Donald Trump hush money trial jury hears eight hours of closing arguments

ITV News' Robert Moore reports from the Manhattan Criminal Court

In a marathon court session, a Manhattan jury on Tuesday heard a prosecutor sum up the reasons why former President Donald Trump should be convicted of falsifying business records to disguise a hush money payment during his 2016 election campaign to an adult film star Stormy Daniels to preclude her from telling her story about a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump – and a Trump defense attorney debunk the whole case.

Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Joshua Steinglass called the case “a conspiracy and a cover-up” that intended to “hoodwink the American voter,” telling the jury after a five-hour closing argument, “the people have proven this case beyond all reasonable doubt.”

“Everything Mr. Trump and his cohorts did in this case was cloaked in lies,” Steinglass said, asking for a guilty verdict on all 34 counts.

“The name of the game was concealment, and all roads lead to the man who benefited the most, Donald Trump.”

Earlier, in a three-hour turn at the podium, lead defense attorney Todd Blanche told the jury, “President Trump is innocent. He did not commit any crimes, and the District Attorney has not met the burden of proof. Period.”

During the past five weeks, a jury of seven men and five women, along with six alternates, heard testimony from 22 witnesses and were shown extensive documents.

There is a “mountain of evidence” against Trump, Steinglass said. “It’s difficult to conceive of a case with more corroboration than this one.”

Prosecutors contend the $420,000 paid to Cohen in 2017 amounted to a reimbursement for the $130,000 he fronted to Daniels in October 2016, plus $50,000 in other expenses, doubled for tax purposes, and then an annual bonus.

Geoff Bickford, Criminal Defence Attorney in New York tells ITV News of the huge burden on the prosecution to secure a conviction.

Steinglass told the jury, “Stormy Daniels is the motive, and you can bet that Donald Trump would not pay someone $130,000 -- $260,000 after it was grossed up for taxes – just because he took a photo with someone on a golf course” in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Steinglass pointed to a pair of documents from January 2017 – with handwritten notes by former Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg on a Cohen bank statement and by former company controller Jeffrey McConney on a notepad– that outlined the reimbursement terms.

“They are the smoking guns,” Steinglass told the jury.

The defense closing argument fell into two parts – distancing Trump from the 12 invoices, 11 ledger entries, and 11 checks, each record corresponding to a charge in the indictment -- and discrediting key witness Michael Cohen, the ex-Trump lawyer and fixer who testified that Trump approved the Daniels hush money deal to help win the election.

“He told you a number of things on that witness stand that were lies. Pure and simple,” Blanche said of Cohen. “There’s no way you can find President Trump knew about this payment at the time it was made without believing the words of Michael Cohen. Period. And you cannot – you cannot believe his words.”

Steinglass defended the key witness, arguing that Cohen possessed enough “blind loyalty” and “moral flexibility” to fulfill his role.

“We didn’t choose Michael Cohen to be our witness. We didn’t pick him up at the witness store. Mr. Trump chose Michael Cohen for the same qualities they now urge you to reject his testimony,” Steinglass told the jury. “The defendant chose Michael Cohen as his fixer because he was willing to lie and cheat on his behalf."Blanche quarreled with the criminal portrayal of the Trump Organization business records, most of all, rejecting the idea that Cohen was not performing valid, billable legal work for Trump in 2017 that justified his dozen $35,000 monthly checks totaling $420,000.

“Cohen was rendering services to President Trump in 2017 as his personal attorney,” Blanche said, citing as examples, his handling of a lawsuit filed against Trump and an unresolved Trump foundation matter.

Blanche told the jury, “Cohen lied to you” when he testified that he did “minimal” work for Trump that year, and they had a verbal retainer agreement, similar to the consulting agreements from which Cohen earned $4 million in 2017-18 with six corporate clients who paid him much more for infrequent meetings.

“That’s the way retainer agreements work – you’re on call,” Blanche said. “Michael Cohen was President Trump’s personal attorney. Period.”

Steinglass rejected that argument. “There is no retainer. No oral retainer. No written retainer,” the prosecutor told the jury. “These payments had nothing to do with a retainer agreement and nothing to with services rendered in 2017.”

He continued, "Cohen spent more time being cross-examined in this trial than he did doing legal work for Donald Trump in 2017."

As Blanche reviewed business documents in evidence, a large screen displayed invoices “sent by Cohen” and vouchers and checks “prepared by accounting.”

“Not a single invoice was sent to President Trump directly,” Blanche said. They were emailed to Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, who forwarded them, with his approval to the company controller, Jeffrey McConney, who asked accounts payable manager Deborah Tarasoff to fulfill them, which she did, according to their testimony and emails in evidence.

“The invoices were not generated by anybody in the Trump Organization. They were generated by Michael Cohen,” Blanche said. “All of that ends the case. Not guilty.”

Steinglass disagreed. “Tarasoff may be doing the typing, but the defendant is causing the false business records,” he said. "He didn't really pay a lawyer. He paid a porn star by funneling money through a lawyer."

Blanche argued the ledger entries, or vouchers, and the actual checks were not fraudulent.

“Is the booking of personal legal expenses on the personal ledger accurate? Were those bookings done with intent to defraud?” Blanche said to the jury. “The answer to that is absolutely, positively not. The bookings were accurate, and there was no intent to defraud.”

Geoff Bickford, Criminal Defence Attorney in New York spoke with ITV News outside the Manhattan Criminal Court about why closing arguments are so important.

Blanche discounted Trump employees’ portrayal of him and his comments in his books about being a frugal micromanager. He said the word “retainer” was auto-generated on the Cohen check stubs by the company’s accounting system.

“There’s no evidence that President Trump knew anything about this voucher system,” Blanche said. “You can’t convict President Trump because sometimes without being specific at all, President Trump looked at invoices that somehow he had full knowledge of what was happening. That is a stretch, and that is reasonable doubt, ladies and gentleman."

Checks for the first three $35,000 Cohen payments in 2017, drawing $105,000 from company funds, were co-signed by Weisselberg and Trump’s two sons, Don. Jr. and Eric. Starting in April 2017, Trump, as president, signed nine monthly checks totaling $315,000 from his personal bank account.

“He was very busy. He was constantly multitasking,” Blanche said, suggesting he did not scrutinize the checks or vouchers stapled to them. “He was President of the United States.”

Steinglass called the argument that Trump was too busy to focus on the payments a “bogus narrative,” as he was known for "negotiating the cost of the light bulbs."

Steinglass noted Trump signed the checks without ever calling Cohen or Weisselberg to explain the $35,000. “Despite his frugality and his attention to details, the defendant doesn’t ask any questions, because he already knows the answers,” the prosecutor told the jury.

Blanche argued the Cohen payments in 2017 were not hidden, because the company reported Cohen’s income to the Internal Revenue Service, as tax forms in evidence show, and in a federal Office of Government Ethics report summarizing campaign expenses, including the Cohen reimbursement.

Steinglass argued those very government records were part of the cover-up.

The prosecution theory of election interference conspiracy begins with an August 2015 Trump Tower meeting, two months after Trump launched his White House run, among Trump, Cohen, and David Pecker, former CEO of American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid and other magazines.

AMI became “a covert arm of the defendant’s campaign,” Steinglass said, when Pecker agreed, as he testified, to print stories favorable to Trump and critical of his election opponents and to be on the lookout for damaging womanizing stories about Trump.

According to trial testimony and evidence, AMI and Cohen collaborated on containing three such stories in 2015 and 2016 – proffered by a Trump Tower doorman who claimed Trump had fathered a child with a housekeeper; by former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who says she had a 10-month affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007; and then by Daniels. AMI paid to “catch and kill” the doorman and McDougal stories through nondisclosure agreements, while Cohen paid to achieve the Daniels NDA.

“This scheme cooked up by these men at this time could very well be what got President Trump elected,” Steinglass told the jury. "Once AMI purchased stories on the candidate's behalf, those purchases became unlawful campaign contributions."

Blanche attacked the alleged conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, saying AMI’s suppression of stories was standard operating procedure “for decades.”

Pecker had testified about squelching negative stories about a range of public figures, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods, Mark Wahlberg, and Rahm Emanuel.

"This was good business for them – a mutually beneficial relationship with celebrities," Blanche said.

As for publishing positive stories about Trump and negative stories about his rivals, Blanche said, “This is a campaign. This is an election. This is not a crime.”

He added it was “preposterous” to suggest Pecker and Trump thought the Enquirer, with a circulation of 300,000 could swing a U.S. election.

Blanche remained steadfast that Trump neither knew about nor approved the Daniels hush money deal, insisting Cohen carried it out of his volition to win approval from his boss.Cohen was the only person who testified that Trump knew about and approved the deal.

Cohen commended Cohen for “consistently describing the events in this case for six years” and told the jury whether they found Cohen likable or someone they would want to work with is irrelevant.

“It’s whether he has useful, reliable information to know what went down in this case,” Steinglass said. “He was in the best position to know because he was the defendant’s right hand.”

Blanche returned to a challenge of one of the 20 conversations Cohen has said he had with Trump to inform about the Daniels deal, either in person or over the phone.

The defense attorney disputed a minute-and-half call on October 24, 2016, two days before the Daniels deal was signed, to the cell phone of Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller, who was traveling with Trump in Tampa, Florida.

Cohen testified he spoke to Schiller first about a problem he was having with a teenage prank caller and then asked him to hand the phone to Trump, so he could update him about the Daniels deal.

“That was a lie and he got caught red-handed,” Blanche said. “That is perjury.”

But the prosecutor displayed a frame grab of C-Span footage of the Tampa rally showing Trump and Schiller exiting the stage five minutes before the call. A Steinglass simulation of both conversations lasted less than a minute.

Steinglass also pointed to records of Cohen's phone calls during the next two days to Weisselberg and Trump, the last in the morning Cohen went to his bank to begin the transfer of funds to Daniels.

“Half an hour beforehand, he’s getting the final go-ahead from Donald Trump,” Steinglass said.

Blanche completed his argument with a top ten list of reasons jurors should have reasonable doubt. It concluded with Cohen.

“He is the human embodiment of reasonable doubt,” Blanche told the jury. “His financial and mental well-being depends on this case. He is biased and motivated to tell you a story that is not true.”

In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion, lying to a bank, and unlawful campaign contributions stemming from the McDougal and Daniels deals. He spent 13 months in prison, paid $1.4 million in back taxes and fines, and lost his license to practice law.

“Cohen is the only one who has paid a price for this,” Steinglass told the jury. “The defendant up until now has escaped justice.”

Trump’s two eldest sons were among his supporters in court on Tuesday.

“They should have brought this case seven years ago not in the middle of a presidential election,” the former president and presumptive Republican presidential nominee told reporters upon his arrival to court Tuesday.

“This is a dark day in America.”

When the court reconvenes Wednesday morning, New York State Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan will deliver his jury instructions, expected to take an hour, and then jury deliberations will begin.

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