Closing Arguments in Trump’s Hush-Money Trial Were All About Michael Cohen

New York prosecutors and Donald Trump’s defense team engaged in a verbal tug-of-war over Michael Cohen’s testimony during their closing arguments on Tuesday.

The former president’s former fixer was the subject of the majority of both summations, with both sides freely taking jabs at the other as the defense attempted to paint Cohen as an unreliable witness, while prosecutors reminded jurors it was Trump, not Cohen, on trial.

“The question is not whether you like Cohen,” Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass said during his closing arguments. “It’s whether he has useful reliable information to give you about what went down in this case and the truth is he was in the best position to know because he was the defendant’s right hand.”

“He knew about the conspiracy to influence the election and the false business records created to hide that conspiracy,” Steinglass continued. “The defendant set in motion a chain of events that set about the creation of the false business records.”

The DA’s office is trying Trump for a felony conviction for using the alleged falsified business records to “conceal” another crime: attempting to influence the election. Steinglass told jurors of course “parts of [Stormy Daniels’] testimony are cringeworthy because that’s the kind of testimony that you would expect people to remember.” That’s why, he argued, the business records were falsified. “Although the sex happened in 2006, the payoff didn’t take place until October 17, 2016, two weeks before the election. That’s because the defendant’s primary concern was the election, not his family.”

“We’ll never know if this effort to hoodwink the American voter made a difference in the 2016 election, but that’s not something we need to prove,” Steinglass said. “The reimbursements to Cohen were cloaked in the conspiracy to promote the election, whether or not that conspiracy actually succeeded in tipping the scale.”

Trump’s defense team took every opportunity possible to take a jab at Cohen in what was the longest day of the trial thus far. The defense worked for the bulk of three hours to discredit Cohen, a convicted perjurer, arguing he lied to the jury in Trump’s first criminal trial.

Todd Blanche, Trump’s lead lawyer, opened his summation by thanking the jurors for their efforts to remain open-minded and attentive throughout the trial, something the defendant has proven incapable to do himself. He then leveled a litany of attacks against the prosecution’s star witness, alleging he is only looking for personal gain in this trial. “Cohen had an ax to grind because he did not appreciate what President Trump did and did not do for him after President Trump became President of the United States,” Blanche said.

Though both closing arguments keyed on Cohen, the demeanors of the two attorneys stood in contrast. Blanche grew flustered whenever the prosecution would raise an objection, and at times — as he had multiple times during Cohen’s testimony — raised his voice a few decibels whenever he became slightly excited in branding Cohen a liar. Steinglass, however, remained even-keeled as he made his case, even cracking jokes with the jurors at Blanche’s expense. “Although their arguments didn’t make sense, they were passionate,” he said at one point.

Prosecutors laid out a clear timeline of events, starting with Trump’s relationship with AMI – the parent company of the National Enquirer, the publication at the heart of a “catch and kill” scheme aimed at stopping negative stories about Trump from going public during the 2016 election — and running through Cohen’s testimony.

The defense didn’t seem as well-prepared, presenting a slide deck of 10 reasons to maintain reasonable doubt, only for the numbers to jump from three to five back to four, and once again to go from seven to nine back to eight then 10. At some point, the murmurs of people following along to Blanche’s slide deck drowned out Blanche’s own explanation of his slide deck.

Among the 10 reasons, Blanche argued, were that Cohen was the creator of the invoices, not Trump; that Trump was busy serving as the leader of the free world and couldn’t probe into every invoice he was asked to sign off on; that there was no intent proven to conceal another crime because AMI would have run or not run the three alleged accusers’ stories, and that Cohen is the “human embodiment of reasonable doubt.”

Tuesday marked the first time Blanche or other members of Trump’s legal team spent a significant amount of time walking through each of the 34 business records Trump is charged with falsifying. Blanche argued they were not fraudulent to begin with, claiming they were for a retainer agreement between Trump and Cohen for his legal services rendered in 2017. Cohen testified that he decided to work for free for Trump in order to showcase his access to the then-president.

“What the government has done for the past five weeks is ask you to believe the man who testified two weeks ago, Michael Cohen,” Blanche said. “To believe he was to work for free. Do you believe that for a second? That after getting stiffed on his bonus in 2016 when he worked so hard when he didn’t get paid back the $20,000 he was owed [for paying an online polling company], do you think that Michael Cohen thought ‘I’m going to work for free?’”

Steinglass fought back against this argument, saying Cohen worked for free since he “spent more time testifying for this trial than he did doing legal work for Donald Trump in 2017,” adding he was paid on average $42,000 an hour for his legal work in 2017. “He did well for himself,” Steinglass offered, explaining Cohen worked for free for the president knowing he was being paid handsomely through his various consulting gigs for his access to Trump. “He made more money than he would in any government job, and don’t I know that,” Steinglass said, endearing himself to the jurors and drawing laughs from the crowd.

Steinglass pointed out that though the defense asked the jurors to reject any testimony by Cohen that was damaging to Trump, the defense at times used his testimony to their benefit while arguing that it discredited other witness testimony.

“We didn’t choose Michael Cohen. The defendant chose Michael Cohen,” Steinglass said. “The defendant chose Michael Cohen to be his fixer because he was willing to lie and cheat on Trump’s behalf. Trump chose Cohen for the same qualities that his attorneys now urge you to reject his testimony.”

“We didn’t pick him up at the witness store,” Steinglass added. “Michael Cohen is understandably angry that today he’s the only one who paid a price for his role in this conspiracy. The defendant up until now has escaped justice.”

Steinglass reminded jurors that even if they don’t believe Cohen’s testimony, there were plenty of other witnesses that had no reason to lie and offered “testimony that is damning even if they have no reason to implicate the defendant.” He referenced Hope Hicks, Rhona Graf, and Madeline Westerhout – Trump’s campaign press secretary, his assistant and scheduler for 34 years, and his Oval Office Chief of Staff, respectively – as such witnesses who were favorable to Trump. “If anything,” he argued, some of them “skewed their testimony to help the defendant.”

Blanche scrutinized various parts of Cohen’s testimony, arguing he lied to the jurors and was “caught red-handed” during cross-examination. He also pointed to testimony given by AMI CEO David Pecker, who recalled when he had a phone call with Cohen to discuss potentially buying former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s life rights. Cohen allegedly responded that Trump would not buy stories. While on the stand, Cohen recalled responding he would take care of it.

Another point of contention came from a recording Cohen made of Trump discussing details of the hush money payment, which was cut off by a phone call. Cohen testified that he took the call, but Blanche showed phone records from Cohen’s phone showing the call was forwarded to voicemail. “It was a lie,” Blanche shouted, going through every instance he believed was false in Cohen’s testimony. “He admitted to being a felon on the stand, he was never prosecuted. That’s all fine but what should matter to you is the lies he said when he took the oath and gave those lies to you guys.”

“I don’t know how many lies it takes to reject Mr. Cohen’s testimony, big or small, but that was a lie,” Blanche added. “He is lying simply to protect Michael Cohen and no one else.”

The key to the defense, as Blanche laid it out on Tuesday, is that Cohen is a liar and can’t be trusted. He called the witness “literally like the MVP of liars,” arguing that he lied to his wife and family about the loan he took to allegedly pay off Daniels on behalf of Trump. “You guys heard of the term ‘GOAT’?” Blanche asked jurors in a wildly erratic manner as his voice escalated into a higher pitch. He took some time to refer to Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods as being the greatest of all time, before tying it back to his summations. “Michael Cohen is the GLOAT. He’s the Greatest Liar of All Time.”

Steinglass argued no matter what the jurors believe of Cohen, it’s the 34 documents of allegedly falsified business records that prove Trump conspired to hide the reimbursement from coming to light. “These documents are so damning that you always have to laugh that the defense argued this wasn’t evidence,” he said, arguing that just because the Trump Organization filed a 1099 tax liability form to allegedly hide the reimbursement to Cohen, it was still the “preparation of documents by unlawful means that the defendant was willing to engage in to conceal their election conspiracy.”

“Doesn’t that seem a little circular to you?” Steinglass asked jurors. “But those documents don’t lie, and they don’t forget.”

Perhaps the most damning document, Steinglass ventured, was the December 1, 2017 invoice sent at 9:11AM. “How do you rack up $35,000 of retainer expenses in 11 minutes?” the ADA asked.

Trump’s behavior was also noticeably different during summations than at other times during the trial. He seemed to be much more attentive as he stood more upright, used his arms to scratch his eyebrows, and stared at the jury, his lawyer, and the prosecutor at the podium.

He also had more family members attend Tuesday’s closing arguments than at any other time during his trial — although some had left before the afternoon break. His entourage included Jason Miller, Boris Epshteyn, Alina Habba, Susie Wiles, and family members Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Lara Trump, and, for the first time, Tiffany Trump, son-in-law Michael Boulos, and commentator Deroy Murdock. Noticeably absent was his wife Melania.

The extra people in attendance seem to have called for a bigger food delivery. Four Secret Service officers were spotted outside the courthouse carrying bags filled with McDonald’s during the lunch break. One of them audibly sighed when reporters began taking photos of the officers.

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