Trump Lawyer Closes Trial by Scorching Michael Cohen

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s final message to New York City jurors was a simple twist on a classic excuse: It’s exactly what it looks like.

Yes, there was a non-disclosure agreement in the closing days of the 2016 election that shut up porn star Stormy Daniels from mouthing off about a supposed sexual affair. And yes, Trump paid the man who cut that deal $35,000 a month for a year in 2017—and even signed those checks from the White House.

But on Tuesday morning, lead defense lawyer Todd Blanche told the jury that the paperwork only shows that the real estate mogul was on the receiving end of an extortion scheme and later paid a lawyer to do his job as “personal attorney to the President of the United States.”

“The reason why you all are here is whether and to what extent President Trump, while he was living in the White House as the leader of the free world, whether he had anything to do with how payments... were booked at the accounting ledger at Trump Tower,” Blanche said. “Absolutely, positively not. The bookings were accurate and there was absolutely no intent to defraud… there was no conspiracy to influence the 2016 election.”

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The defense strategy here is an attempt to stick to the core evidence in the case without looking any further than the 11 invoices from one-time Trump confidant Michael Cohen, 11 checks to pay him, and 12 accounting book entries.

By contrast, prosecutors with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office have spent five weeks building a story around this paperwork, relying on testimony from the porn star, her Beverly Hills celebrity lawyer, Cohen, and employees at the Trump Organization and White House who processed the legal expenses. In their telling, Trump was behind the NDA the entire time, sought to silence the woman in a fit of desperation to save his dying presidential campaign, and slowly paid back Cohen for fronting the money by disguising the reimbursement as ongoing service fees for nonexistent legal work.

However, Trump’s defense lawyer turned that story on its head.

Blanche pointed out how Cohen admitted on the stand that he proudly became the personal lawyer of the top politician in the country in 2017, calling it a more believable explanation for the way Cohen received monthly payments. The alternative version of the story would require believing that Cohen took that high-profile job for free—and got handsomely overpaid for silencing the porn star with $130,000 months earlier.

“That’s a ridiculous story, and I’ll tell you why. The idea that President Trump would agree to pay Michael Cohen $420,000 even though he only owed him $130[k] is absurd,” Blanche said, later putting emphasis on each word. “That! Is! Absurd!”

The 18 jurors listened closely while Blanche spoke from a cherry wood-stained podium, which had been turned in their direction so he could address them directly. Blanche looked at them as he flipped through a thick black binder of notes, with Trump leaning back in his maroon leather chair a few feet behind him.

Most of these jurors—half a dozen of them are alternates in case a few drop out—will decide whether he’ll become the first convicted former U.S. president.

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Nearly an hour into his closing arguments, Blanche shifted their focus to Cohen and stressed that the DA’s entire case relies on the disgraced former lawyer’s testimony. While Cohen claimed on the stand that his invoices were for fake legal work, Blanche pointed to a May 2017 email in which Cohen told the Trump Organization’s then-chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, about working on an “open foundation matter” relating to Trump’s charity. And while Cohen on the stand asserted he had a minimal role in defending Trump from “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos, Blanche pointed to the way Cohen later acknowledged being a lead lawyer in the case.

Blanche got most animated when asking jurors whether they’d believe that Cohen—a millionaire who’d made riches in the cutthroat New York City taxi medallion industry and has earned a reputation for his arrogance and antagonism—would really land the coveted job as the top legal adviser to the commander-in-chief and do it gratis.

“Do you believe that for a second? That after getting stiffed on his bonus in 2016 when he thought he had worked so hard, when he didn’t get paid back the $20,000 he was owed, do you think Mr. Cohen thought, ‘I wanna work for free.’ Is that the man who testified? Or is that a lie?” Blanche said.

When Blanche neared the two-hour mark, Trump turned toward the jury and lifted his right arm on the back of his chair—only to close his eyes for a minute or two at a time. His lips remained slightly puckered as he maintained a pout, clenching his jaw as his face formed a profile with a bright white computer screen in the background.

The glassiness of Blanche’s voice had lulled Trump into a stupor. But the former president perked up and shifted when courtroom loudspeakers replayed audio surreptitiously recorded by Cohen at his former boss’ office. Trump came back to life—to hear the sound of his own voice.

In the final moments of his nearly three-hour speech, however, Blanche stepped on a landmine when he made an emotional plea to jurors—by referencing the potential punishment the former president faces if convicted. Joshua Steinglass, a prosecutor, tried to interject but it was too late.

“You cannot send somebody to prison—”

“Objection!” Steinglass yelled.

“Sustained,” the judge responded.

“—based upon the words of Michael Cohen,” Blanche continued.

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When he was done and jurors were sent out for lunch, prosecutors asked New York County Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan to correct Blanche’s “wholly inappropriate” suggestion, given that Trump does not face mandatory prison time.

Merchan turned to Blanche and demanded an explanation. When Blanche sighed, obviously caught in a trap of his own making, the judge tore into him.

“I think saying that was outrageous, Mr. Blanche. Someone who's been a prosecutor as long as you have… you know that making a comment like that is highly inappropriate,” Merchan said. “It’s hard for me to imagine how that was accidental in any way. See you at two.”

Merchan, who normally maintains a stoic demeanor and occasionally shows his tetchiness with Trump’s delay games, this time looked utterly disappointed. As he got up, the judge slightly shook his head and made straight for the exit without bothering to pick up his usual stack of paperwork.

A minute later, Trump walked out looking jubilant, while Blanche sported a smirk as he held two binders in his left hand and tucked something into the inner left breast pocket of his dark suit.

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