Former President Donald Trump returns from a break during closing...

Former President Donald Trump returns from a break during closing arguments at his criminal hush money trial in Manhattan on Tuesday. Credit: AP/Andrew Kelly

Former President Donald Trump is either the victim of his lying former personal attorney turned star prosecution witness or the lead perpetrator in subverting the will of the American public in the 2016 presidential election by falsifying business records to cover up an illicit liaison with an adult film actress, the defense and prosecution argued to the jury in closing arguments Tuesday at Trump's hush money trial.

The prosecution concluded its almost five-hour summations Tuesday night, while the competing narrative from the defense lasted almost three hours. The jury of five women and seven men, which appeared attentive throughout the lengthy summations, is expected to receive instructions on the law Wednesday morning, and then begin deliberations in the historic case — the first time a president or ex-president has faced trial on criminal charges.

“Mr. Trump not only corrupted those around him, he got them to lie to cover it up,” Manhattan prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said. “In this case, there’s literally a mountain of evidence that connects the defendant to this crime.”

But Trump's lead defense attorney, Todd Blanche, a former federal prosecutor who cross-examined the prosecution's star witness, Michael Cohen, a Lawrence native who was Trump's personal attorney and so-called “fixer,” argued his client holds no criminal liability.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Closing arguments in former President Donald Trump's hush money trial ended Tuesday night in Manhattan.
  • The jury is expected to receive instructions on the law Wednesday morning and then begin deliberations in the historic case — the first time a president or ex-president has faced trial on criminal charges.
  • Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of felony falsifying business records as part of what prosecutors alleged was a scheme to hide the payment of hush money to adult porn actress Stormy Daniels to cover up a sexual encounter before the 2016 presidential election.

“President Trump is innocent,” Blanche said. “He did not commit any crimes and the district attorney did not meet the burden of proof.”

Blanche accused Cohen, who was the only witness to allege a direct link between Trump and the falsified business records, of lying while on the stand and cautioned the jury against convicting Trump based on the word of the now-disbarred attorney.

“Michael Cohen, he’s the human embodiment of reasonable doubt. He lied to you,” Blanche told the jury. “He is biased and motivated to tell you a story that is not true. … Michael Cohen is the GLOAT, greatest liar of all times.”

President Joe Biden's campaign, with actor Robert De Niro, showed up outside the Manhattan courtroom where closing arguments were held in Donald Trump's criminal case. Credit: Newsday staff

Steinglass, in a version of a retort routinely used by prosecutors when the defense tries to question the credibility of cooperating witnesses, said: “We didn’t choose Michael Cohen. We didn’t pick him up at the witness store. The defendant chose Michael Cohen to be his fixer.”

In a highly-charged statement that later earned the stern rebuke of the presiding judge, Blanche told the jury: “You cannot, you cannot send someone to prison, you cannot convict someone based on the words of Michael Cohen.”

Defense attorneys are prohibited from arguing against convicting their clients based on a penalty they could receive if found guilty, as jurors in New York State are instructed to only consider the evidence and whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. Judges are tasked with imposing sentences.

After Blanche concluded his summation and the jury was dismissed for lunch, Steinglass accused Blanche of misconduct, calling his statement “a blatant and wholly unlawful attempt to curry sympathy for their client.”

Supreme Court Justice Juan M. Merchan agreed with the prosecution's request for the judge to make a curative instruction to the jury.

“I think saying that is outrageous,” Merchan said. "...I can’t believe that was inadvertent.” 

Merchan later told the jury to disregard Blanche's statement and pointed out a prison sentence is not mandatory for the charges. Trump faces up to 4 years in prison if convicted, but could receive no jail time as a first-time offender in a nonviolent, white-collar case.

“That comment is improper and you must disregard it. … If the verdict is guilty it is my responsibility to issue a sentence,” Merchan told the jury. “A prison sentence is not required.” 

For his part, Trump, 77, the GOP’s presumptive candidate for president in the November election, expressed his dissatisfaction with the prosecution's presentation in a post on his social media website Truth Social late Tuesday afternoon.

“BORING!” Trump posted, followed by “FILIBUSTER!”

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg was in court as the closing arguments were delivered. Three of Trump's children were also in attendance — Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Tiffany Trump. Trump's wife, Melania Trump — who had only months before given birth to Trump's youngest son, Barron, now 18, at the time Stormy Daniels alleged she bedded Trump — was not.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of felony falsifying business records as part of what prosecutors alleged was a scheme to cover up the payment of hush money to Daniels, who testified — in sometimes graphic detail — that she had a sexual encounter with Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in 2006.

Prosecutors have said the cover-up was part of a pattern of ''catch and kill” schemes, the heart of a “criminal conspiracy” between Trump, Cohen and supermarket tabloid publisher David Pecker, to buy negative stories about Trump and bury them as he sought the presidency against Hillary Clinton.

The charges of falsifying business records are misdemeanors, but were upgraded to felonies by prosecutors, who argued the crimes were committed in order to cover up another crime, which prosecutors said is conspiracy to promote an election by unlawful means.

Prosecutors have said the payment was illegally recorded in Trump Organization records as legal services as part of a retainer agreement, but neither the retainer nor the legal services existed.

In his summation, Steinglass walked the jury back through the financial documents at the heart of the case, displaying on an overhead projector trial exhibits including a bank record on which former Trump CFO Allen Weisselberg wrote handwritten notes, including a breakdown of the $420,000 to be paid to Cohen. Steinglass called the notes written by Weisselberg and another Trump executive “smoking guns” that corroborate Cohen's testimony.

“They blow out of the water the defense claim that the payments in 2017 were for services rendered,” said Steinglass, referring to the defense contention that Trump paid Cohen during that period to be his personal attorney. “They have to stare at these pieces of paper and tell you with a straight face these are not reimbursements.”

Steinglass noted Trump signed the monthly checks to Cohen with his signature black Sharpie, which fell in line with how Trump conducted business, with a close eye on the bottom line, always vowing to sign checks to retain control of his money.

“The plan was always to disguise the reimbursement as income and hide it as a retainer,” Steinglass said. “Approving this reimbursement scheme, this is causing false business records. That’s how the Trump Organization worked because that’s how the defendant wanted it to work.”

Blanche emphasized the charges against Trump are based on documents — not a sexual liaison or the inner workings of the tabloid industry — which he argued shows Trump, then the leader of the free world, had no involvement in the company's record-keeping.

“This case is about documents; it’s a paper case,” Blanche said. “This is not about an encounter with Stormy Daniels 18 years ago — an account that President Trump has denied.”

Blanche seized on the testimony of Trump employees to disprove Trump directed the falsification of the records — vouchers, invoices and checks — with the intent to defraud, which jurors have to find in order to convict Trump.

“Is the personal ledger accurate? Were those bookings entered with the intent to defraud?” Blanche asked the jury. “Our conclusion is absolutely not.”

Blanche, who also displayed some of the documents in question for the jury as he spoke, reminded the jury of testimony from one Trump employee who said the vouchers were “auto-generated from the information in the invoices.” The word “retainer” was “generated by the software,” Blanche said.

“The records were not false and the intent was not to defraud,” Blanche said. 

Trump's payments to Cohen — $35,000 monthly — were not repayment for the hush money, Blanche argued, but was simply what the documents stated — legal services. Cohen was still acting as Trump's personal attorney at the time. 

“The prosecution will say that you know that President Trump saw all of these invoices because she testified that she stapled the invoices to the checks” when she sent them to Washington, D.C.,” Blanche told the jury. “She told you about her general practice, but general practice is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. She never spoke to President Trump. She just did what she always does. She got an invoice from a lawyer and entered it in as a legal expense.”

Blanche added: “It was consistent with what she understood was happening at that time which is that Michael Cohen was acting as President Trump’s personal attorney. That is not in dispute.” 

Trump was in the White House during this period and far removed from the running of his company, Blanche argued.

“President Trump was busy running the country,” Blanche said. "[White House aide] Ms. [Madeleine] Westerhout testified that sometimes President Trump looked at the checks, sometimes he didn’t. … You can’t convict President Trump because sometimes without anything specific at all to the charges in this case that he sometimes looked at invoices. That is a stretch. That is a stretch and that is reasonable doubt.”

Steinglass, however, argued Trump never questioned the payments because he was in on the scheme.

“Despite his frugality and his attention to detail, he didn’t ask any questions because he already knew the answers,” Steinglass said. “Don’t go for this bogus narrative that he was too busy. The defendant’s business philosophy is to be involved in every aspect of his business expenses down to the light bulbs.”

But Blanche asked the jury to think about what made more sense — that Trump, as the prosecution alleges, reimbursed Cohen triple the $130,000 paid to Daniels, although Trump was described as penny-pinching by multiple witnesses? Or that the $420,000 that Trump paid Cohen, at a rate of $35,000 monthly, was Cohen's payment for working as Trump's personal attorney?

“There’s a reason why in life, the simplest answer is the right one and the story that Michael Cohen told you on the witness stand is not true,” Blanche said. “The idea that President Trump would agree to pay Cohen $420,000 even though he only owed him $130,000 is absurd.”

Steinglass, however, argued: “Is there anything you’ve learned from listening to this trial that would make you think he would pay twice the amount of the money he owed?”

Blanche pointed out Trump repeatedly disclosed the payments to Cohen to various entities, including the Internal Revenue Service.
“How is there an intent to defraud if he discloses it to the IRS, he tweets about it and he puts it on his financial disclosure form?” Blanche asked. 

Blanche also asked the jury to question why the prosecution did not call some potential witnesses to the stand, including former Trump CFO Weisselberg, ex-National Enquirer editor-in-chief Dylan Howard, former Trump bodyguard and White House aide Keith Schiller and the two eldest Trump sons.

The Aug. 15, 2015, meeting at Trump Tower, Steinglass said, was the birth of the conspiracy between Trump, Cohen and Pecker, the then-publisher of American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, to “catch and kill” negative stories about Trump, which Steinglass said amounted to an unreported campaign donation.

“This is not, as Mr. Blanche suggested, buy a story that you may or may not want to print it in the future,” Steinglass told the jury. “This agreement in Trump Tower is the exact opposite, it was the subversion of democracy. The value of this corrupt bargain forged in the meeting at Trump Tower, cannot be undervalued. It could well be what got Trump elected.”

Steinglass, referencing the nondisclosure agreements or NDAs that were signed by Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, another woman who is said to have had an affair with Trump, said: “The purpose of this meeting was to fool the voters, to pull the wool over their eyes in a coordinated fashion. NDAs are indeed illegal when they serve an illegal purpose, like unreported campaign contributions,” he said.

But the notion Trump, Cohen and Pecker cooked up a conspiracy to impact the presidential election during that meeting doesn't align with trial testimony, that included Pecker testifying the National Enquirer's parent company had long been in the practice of buying and burying stories for celebrities.

“This is the same thing that AMI had been doing for decades,” Blanche said. “They had been doing it for President Trump since the 90s. They purchase stories all the time. They did it with Mark Wahlberg, Tiger Woods. … Many politicians work with the media to try to promote their image. It’s how you try to win elections.” 

Echoing what he emphasized in his opening statement — that impacting an election is part of the democratic process — Blanche said: "This is a campaign. This is not a crime. Nothing criminal about it. It’s done all the time.”

Blanche accused Cohen of lying about several parts of his testimony and questioned a voice recording Cohen made of Trump, in which they allegedly discussed a hush money payment to McDougal. The $150,000 alleged hush money payment to McDougal and a $30,000 payment to a door attendant who peddled a false story that Trump fathered a child outside of his marriage are not part of the charges against Trump, but prosecutors were permitted to include the allegations as part of the case.

Blanche cautioned jurors they have “no idea about the integrity of this file” in which Trump is heard saying to pay “cash.”

“There’s no way that you can believe that President Trump knew about this payment without believing the words of Michael Cohen,” Blanche said. “And you cannot, you cannot believe the words of Michael Cohen.”

Steinglass, however, painted the recording as a watershed moment for the jury.

“This recording is nothing short of jaw dropping,” Steinglass said. “This recording shows the defendant’s cavalier effort to hide the payoff. This shows the defendant suggested paying in cash. It doesn’t even matter if he’s referring to a bag of cash in one lump sum. This tape shows a presidential candidate actively engaging in a scheme to pay off Karen McDougal.”

Trump, who according to testimony was known to be frugal, was moved to payoff the women after the Washington Post reported on the existence of the infamous “Access Hollywood” video, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women by their genitals.

“Hope Hicks told you that the news was so explosive that it eclipsed the news of a Category 4 hurricane bearing down on the coast,” Steinglass told the jury. “I guess it was a Category 5 hurricane.”

Blanche, returning to a point he attempted to make during his cross-examination of Cohen, told the jury Cohen perjured himself when he testified that he discussed the hush money payment agreement on a 90-second phone call with Trump on Oct. 24, 2016, which was patched through by Schiller, then Trump's bodyguard.

“It was a lie and he got caught red-handed,” Blanche said. “We all know that he called Mr. Schiller about a 14-year-old prank caller who had bothered him for a number of days.”

With emphasis on each syllable, Blanche said: “That is perjury.”

Steinglass said the deal to keep Daniels quiet was signed on Oct. 28 — 11 days before Election Day in 2016, a contest that Trump won.

“Trump didn’t sign the documents himself, but that’s sort of the whole point, to keep him away from the documentation,” Steinglass said. “The same day the deal was signed, he calls Donald Trump to let him know the deal is done and to get credit for sidestepping this land mine. The objective is not protecting his family but securing the election.” 

Blanche, however, continued to attack Cohen, who testified he was convicted previously of lying to Congress.

He’s repeatedly lied under oath,” Blanche said. “He’s lied to his family. He lied to his banker, he lied, if you believe what he says on the stand, he lied to the feds, he lied to every reporter he spoke to before the election. He’s like the MVP of liars. He’s also a thief. He stole tens of thousands of dollars on the way out the door of the Trump Organization. He lied to you.”

Steinglass scoffed at the defense's attempt to make the case a referendum on Cohen.

“It’s obvious that the defense wants to make this case about Michael Cohen — it’s not,” Steinglass said. “This case is not about Michael Cohen, this case is about Donald Trump.”

 And again, Steinglass instructed the jury to look to the documents to convict Trump.

“Michael Cohen provides context and color. He’s like a tour guide through the physical evidence. These documents don’t lie. These documents tell you everything you need to know. You don’t need Michael Cohen to connect these dots.” 

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