Manhattan Criminal Court on April 23, 2024. (Photo by Yuki Iwamura-Pool/Getty Images)

Jury duty is always a drag—taking time out of your busy schedule to sit in a chilly courtroom, being scrutinized for potential bias, and knowing you may end up holding someone’s fate in your hands. 

As unpleasant as the process is on a normal day, imagine showing up for jury duty to find it’s none other than former President Donald Trump sitting behind the defendant’s table ready for the first of potentially a handful of “criminal trials of the century.” 

“I have to be honest,” one potential juror reportedly said during the selection process last week, holding back tears. “I feel so nervous and anxious right now. I’m sorry.” 

“I thought I could do this,” she continued. “But I wouldn’t want someone who feels this way to judge me either.” She was dismissed. 

With jury selection complete, the first criminal trial of a former president is moving ahead at a steady clip; Monday and Tuesday were dedicated to opening statements and the first witness testimony. Prosecutors from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office are fleshing out the one-two punch underpinning their theory of the case: that Trump falsified business records in order to interfere with the 2016 election. Meanwhile, a hearing about Trump’s activity on Truth Social could result in fines for violating the gag order Judge Juan Merchan placed on the former president.

The trial officially kicked off on April 15, and the jury selection process moved quickly. Of the almost 200 potential jurors originally called, roughly half said in their juror questionnaire that they couldn’t be “fair and impartial,” so they got the boot. From there, lawyers for both sides whittled down the group to 12 jurors and six alternates, asking questions to suss out bias for or against Trump, one of the most famous and most divisive people in the world. 

In some cases during jury selection, Trump’s team dug through the potential jurors’ old social media posts. One woman was asked to discuss a post in which she called the former president “a racist, sexist, narcissist.” 

“Oops, that sounds bad,” she sheepishly told one of Trump’s lawyers. She apologized to Trump for the statement and was ultimately excused.

By Friday afternoon, all 12 jurors—seven men and five women—and the six alternates were seated and ready to hear the facts in the highly scrutinized criminal trial. Their identities are supposed to remain a secret outside the confines of the courtroom, with only vague descriptions to identify them. The jury’s foreman is a salesman originally from Ireland, with the others in professions from speech therapist to civil litigator.

But what will those twelve individuals be asked to decide in the coming weeks? As Sarah and Mike ably explained last week in The Collision:

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged Trump in April 2023 with 34 counts of falsifying business records, all stemming from payments Trump made to his then-lawyer Michael Cohen. Trump recorded these payments in business records as legal retainers, but they were in fact reimbursements to Cohen for hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels—a porn star who claims she had an affair with Trump in 2006—and others. Because the statute of limitations for misdemeanor charges related to these payments had run out, Bragg indicted Trump on felony charges—meaning he will also need to prove that Trump made the false entries to cover up another crime.

To secure a conviction, therefore, Bragg will need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump falsely classified the payments to Cohen as a legal retainer because he believed that recording the real reason for the payments could implicate him in possible election or tax crimes.

Crucially, Bragg’s original indictment was vague about the underlying crime that Trump was allegedly trying to cover up—the parlay that turns the alleged misdemeanors into felonies. In its opening statement on Monday, the prosecution explained what those supposed crimes might be. “It was election fraud, pure and simple,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said on Monday. More specifically, he referenced New York state election law 17-152, which makes it a crime to “conspire to promote or prevent the election of any person to a public office by unlawful means.” The “unlawful means,” the prosecution is suggesting, was the alleged falsification of documents.

In his opening statement, Colangelo described a 2015 Trump Tower meeting between Trump, Cohen, and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker that he argued was the origin of a criminal conspiracy to suppress damaging stories about Trump, not just for the sake of his reputation, or that of his family or business, but explicitly in order to win the 2016 election. “The defendant, Donald Trump, orchestrated a criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election,” Colangelo argued Monday. “Then he covered up that criminal conspiracy by lying in his New York business records over and over and over again.”

On two occasions, Pecker paid off people—a doorman at a Trump building and a Playboy model—who claimed to have damaging stories about the then-presidential candidate as part of a three-pronged plan Colangelo said was hatched at the Trump Tower meeting. Pecker would “catch and kill” the unflattering stories, paying off sources and having them sign non-disclosure agreements. Plus, his tabloids would run embarrassing accounts about Trump’s rivals—like the made-up story that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father knew John F. Kennedy’s assassin—and boost favorable stories about Trump.

The only witness to take the stand on Monday and Tuesday, Pecker confirmed that his outlet practiced “checkbook journalism” and testified that he collaborated with Cohen to decide which GOP primary candidate to target next and how to execute the pay-offs.

The third hush-money payment—which Cohen personally made to Daniels and which Trump covered up—closely followed the October release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. The timing, Colangelo argued, made Daniels’ silence about her alleged affair with Trump particularly important to the electoral outcome.

Todd Blanche, Trump’s lawyer, argued the former president was “cloaked in innocence,” and that the prosecution would not be able to prove that Trump had anything to do with generating the “34 pieces of paper” he is accused of falsifying—and therefore that he intended to commit a crime.

In his comments on Monday, Blanche addressed the underlying crime of election fraud that the prosecution alleges Trump committed. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election,” Blanche said. “It’s called democracy.” The act of entering into a non-disclosure agreement, he argued, is not a crime, and Trump was simply trying to protect his personal reputation and his own marriage by suppressing allegations of extramarital affairs. 

Both lawyers also hinted at what’s likely to become a contentious issue during the trial in the coming days: Cohen’s credibility. “Cohen is the star witness in the case—and he’s not the most reliable guy,” Sarah and Mike wrote in last week’s edition of The Collision. “Cohen has admitted to lying in court, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, and evaded taxes for years. The defense will also have endless examples of Cohen lying to the media and public. In short, Cohen is a crook’s crook.”

So where does all of this leave us? Pecker will take the stand again on Thursday (Wednesday is the trial’s off day every week), and the prosecution has signaled it will also call Keith Davidson—the lawyer for both Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal—and eventually Cohen. It’s unclear whether Trump himself plans to take the stand in his own defense, but if he does, Merchan ruled this week that the prosecution can ask him about the other civil trials—for fraud and for defamation against E. Jean Carroll, who claims Trump sexually assaulted her in the 1990s—that he’s lost in the state of New York this year.

But nothing with the former president is ever straightforward. And indeed, Trump and his legal team may have gotten in their own way during a separate hearing on Tuesday, meant to adjudicate allegations that Trump had violated the broad gag order imposed by Merchan that is supposed to keep him from commenting on the jurors, court staff, witnesses, and the families of both the judge and the prosecutor. The prosecution has accused Trump of violating the gag order 10 times in posts on his social media website, Truth Social, while Trump’s legal team argued that his speech was political, and therefore didn’t violate the gag order. But that didn’t seem to satisfy Merchan, who told Blanche, “You’re losing all credibility with the court.” 

“Today’s hearing did not go well for Trump at all,” Gabriel Malor, a Virginia-based appellate lawyer, told TMD. “That said, the penalty will be limited to modest monetary relief and another warning.”

As for Trump himself, he’s mostly kept quiet inside the court he’s required to be in for every day of this trial—perhaps because he appeared to have nodded off on multiple occasions. But on Truth Social, he’s being himself. “I am being accused of Election Interference in a trial being presided over by a Corrupt D.A. and a ridiculously Conflicted Judge, representing people who Rigged and Stole the 2020 Presidential Election, and paid millions of dollars for the Fake and Fully Discredited Russia Dossier,” he wrote on Tuesday. “And they’re after me because a bookkeeper marked down ‘Legal Expense’ in a Ledger when describing Legal Fees paid to a lawyer. What else would you call it? The Biden Thugs call it Falsifying Business Records. THIS FAKE CASE SHOULD BE DROPPED, IMMEDIATELY!”

Worth Your Time

  • John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University, encountered a problem while teaching a music humanities course: His students were unable to sit in silence as the class required because of “infuriated chanting from protestors outside the building.” In the New York Times, McWhorter wrote that “lately that noise has been almost continuous during the day and into the evening, including lusty chanting of ‘From the river to the sea.’ Two students in my class are Israeli; three others to my knowledge are American Jews. I couldn’t see making them sit and listen to this as if it were background music. I thought about what would have happened if protesters were instead chanting anti-Black slogans, or even something like ‘D.E.I. has got to die’… Chants like that would have been condemned as a grave rupture of civilized exchange, heralded as threatening resegregation and branded as a form of violence. I’d wager that most of the student protesters against the Gaza War would view them that way, in fact. Why do so many people think that weekslong campus protests against not just the war in Gaza but Israel’s very existence are nevertheless permissible?”
  • In 1821, British political economist David Ricardo wrote, “If machinery could do all the work that labor now does, there would be no demand for labor.” In Project Syndicate, Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson argued that “the same concern applies today. Algorithms’ takeover of tasks previously performed by workers will not be good news for displaced workers unless they can find well-paid new tasks.” But they contend that to totally reject innovative algorithms, like artificial intelligence (AI), would be a mistake: “Today’s generative AI has huge potential and has already chalked up some impressive achievements, including in scientific research. It could well be used to help workers become more informed, more productive, more independent, and more versatile.” However, “big companies developing and deploying AI overwhelmingly favor automation (replacing people) over augmentation (making people more productive). … Arguably, the most important lesson from [Ricardo’s] life and work is that machines are not necessarily good or bad. Whether they destroy or create jobs depends on how we deploy them, and on who makes those choices.”

Presented Without Comment 

CBS News: Pelosi Says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “Should Resign”

“We recognize Israel’s right to protect itself. We reject the policy and practice of Netanyahu—terrible. What could be worse than what he has done in response? First of all, the exposures. His intelligence person resigned—he should resign. He’s ultimately responsible.”

Also Presented Without Comment

Axios: [Former President Donald] Trump Wins Pennsylvania, but Nikki Haley Wins Over 147,000 Votes

In the Zeitgeist 

Johnny Cash recorded 11 songs in the early 1990s that were never released, but they’re set to be packaged together as an album and published in June. The first single off that album, “Well Alright,” dropped yesterday: 

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Nick traced (🔒) the unexpected and confusing paths of Michaels Cohen and Avenatti. 
  • On the podcasts: Jonah is joined on The Remnant by Jesse Singal to discuss his recent piece for The Dispatch on the U.K.’s Cass Review on gender-transition treatment.
  • On the site: Charlotte interviews family members of hostages still held in Gaza 200 days into the war, Drucker reports from Michigan on Biden’s plan to make up lost ground in the state, and Jonah reflects on Speaker Mike Johnson’s moment of leadership and courage in shepherding foreign aid bills through the dysfunctional House.

Let Us Know

What do you make of releasing an artist’s unfinished music posthumously—like the forthcoming Johnny Cash album and (in part) The Beatles’ recent single?

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.

Peter Gattuso is a reporter for The Morning Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2024, he interned at The Dispatch, National Review, the Cato Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Peter is not helping write TMD, he is probably watching baseball, listening to music on vinyl records, or discussing the Jones Act.