Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Live Event/Special

Opening Statements in First Trump Criminal Trial. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 22, 2024 - 09:00   ET



ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: In just minutes, the people of the state of New York versus Donald J. Trump moves to start at the main event opening statements. You're looking at live pictures from downtown New York, the courthouse in Manhattan. Soon the judge will gavel in and seat the jurors for the first ever prosecution of a former United States president.

Minutes ago, we watched Trump walk into court after his motorcade arrived at 100 Centre Street. We expect him to stop before the cameras and talk before heading inside to confront a judge and the jury. Prosecutors will chart a roadmap of what they intend to prove, how they say the former president helmed a scheme to bury the details of a sexual encounter with an adult film actress in the final month of the 2016 campaign.

I'm Anderson Cooper in New York. You're watching CNN's special live coverage of Donald Trump's hush money trial.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jake Tapper in Washington.

Today, a courtroom collision filled with history shattering precedent, and a stark possibility that one of the two major candidates for president this fall will be a convicted criminal. Sometime soon the government and the defense will give two very different narratives about what happened in that closing stretch of the 2016 campaign.

Prosecutors planned to present a mountain of evidence, documents, and witnesses to corroborate it all, alleging that Donald Trump engineered a plan to buy the silence of Stormy Daniels with whom he allegedly had a dalliance, and allegedly cover up what he did by falsifying business records.

Now, the defense plans to paint an altogether different picture, to argue that the prosecution's case is built on puzzle pieces that do not fit together and built around the lies of convicted perjurer Michael Cohen. The former Trump fixer who has sworn to exact revenge on his onetime boss.

Today, we may see a critical prosecution witness named David Peker. Pecker is the tabloid mogul who alerted the Trump orbit that Daniels was shopping her story of a tryst with Trump. That's the first domino in a long chain of events that ended with Trump facing 34 criminal felony counts today. Let's get right back to Anderson live outside the Manhattan courthouse

-- Anderson.

COOPER: Jake, thanks very much.

I'm here with CNN's Paula Reid and CNN's Kaitlan Collins.

I mean, it is a fascinating day here, Paula. What do we expect just in the next couple of hours?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, here's what should happen. We should see the jury enter the courtroom, be sworn in, and then they'll get their mission from the judge. He will charge that, give them instructions on the case, the burden for the prosecution. Then we will get opening statements from both sides. They'll have these dueling interpretations of events seven some odd years ago.

Now when it comes to the prosecution, they're not telling us who is going to do the opening. It also speaks to a lot of the security concerns around this case right now. But they've been trying really hard to re-brand this case that everyone dubbed the hush money case. Instead, trying to reframe it as a case about the rule of law and whether Trump broke it to help his chances in 2016.

Then the defense will have a chance to go. We've learned that their statement will likely be a little on the shorter side. I've been told the themes of their case are going to be, look, there was no crime. Trump is not involved at paperwork at this level. Michael Cohen was working for him doing legal work at the time in question, and since then he is someone who now has a vendetta against Trump and he's a convicted liar.

But I said that's what should happen. Two issues that we might have to deal with at the top of this hearing. The first is whether there's any other issue with the jury. We saw last week one juror decided she couldn't do this. She just wasn't willing to risk -- take the risks that are involved in this kind of work. And then we also saw another juror who are lawyers moved to remove from the case.

So there's a possibility some other jurors may reconsider whether they're really willing to take this on. That'll take time to deal with. And then the judge is expected to issue a decision about what exactly Trump can be cross-examined on. This was a big issue last week. Lawyers are trying to prevent prosecutors from being able to talk to Trump about some of his other civil liability.

COOPER: That's if and when he would actually testify. And that's a big question.

REID: Exactly. And according to my sources, this is something that they are still very much considering. Now, of course, he loves it when we get into the will he or won't he game. But I'm told that he has learned lessons from his participation or lack thereof in the recent civil trials, and he is still seriously considering testifying, which is part of why they had to have this hearing. [09:05:02]

COOPER: Kaitlan, what have you been hearing from the Trump world about it?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: We may hear from him at any moment. I mean, he's just arriving at court. We will be hearing from him throughout the day. That is kind of in the plan that they have hatched over the last several days of what this is going to look like on his behalf before, you know, whether or not we hear from him actually on the witness stand, we will hear from him going inside the courtroom and leaving, which today is obviously going to be a shorter day.

I think a big part of what this is going to look like and what his team has been preparing for is their opening statement, which is going to be pretty short, pretty blunt, but they are trying to also charm and persuade these jurors just like the prosecution is. Trump for his part, you know, his life is about to change when he walked into that courtroom this morning for the next six weeks. We don't know what the outcome of this is going to be.

What we do know that for the next six to eight weeks potentially he is going to be someone who sits in that courtroom who doesn't have a chance to respond in real time in those moments, as he is watching people who were incredibly close to him get up on that witness stand and say things that he disagrees with, that he contradicts, and things that are incredibly personal to have these allegations.

And these are people like Hope Hicks, his former, you know, top aide, and one of his closest confidants, Michael Cohen, his former attorney, David Pecker, who we may hear from today is going to be fascinating. This is someone that Trump has known for decades. He used to publish a magazine called "Trumps Style," and he may be getting on the stand to talk about Trump's direct involvement in this agreement.

COOPER: He could be a critical witness in all of this. David Pecker, who was the head of AMI, American Media Incorporated, basically had a meeting with Donald Trump and Michael Cohen in the beginning of the campaign, essentially saying that he would help Donald Trump get elected.

REID: Yes, I'll be your eyes and ears. And he did help him both to amplify stories that would help him. So stories that weren't great about his opponents and also by suppressing stories that could hurt Trump's chances. Now when it comes to the Stormy Daniels hush money payment that was not made by AMI or David Pecker, but they did help to suppress two other stories. Another alleged affair with Karen McDougal, and then a story by a doorman.

That turned out to be false, alleging that Trump had a child out of wedlock. But these were two stories that Pecker was willing to catch and kill. So buy the rights to --

COOPER: That's what --

REID: Exactly. COOPER: That's the term that was used internally. Catch and kill.

Catch the story and then kill it.

REID: Yes.

COOPER: Pay the person, pay Karen McDougal for the rights to her story, but never actually published that story.

REID: Exactly. And he is such a perfect witness to kick off this trial. He's such a colorful New York character. Like you said, he's known Trump for decades, and he was so loyal to him. He wanted to help him in the election. Of course, AMI has admitted to a campaign finance violation for the Karen McDougal payment and David Pecker had a non- prosecution agreement, but he did help when Michael Cohen also pleaded guilty.

So he's a central character in all of this. Even though he didn't pay Stormy Daniels and facilitate that payment, he tipped Cohen to the fact that she was shopping her story to help them suppress it.

COOPER: And Karen McDougal is not -- that's not part of the charges here, the catch and kill Karen McDougal story, but it is going to be introduced as to try to show a pattern.

REID: Exactly.

COOPER: Of killing unfavorable stories.

COLLINS: Well, and that's going to be the challenge for the prosecutors here. I mean, that is really the heart of all of this, is they have to find a way to more directly link Trump to this payment, to these agreements, to this entire process. And that's why they're going to use those other stories to try to say that it was a pattern and notice how it came, you know, right before the election and in this effort. And that's why David Pecker could be key.

But I think big picture, you know, when you look at what Trump has been saying, is he -- his mindset going into this. He's complaining about the gag order incessantly. I'm told privately the idea that he can't directly attack the judge's family. The prosecutors in this case, he can go after Alvin Bragg, but not other members of the team. That has been something that we'll talk about more tomorrow, but has been a big thing of his.

The other thing, Anderson, there's a lot of security outside the courthouse understandably. We saw what happened last week. It is a former president who is going on trial. Trump has been complaining that his supporters, when there's only a few dozen, it's not a huge group because we've been live outside the courthouse for several weeks now. That they can't come closer to the courthouse because he is viewing this all through the lens of the campaign trail and what that means going into it, and he -- the fact that they are kept cordoned off a bit of a distance so people can get in and out of the courthouse, has been driving him crazy.

COOPER: All right. Kaitlan, Paula will be back here. Jake, let's come back to you in Washington.

TAPPER: Thanks, Anderson.

So obviously a big day and beyond the legalities of it, which I definitely want to dive into as well, are the politics of it. Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president.

Dana Bash, how is he going to handle the fact that he is campaigning at the same time he is a defendant?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Not well, by all accounts. Not happy at all. I was just talking to somebody who was very involved in his political world who said that the way that they're going to structure the strategy is they're going to take their cues from the legal, Trump legal world, meaning what we are going to hear from the Trump attorneys inside the courtroom is going to be echoed rather quickly by his political campaign.


And that's obviously in part just to kind of get the echo chamber out. But it's also because there is frustration in -- that comes from the top, that comes from Donald Trump about this gag order that they were talking about in New York, that we've been talking about for weeks now, because it does limit just on the raw politics of this. It does limit them in their ability to, let's say there's a witness and then they want to put some dirt out on the witness.


BASH: They can't do that because the gag order, and I was just talking to Laura before we were talking on air, the gag order doesn't allow them to do that. And the one thing I will also add is that a source who's familiar with Trump's thinking told me this morning that he is just mad at the world.

TAPPER: Mad at the world.

BASH: That he is in the courtroom and not on the trail.

TRAPPER: And Jamie Gangel, this is a guy who is very used to controlling everything. It must be frustrating for him to not have any control of all these events.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: I think lack of control is going to be the key thing that we watch over the next four, six weeks. The other de the judge told him to sit down. He's not used to people speaking that way to him. The other thing is, Donald Trump is really not used to starting his day at 9:00 or 9:30 in the morning. He famously would not show up to the Oval Office until 11:00 or 11:30. He is going to be having to show up in court, is called, and stay.

The other thing is the jurors are going to be watching him. They're going to be watching every move and I think over time the question is in person, is he bigger than life or is he diminished? One of the potential jurors who was dismissed came out and said to us, you know, he was just some guy.

TRAPPER: Just some guy. Let's dive into the legalities of it all.

Laura Coates, what are you expecting to hear from the prosecution today?

LAURA COATES, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, they've got to hit the ground not just running, but sprinting. A lot of this in the facts have been known to some degree. People know who Stormy Daniels is. They know who Michael Cohen is. They know who David Pecker or at least "National Enquirer" as they know Donald Trump. And so the prosecution is going to have to figure out a way to suggest that this is somehow different, that they -- to lead with their Trump's, so to speak.

That this is not a personal matter between a man trying to hide it from his wife. It was an intentional act trying to defraud people by having falsified business records that from these invoices and whatnot, and prove that there was actual criminal activity here. They cannot rely on a little bit of innuendo or suggestion, or maybe even a dislike for him and the political space. They have to prove their case they've got do it pretty quickly to head off or be the opening from the defense which will surely try to show this as a political win.

TRAPPER: Elie Honig, what about the defense? What are you expecting to hear from them?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: So, first of all, they're going to argue they have to prove their case. The prosecution bears the burden of proof, not just probably, not just more likely, but beyond a reasonable doubt. And the defense is going to argue they cannot do that. The defense is going to argue this is an ancient, decrepit, sort of dragged up out-of-the-depths paperwork case from eight years ago, and they're going to say it's built on the back of a proven, admitted liar, Michael Cohen.

Michael Cohen will be a central focus of both opening statements. But especially the defense. They're going to say this is a guy who doesn't just hate Donald Trump, doesn't just spew venom at Donald Trump all day, he does it for a living. That's his job right now, is to hate Donald Trump. So he is as biased as a witness can get, the defense will say, and they will say this is a guy who has lied to Congress, to courts, to the IRS, to DOJ, and he's such a liar that he piles his lies on top of lies because he pled guilty to all those lies.

And now he says he was lying when he pled guilty to those lies. So, folks on the jury, you cannot convict another human being and potentially take away his liberty based on the word of Michael Cohen. That's a little bit of a preview of what I think we're going to see from the defense.

TRAPPER: Karen, what are you going to be watching for today in opening statements?

KAREN FRIEDMAN AGNIFILO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So the prosecution has to lay out their case. They're not allowed to make arguments, but by law they're required to lay out the elements of their case and what they intend to prove. But you're going to see them sort of teeter on a little bit of argument to make some of the points and counteract some of the points that Elie just made because they go first, and so they're going to anticipate what the defense is going to say in opening and they're going to want to take the sting out of any of the arguments that Elie just talked about.

TRAPPER: Very interesting.

With opening statements in Donald Trump's first criminal trial just minutes away, we're going to get a judge's perspective from someone who's known the judge presiding over this case more than a decade. That's ahead.



COOPER: Want to give you a live look right now inside the hallway that leads to the room where opening statements will happen shortly.

You're watching CNN's special live coverage of Donald Trump's hush money trial. It is day five in the proceedings against the former president of the United States.

CNN chief legal analyst Laura Coates and CNN senior legal analyst Elie Honig are standing by the magic wall to preview what we can expect -- Laura.

COATES: Well, there's big news just now. The prosecuting team just walked into the room. Of course, Elie, they have Alvin Bragg, who is the Manhattan D.A. sitting right behind his team in the courtroom, but he's not the one actually trying this case.


HONIG: Right. Alvin Bragg is the district attorney. He'll not be actually doing the arguments in front of the jury. But as we're seeing right now, he will likely be there throughout the trial to support his team.

Here is the team. These are the three lawyers who are going to be leading the prosecution. Joshua Steinglass, Matthew Colangelo, Susan Hoffinger. They're all experienced veterans, defense lawyers in some cases, experienced prosecutors. We don't know exactly which one of these three is going to deliver today's opening, but it will be one of them.

COATES: But throughout the course of trial, we just hear from each and every one likely. Maybe different parts that Colangelo has been a big figure, though, in terms of the Trump campaign, right?

HONIG: Yes, he has been the focus of Donald Trump's unfounded claims that this is somehow Joe Biden's doing because Matthew Colangelo was at the Justice Department before he came over to the D.A. No connection whatsoever. COATES: Keep in mind, this case is not about just an alleged affair

between Stormy Daniels which of course Trump has denied. This is about, at its core, they have to prove election interference.

HONIG: So listen for this theme today when the prosecution gives its opening. They're going to say this is not about a paperwork crime. This is about an effort by Donald Trump to hide those hush money payments from the American public in the closing days of the 2016 election and therefore to interfere with the 2016 election itself. That will be a key theme when the prosecution opens in a few moments.

Something else I expect them to do as prosecutors, they have to front Michael Cohen. They have --

COATES: We all know this figure.

HONIG: We all know Michael Cohen, the fixer, the attorney. He will be a key witness. They will tell the jury you're going to hear from Michael Cohen. And one thing that the prosecutors are going to do is they're going to have to, as we say, pull the sting. They're going to have to say, look, folks, you've heard -- you will hear that he's pled guilty to perjury and other crimes, but the prosecution will argue now he's come clean. Now you can bank on him.

We also expect the prosecution to look forward to who its other key witnesses will be to introduce those to the jury, including David Pecker, who we expect to be the first witness today.

COATES: Just to be clear, I'm pointing out here Karen McDougal, who is somebody who was allegedly paid $150,000 by David Pecker.

HONIG: Right.

COATES: But she -- her case was not a criminal charge foundation. It's about the Stormy Daniels payment that's an issue here.

HONIG: Exactly right. And the evidence that McDougal will be introduced by the prosecutors to show that this is a pattern. One more key theme we'll hear from the prosecutors. They will say that everything you hear of importance from Michael Cohen or everyone else is corroborated. Prosecutors love that word. Corroboration.

It is backed up by documents including, but not limited to the checks that Donald Trump signed that were used to reimburse Michael Cohen for those hush money payments. They're going to say, you don't want to take any of these witnesses at their word, look at the documents.

COATES: And in fact, it will only aid the credibility rehabilitation of someone like Michael Cohen, if it's really in front of them, not having to trust just him.

HONIG: Exactly.

COATES: How about the defense, though? They're going to have some pretty strong arguments, at least in the opening to try to undermine whatever case they have. HONIG: Yes. So the defense will open second. Todd Blanche, former

federal prosecutor, colleagues with Alvin Bragg. I worked at the Southern District of New York with both of them. Todd Blanche is expected to give the opening for Donald Trump. The first thing that I expect him to say is the burden of proof is theirs. That's on the other side of the courtroom.

We the defense don't have to prove a thing. They have to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest standard known to our legal system.

COATES: And by the way, that's important especially because this will determine whether or not Trump will actually testify or the defense want to put on any case because if they have not made the burden of proof, they may not put on any case.

HONIG: Yes. Key points are going to, of course, attack Michael Cohen, say he's a proven liar. They're going to say the crime here, the falsification, that was done by the accountant, Allen Weisselberg. That was done inside the Trump Org and finally they're going to say Donald Trump's motive here in paying Stormy Daniels was not to impact the election, but was to protect himself and his family.

COATES: That's going to be a really key point we want to get back to as well. I want to go back to Anderson in New York.

COOPER: Laura, Elie, thanks so much.

I want to bring in Judge Jill Konviser. She's a recently retired judge. She's known Judge Juan Merchan for more than 15 years.

You have listened to countless opening arguments. What's the most important thing for opening arguments for both these sides today?

JILL KONVISER, FORMER NEW YORK STATE SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: Well, interestingly, an opening statement is really the first time jurors get a chance to understand the meat and potatoes of a case. And so it is important and there's an adage that people remember best that with which they hear first and last. So an opening statement really does provide a framework, a roadmap, for what the evidence will show.

The people do go first. They'd give the first opening statement because they have the burden and it is up to them --

COOPER: Let's just listen in to the former president.

DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT, 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: -- election interference, everybody knows it. I'm here instead of being able to be in Pennsylvania and Georgia and lots of other places, campaigning, and it's very unfair. Fortunately, the poll numbers are very good. They've been going up because people understand what's going on. This is a witch hunt and it's a shame. And it comes out of Washington.

It's in coordination with Washington, everything, including the D.A.'s office. It's in coordination with Washington. I just want people to understand that. This is done for purposes of hurting the opponent of the worst president in the history of our country. Second of all, we have another trial going on right now.


That's Letitia James. She campaigned at the fact that I will get Trump. I'm going to get Trump. And it has to do with a bond of $175 million. First of all, she doesn't want me to participate with financial companies in New York. So we have a company, I guess based in California, it's a bonding company. And I put up $175 million in case but she says the bonding company is not good. She doesn't like the bonding company because she doesn't know if the collateral is good.

And I put up $175 billion in cash. She's questioning the bonding company. Well, when you put up cash and the number is 175, which is what we're supposed to be putting up, but I give it in cash, she shouldn't be complaining about the bonding company. The bonding company would be good for it because I put up the money. And I have plenty of money to put up, but nobody is going to be putting up with this.

Nobody is going to be listening or coming to New York anymore. Businesses are going to be fleeing because people are treated so badly. It's got to be the most unfriendly place to do business. And that's why businesses are leaving and people are leaving as migrants come in and take over our parks and our schools, and everything else. So on the Letitia James case, she's the worst attorney general in the country, by the way.

On Letitia -- and she keeps a lot of business out of New York and businesses that are here are leaving, and that leaves jobs and a lot of revenue. Somebody is going to step in, the governor, somebody has to step in and do something because your business is aflame. But on Letitia James, the money was put up. It's $175 million and I don't think she's complaining about me for the first time ever. She's complaining about the company but why would she be doing that when I put up the money?

So I just want you to know that. That's taking place in front of an extremely crazed judge and it's the most overturned judge in New York state. He was overturned four or five times on that case alone. That's -- you know who it is, not to mention names. I want to be nice. I want to be very nice. But I think like that, I think like what's going on right here should never be happening. It's a very, very sad day in America. I can tell you that. Thank you very much.


COOPER: The former president speaking before going into the courtroom.

Kaitlan, obviously we've heard these kind of statements before.

COLLINS: Well, and just to -- for everyone who's, you know, drinking their morning coffee and wondering what he's talking about there at the end, a judge, Judge Engoron, a separate judge, is this morning hearing and assessing the credibility of that bond that Trump put up in his civil fraud case.

COOPER: Right.

COLLINS: That's what he clearly is very preoccupied with there, what he was talking about. The other argument, though, is the one that his team is kind of coalesced around when they say that they are going to be making for the next six to eight weeks. And if Trump is convicted in this case continuing to do it on the campaign trail, which is alleging that President Biden is in charge and coordinating this entire investigation, and is the reason Donald Trump is in a courthouse on criminal trial right now.

Obviously, none of that is true. When all of this was coming to light, the facts of what Donald Trump, David Pecker or Michael Cohen had done and talked about with these payments, Joe Biden was in Delaware, he had just left the White House, and so he was obviously not involved in this. This is a case that was brought here in Manhattan. Trump was indicted by a jury here, a grand jury here, that heard the evidence here.

And now it's going to be a jury of 12 people that will decide his ultimate fate here. But politically, they believe that's going to be, you know, their best argument. Even though it's not true, it's going to be what he says.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, the idea that this is directed is ludicrous. This is often referred to as a zombie case. This is a case that has been around for a while. It just sort of, I mean, it just took a long time. It would kind of go away and then Alvin Bragg would come back to it.

COLLINS: Two different districts -- before Alvin Bragg was even the district attorney here in Manhattan. Cyrus Vance was the Manhattan district attorney here that was dealing with that. I mean, this was a case that they were questioning how to bring it, what it would look like. The question of whether the civil fraud case would be brought as a criminal case.


COLLINS: Those are things that have been around for a long time. And there were questions, I was covering the White House in 2016, 2017, whether or not this was an illegal campaign contribution with these payments back then.

COOPER: Judge Konviser, we were talking about opening statements and I know after a lot of trials, you would interview the juries that in your cases. How important do they think the opening statement is? Is that really what registers?

KONVISER: I don't know the precise answer to that because I don't think we discussed opening statements often with them, but I do know that that with which is said first is often very important because it is the first time they get anything significant about the case other than just simple rhetoric. And I think the opening statement for the people here will be their weaknesses which they have to approach and turn them into strengths by saying, you don't have to like Michael Cohen, we're not asking you to take him to dinner.

We're asking you to understand why he's telling you the truth today, and they will then go through each and every witness and they will very painstakingly point out why Michael Cohen has been corroborated by other pieces of evidence and other testimony in the case.

COOPER: Let's talk about the judge, Judge Merchan. You've known him for it for a long time. I'm wondering what do you make of how --