Trump, prosecutors gear up for hush money closing arguments

Former President Trump and Manhattan prosecutors are gearing up to make their final pitch to a jury before beginning deliberations over whether to convict Trump for a hush money scheme that led to charges of falsifying business records in New York.

Both sides will deliver their closing arguments Tuesday, attempting to weave together testimony from 22 witnesses into a narrative they each believe will persuade the 12 New Yorkers in their favor.

Judge Juan Merchan, who oversees the trial, has warned jurors that closings could extend into a second day.

“In a case like this, which is a rather long case, summations will not be quick,” Merchan told them.

The jurors will return to the courtroom a full week after witness testimony concluded. Merchan reluctantly excused jurors early last week until after the Memorial Day holiday, lamenting to the lawyers that he had never given such a long break.

“Unfortunately, the calendar is what it is,” the judge remarked.

When the trial does reconvene Tuesday morning, New York state law prescribes that Trump’s lawyers will deliver their closing argument first.

Trump attorney Todd Blanche previously told the jury that they would be left with “plenty” of reasonable doubt at the end of the trial and swiftly acquit the former president on all charges.

“He’s cloaked in innocence,” Blanche told the jury. “And that cloak of innocence does not leave President Trump today. It doesn’t leave him at any day during this trial. And it won’t leave him when you all deliberate. You will find that he is not guilty.”

Many legal experts doubt all 12 New Yorkers would unanimously agree to acquit Trump, suggesting the defense will instead be inclined to hope for a lone holdout who could create a hung jury, which would end with Merchan declaring a mistrial.

“If I were advising defense counsel, I would say don’t go for an acquittal,” said John Coffee, a Columbia Law School professor who’s closely followed the case.

“You can talk about it, but really emphasize on getting a hung jury, making a speech to each juror that it is your duty, regardless of what others tell you, to decide for yourself,” he continued.

To do so, much of the defense’s strategy has relied on attacking Michael Cohen, prosecutors’ star witness who made the hush money payment at the center of the case, portraying Trump’s former fixer as a serial liar.

Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records that accuse him of covering up Cohen’s $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels by disguising reimbursements to Cohen as a monthly retainer fee. Trump pleaded not guilty and denies any wrongdoing.

Cohen arguably provided the most damning testimony against Trump of any witness, saying the former president was informed about the hush money arrangement and the repayment scheme at every turn.

The defense did throw a few punches, highlighting Cohen’s past admission to lying under oath, insinuating he had lied about a key phone call with Trump and having him acknowledge he stole from the Trump Organization.

Catherine Christian, a former Manhattan special assistant district attorney now in private practice, called those blows “minor hiccups” for the prosecution but said she expects the defense will return to them.

“Whoever is going to give the summation is going to call Michael Cohen a liar, a thief, you can’t trust him, vindictive, hates him, wrote a book called ‘Revenge,’” Christian said.

The defense could also return to their primary witness, Robert Costello, a former legal adviser to Cohen who contested Trump’s involvement in the hush money deals and an alleged pressure campaign on Cohen to not flip when federal investigators closed in on him in 2018.

But Costello’s appearance quickly turned chaotic, leading the judge to clear the courtroom as he lambasted the witness for improper decorum. The jury was removed before that admonishment, but it did observe some of the witness’s audible reactions.

“It’s going to be heavy, heavy, heavy on horrible, horrible Michael Cohen — that will be the defense, and it’ll be interesting if they even mention Costello,” Christian said.

The defense has previewed several other strategies they may also raise: the hush money payment was intended to prevent embarrassment to Melania Trump, not the campaign; the 34 allegedly falsified records were truthful; and prosecutors didn’t prove Trump had an intent to defraud.

After the defense finishes Tuesday, the Manhattan district attorney’s office will get one last chance to rehabilitate Cohen, whom they called as their 20th and final witness.

Coffee, the Columbia Law School professor, said the strategy lessens Cohen’s role by having earlier witnesses carry the load of explaining the purpose of the alleged conspiracy.

“The prosecution will be emphasizing that Mr. Cohen’s testimony overlaps with most other witnesses. … It’s like a jigsaw puzzle; he is the one piece that fits and makes everything else consistent,” Coffee said.

It’s a theme prosecutors have regularly emphasized to jurors as they watched the roughly four weeks of testimony and examined dozens of emails, text messages, phone records and other documents.

“After all of that evidence is in, we’ll have a chance to speak to you again during closing arguments,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told jurors at the start of the trial.

“My colleague, Joshua Steinglass, will go through all of that evidence and explain that it, inescapably, leads to only one conclusion: Donald Trump is guilty of 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree.”

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.