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Trump Defense Rests With Verdict Anyone’s Guess

Trump Defense Rests With Verdict Anyone’s Guess
Michael Cohen on May 14. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

Donald Trump’s lawyers rested their defense case in the hush-money trial on Monday without calling the former president to the witness stand.

Trump’s team only called two witnesses, including a laywer who was fiercely criticized by the judge. Closing arguments are scheduled for next week.

Prosecutors spent four weeks presenting evidence in their case. The final government witness, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, left the stand after a withering cross-examination that spanned three days. Trump attorney Todd Blanche was effective in undermining Cohen’s credibility, though that was expected and the case has never hinged entirely on what Cohen had to say.

A trove of emails, text messages and call logs were shown to jurors to support claims that Trump falsified business records to hide a payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. Extensive testimony that her story was seen as a threat to Trump’s White House bid was delivered to show the payoff helped his campaign and thus broke election laws.

“They fulfilled their promise about what the case would look like and how serious it was as an offense of New York laws,” said former federal prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers. “You could see a situation where we get this far in a trial and they haven’t delivered on the evidence or witnesses, but that hasn’t happened.”

After prosecutors rested their case Monday, Trump’s team asked Judge Juan Merchan to dismiss the case. Blanche argued prosecutors had failed to prove that Trump conspired to illegally influence the 2016 election.

Blanche focused his argument on Cohen, saying the proof was “irrefutable” that he was a serial liar, and that the judge should toss his testimony altogether. But Merchan, who hasn’t ruled on the motion yet, questioned Blanche’s assertion about Cohen.

“You said his lies are ‘irrefutable,’” Merchan said to Blanche. “You think he’s going to fool 12 New Yorkers into believing this lie?”

Trump, speaking to reporters before the trial got underway Tuesday, said the case should be dismissed.

“Any other judge would have thrown this case out,” Trump said outside the courtroom. “I think that Juan Merchan would do himself and do the state and city a great service by doing what everybody knows should be done.”

Closing arguments won’t take place until May 28, later than initially planned, with deliberations starting after that. The trial is off Wednesday and Friday.

The trial is nearing its conclusion as Trump faces three other prosecutions, including two over his attempt to overturn the result of the 2020 election he lost to Joe Biden. Trump claims all of the cases are part of a “witch hunt” against him as he campaigns to return to the White House in the November election.

Methodically Pieced Together

In the hush-money case, brought last year by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, prosecutors methodically pieced together every stage of the alleged scheme from multiple angles, starting with a 2015 Trump Tower meeting where the plan was hatched.

Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker said he met with Trump and Cohen to discuss how he could use his tabloid to help Trump win the White House. Pecker testified that he vowed to identify negative stories about Trump’s conduct with women so he could buy the stories and then not publish them.

Pecker told jurors he went on to pay $30,000 to a doorman who claimed to know Trump had a child with a mistress, and $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to keep her from going public about her affair with Trump. But when Pecker learned about Daniels, he told the jury he resisted pressure by Cohen to buy her story.

‘Not a Bank’

“I said, ‘I am not purchasing the story,”’ Pecker said. “I am not going to be involved with a porn star. I am not a bank,” and after “paying out the doorman and paying out Karen McDougal, we’re not paying anymore.”

Pecker’s refusal ultimately forced Cohen to personally pay $130,000 to Daniels. Trump’s reimbursement to Cohen, in monthly installments throughout 2017, are at the center of the case. Trump’s business records falsely say the checks were for legal services Cohen didn’t actually provide, Bragg says.

Hope Hicks, Trump’s former campaign press secretary, gave a first-hand account of how the Daniels story was seen as an existential threat to Trump’s campaign on the eve of the election. She said Trump was less bothered when the story eventually came out in 2018 because he’d already won, bolstering Bragg’s charge that the payouts were intended to help Trump win the election.

“In Mr. Trump’s opinion, it was better to have the story come out and be dealing with it now than to have that story come out before the election,” Hicks said in testimony that ended in tears.

Star Witness

Cohen, the government’s star witness, confirmed for jurors that he personally paid Daniels after Trump said he’d pay him back. Cohen also said he knowingly sent Trump false invoices under a nonexistent “retainer” as part of the agreed plan.

Blanche, Trump’s defense lawyer, picked apart Cohen’s testimony to reveal inconsistencies, and pointed the jury to his past lies, for which he pleaded guilty to perjury.

After the prosecution rested, Blanche asked the judge to issue a verdict in Trump’s favor instead of sending the case to the jury, arguing that no evidence had been presented showing Trump had any intent to falsify business records. Blanche said the evidence showed Cohen did plenty of legal work for Trump in 2017, suggesting the reimbursement checks were for real work and not for hush money. The judge said he’d rule later.

Cohen is the only witness who testified that Trump specifically knew about the bogus repayment plan, which makes it a “risky case” for Bragg because that one detail comes from a source who may lack credibility, said associate professor Jeffrey Cohen at Boston College Law School.

Even so, the professor said multiple witnesses undercut Trump’s suggestion that he only paid the hush money to Daniels to protect his wife from being hurt by news of the alleged affair.

“While he might have had that motivation, it is clear through Hope Hicks’ testimony, and now Michael Cohen’s testimony, that he was trying to affect the election by limiting the damage such a story could inflict on his campaign,” the professor said.

“I think the jury could believe that Trump had both motivations in mind, but if he had any motivation to defraud the election laws, the element is proved.”

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