Trump defence rests its case in former president's hush money trial

Former US president Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Manhattan Criminal Court.
Former US president Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Manhattan Criminal Court. Credit: AP

Donald Trump’s lawyers rested their case on Tuesday without calling the former president and presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee to testify.

“They have no case. There's no crime,” Trump said in the courthouse hallway, while having remained silent in court.

“It's a kangaroo court. There’s never been anything like this that I've ever seen.”

New York State Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan scheduled closing arguments for next Tuesday, May 28.

Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records for the invoices, checks, and ledger entries that covered up and disguised reimbursements to his former fixer and personal attorney, Michael Cohen, for the $130,000 (£102,000) he paid pornographic movie star Stormy Daniels in October 2016 to keep quiet during presidential campaign about a tryst she says she had with Trump in 2006, when he was married to former first lady Melania Trump.

Trump denies the sexual encounter with Daniels and describes the Cohen payments in 2017 as legitimate legal expenses.

The defence called only two witnesses to testify - attorney Robert Costello, who briefly counseled Mr Cohen immediately following the FBI raids on his homes and offices in April 2018, and a paralegal who authenticated communications between Mr Costello and Mr Cohen that year.

Mr Costello told the jury he initially discussed with Cohen the possibility of entering into a cooperation agreement with the government to reduce the federal charges against him.

But Mr Costello testified Mr Cohen had told him: “I don’t have anything on Donald Trump.”

At the time, publicly and in press statements, Mr Cohen testified that he was still protecting Trump and claiming he alone had handled the Daniels non-disclosure agreement.

Mr Costello told the jury, “Michael Cohen said numerous times that President Trump knew nothing about those payments - that he did this on his own”.

Mr Cohen also said, “I don’t understand why they’re trying to throw me in jail over a f***in’ NDA,” Mr Costello recalled.

Mr Costello testified that when they first met at Manhattan’s Regency Hotel, where Mr Cohen was living while his apartment was being renovated, Mr Cohen told him he was going to jump off the roof.

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“He was suicidal that day and acting very manic,” Mr Costello said.

In emailed pitches to represent Mr Cohen shown to the jury, Mr Costello told Mr Cohen his decades-old relationship with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani “could be very, very useful for you”.

Guiliani was then poised to replace Mr Cohen as Trump’s personal attorney and offered a “back channel” to the White House.

Mr Costello advised Mr Cohen in an email: “Sleep well tonight, you have friends in high places,” a reference to the president, Mr Costello confirmed.

Ultimately, Mr Cohen did not hire Mr Costello, because he felt the closeness to Giuliani would be problematic, Mr Cohen told the jury on Monday.

Mr Costello said he sent Mr Cohen a bill that went unpaid.

After pleading guilty to various federal charges, serving 13 months in prison, paying $1.3 million (£1 million) in back taxes, and losing his license to practice law, Mr Cohen changed his story, he says, from lies to the truth.

Mr Cohen has asserted - including during his four days in the witness stand - he engineered the Daniels deal only with Trump’s approval and promise to pay him back after having more than 20 conversations in person and over the phone with Trump about the arrangements.

The defence did not call to testify its designated expert witness on campaign finance law, Bradley Smith, a Republican former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, who was said to be at the courthouse on Monday, when the defense began its case.

Mr Smith posted on X on Monday night: “Judge Merchan has so restricted my testimony that defense has decided not to call me.”

Mr Smith expressed skepticism of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s theory that the Daniels hush money deal may have broken a federal law, the Federal Election Campaign Act, a 1970s-era law that regulates fundraising and spending in federal elections.

“Bragg's theory hinges on the claim that Trump tried to influence an election through ‘unlawful means’. To do that, he'll have to show that Trump violated the Federal Election Campaign Act,” Mr Smith wrote on X.

Mr Smith’s view is that Trump did not violate FECA, because neither the Justice Department nor the Federal Election Commission chose to prosecute or fine him or his campaign.

Mr Smith told the Washington Examiner: “I can tell you my personal belief is that clearly paying hush money, or paying for a nondisclosure agreement, does not constitute a campaign expense.”

The analysis is relevant, because in order for the falsification of business records charges levied against Trump to be considered felonies, the jury must find those offences were committed with intent to commit another crime, such as campaign finance laws or tax laws or an election interference conspiracy.

Judge Merchan, the prosecutors, and defence attorneys on Tuesday afternoon haggled over the language in his forthcoming jury instructions.

After the prosecution rested its case on Monday, the defence asked Judge Merchan to dismiss the case as unproven.

The jury has not been told why two people who have been mentioned throughout the trial, former Trump Organisation Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisellberg and former Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller, have not been called to testify.

While Stormy Daniels testified for two days about her interactions with Trump and the NDA she signed, another woman on the witness list who also signed a hush money deal in 2016, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who says she had a 10-month affair with Trump in 2006/07, was not called to testify.

Trump supporters in court Tuesday included what’s become a daily entourage of Republican members of Congress, and for the first time, his eldest child, Don. Jr.

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