Prosecutors at Donald Trump's hush money trial zero in on the details

NEW YORK (AP) — The first week of testimony at Donald Trump‘s hush money trial was the scene-setter for jurors: Manhattan prosecutors portrayed what they say was an illegal scheme to influence the 2016 presidential campaign by burying negative stories. Now prosecutors are working on filling in the details of how they believe Trump and his allies pulled it off.

Court resumes Tuesday with Gary Farro, a banker who helped Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen open accounts, including one that Cohen used to buy the silence of porn performer Stormy Daniels. She alleged a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump, which he denies.

For his part, the former president and presumptive Republican nominee has been campaigning in his off-hours, but is required to be in court when it is in session, four days a week.

Jurors so far have heard from two other witnesses. Trump’s former longtime executive assistant, Rhona Graff, recounted that she recalled once seeing Daniels at Trump’s office suite in Trump Tower and figured the performer was a potential contestant for one of Trump’s “Apprentice”-brand shows. Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker laid out how he agreed to serve as the Trump campaign’s “eyes and ears” by helping to squelch unflattering rumors and claims about Trump and women.

Through detailed testimony on email exchanges, business transactions and bank accounts, prosecutors are forming the foundation of their argument that Trump is guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with the hush money payments. The prosecution is leading up to crucial testimony from Cohen himself, who went to federal prison after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations and other crimes. Trump has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty.

It’s not clear when Cohen will take the stand; the trial is expected to go on another month or more. And with every moment Trump is in court as the first of his four criminal trials plays out, he’s growing increasingly frustrated while the November election moves ever closer.

“Our country’s going to hell and we sit here day after day after day, which is their plan, because they think they might be able to eke out an election,” Trump declared last week in the courthouse hallway.

Also this week, Judge Juan M. Merchan may decide on prosecutors’ request to fine Trump for what they say were violations of a gag order that bars him from making public statements about witnesses, jurors and some others connected to the case. The judge also has set a hearing Thursday on another batch of alleged gag order violations.

Prosecutors used Pecker, Trump’s longtime friend, to detail a “catch and kill” arrangement in which he collected seamy stories about the candidate so the National Enquirer or Trump’s associates could buy and bury the claims. Pecker described how he paid $180,000 to scoop up and sit on stories from a doorman and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. He didn’t involve himself in the Daniels payout, he said. He testified for parts of four days.

Trump says all the stories were false. His attorneys used cross-examination to suggest Trump was really engaged in an effort to protect his name and his family — not to influence the outcome of the presidential election.

Farro first took the stand Friday. While a senior managing director at First Republic Bank, he was assigned to work with Trump’s lawyer for about three years, in part because of his “ability to handle individuals who may be a little challenging,” Farro said, adding that he didn’t find Cohen difficult.

Farro detailed to jurors the process of helping Cohen create accounts for two limited liability companies — corporate-speak for a business account that protects the person behind the account from liability, debt and other issues. Farro testified that Cohen indicated the companies, Resolution Consultants LLC and Essential Consultants LLC, would be involved in real estate consulting.

Prosecutors showed jurors emails in which Cohen describes the opening of the Resolution Consultants account as an “important matter.”

Cohen acknowledged when he pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2018 that it had been formed to send money to American Media, Inc., the Enquirer publisher. It was meant as a payback for their purchase of McDougal’s story. But the deal never went through.

Farro said that since the account was never funded, it was never technically opened. Instead, Cohen pivoted to starting up the Essential Consultants account, which he later used to pay Daniels $130,000.

When asked whether Cohen seemed anxious to get the bank accounts set up, Farro testified: “Every time Michael Cohen spoke to me, he gave a sense of urgency.”

Farro told the 12-person panel that the bank’s policy prohibited doing business with entities tied to “adult entertainment,” including pornography and strip clubs. Trump’s lawyers have not yet had a chance to cross-examine Farro.

___ Long reported from Washington.

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