Trump’s hush money defense in question as criminal trial nears close

Questions are flying about whether former President Trump will put up a defense in his historic hush money criminal trial as the Manhattan district attorney’s office winds down its case-in-chief this week.

The former president’s attorneys, it seems, don’t have any answers, including whether Trump plans to take the stand — something he’s suggested he’d like to do.

Todd Blanche, one of Trump’s defense attorneys, said as of Thursday his team anticipated reaching a decision at some point.

“That’s another decision that we need to think through,” Blanche told the judge.

With the defense not committing to call any witnesses, the trial is barreling toward its end, meaning the jury could begin its deliberations as soon as this coming week.

Criminal defendants like Trump are not required to present their own defense; the government carries the burden of proving them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

But with a felony conviction and possible jail time on the line, any decision Trump makes — including whether to take the stand himself — could have far-reaching consequences. And Trump is well-known for wanting to speak on behalf of himself instead of leaving that up to others.

Prosecutors have called 20 witnesses in an effort to persuade jurors that Trump is guilty of 34 counts of falsifying business records that pertain to reimbursements made to his then fixer, Michael Cohen, who had paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 days before the 2016 election to stay quiet about an alleged affair with Trump, which he denies.

Trump pleaded not guilty, insisting the records are truthful and distancing himself from the alleged scheme.

Cohen, prosecutors’ star and final witness, is expected to conclude his testimony Monday, after which Trump’s attorneys will — or won’t — present the former president’s defense.

If they do call any witnesses, their case is expected to be short, perhaps enabling the trial to barrel toward nearing a close this coming week.

The most significant question remaining is whether Trump himself will take the stand.

After expressing regret for not doing so in a civil trial he lost roughly a year ago, Trump has taken the stand in his two most recent civil trials.

In the early days of the criminal trial, the former president insisted he would do so again in his ongoing hush money case. But in recent days, he has not answered reporters’ shouted questions about whether he will do so. And his lawyers have repeatedly told the judge there is no determination yet.

“And do you have any indication whether your client is going to testify?” Judge Juan Merchan asked Tuesday.

“No,” responded Blanche, Trump’s attorney.

It is unusual for a criminal defendant to take the stand in their own defense, and legal experts generally agree that the strategy is a risky one.

When Trump testified in his civil fraud trial last year, he repeatedly spun off on political tangents drawing admonishments from the judge.

“Overall, Donald Trump rarely responded to the questions asked, and he frequently interjected long, irrelevant speeches on issues far beyond the scope of the trial,” Judge Arthur Engoron, who oversaw Trump’s civil fraud trial, wrote in his February decision. “His refusal to answer the questions directly, or in some cases, at all, severely compromised his credibility.”

Merchan, who is overseeing Trump’s criminal trial, has ruled that Trump’s hush money prosecutors, who cannot force the former president to testify, could cross-examine him about “bad acts” arising from his many recent civil lawsuits.

Other than Trump, the defense has suggested their case-in-chief would only include a few potential witnesses, chiefly among them an expert who would testify about campaign finance law.

The defense has not made a final decision on whether to call Bradley Smith, a former commissioner at the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

Prior to trial, the judge granted prosecutors’ request to limit the scope of his potential testimony, and the defense before leaving court for the week asked for further rulings from the judge to inform their decision.

Smith’s testimony would rebut prosecutors’ broader theory of the case: that Trump sought to influence the 2016 presidential election through his allies’ efforts to stamp out bad press about the then-candidate. The theory is vital to whether jurors convict Trump, as the New Yorkers must determine the former president was acting in furtherance of another crime to find him guilty of the felony business falsification charges he faces.

If they call Smith, prosecutors have indicated they would call as a response expert Adav Noti, formerly associate general counsel at the FEC who now works at the Campaign Legal Center.

If the defense does not call their expert or Trump, however, they have indicated they may briefly call a few other witnesses but still rest by the end of the day Monday.

“I don’t want to make any commitments about the day on Monday, but it’s certainly reasonable to believe that if, aside from Mr. Smith, that the witnesses will be able to get on and off on Monday,” Blanche told the judge last week.

That would spark a rapid end to the trial, with the possibility of the jury being handed the case before heading out for the Memorial Day weekend. It will be a short week, however: The trial will not convene Wednesday or Friday due to juror conflicts.

Then, Trump’s fate will be held in the hands of the 12 New Yorkers on his jury as they deliberate whether to make him the first president in the country’s history convicted of a crime.

Updated at 7:50 a.m. EDT

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