Closing arguments to begin in Trump hush money trial

Former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, 2024 in Concord, North Carolina. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) -- Thirty-six days ago, prosecutors with the Manhattan district attorney's office set out to convince a jury of 12 New Yorkers that Donald Trump broke the law by hiding damaging information from voters.

During closing arguments Tuesday, they'll attempt to convince that jury to convict the former president on 34 felony counts -- a historic decision in what could be the only one of Trump's criminal cases that reaches a verdict before the 2024 election.

Prosecutors built their case across four weeks of testimony, calling 20 witnesses including Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress whose hush money payment sits at the center of the case; Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer who made the payment to Daniels just days ahead of the 2016 election; and multiple Trump Organization employees who helped orchestrate Cohen's alleged reimbursement in 2017.

With the burden on prosecutors to prove the case, Trump's lawyers put on a brief defense case -- calling just two witnesses -- and sought to discredit key witnesses like Cohen and Daniels.

Some of the key events at the center of the case -- that Daniels was paid $130,000 for her silence and that Cohen was paid $420,000 by Trump in 2017 -- are undisputed by defense lawyers. As a result, the closing arguments are likely to focus on Trump's awareness of Cohen's conduct, and Trump's motivations for allegedly approving the payments.

Prosecutors argue that Trump approved Daniels' hush money payment to influence the election, while defense lawyers pin the arrangement on Cohen and say Trump was simply trying to protect his family. Defense lawyers attempted to cast Cohen's alleged reimbursement after the election as legitimate payments processed by accountants at the Trump Organization, but prosecutors say the payments were disguised to hide their true purpose from voters.

The jury -- comprised of seven men and five women including two lawyers, a schoolteacher, and a physical therapist -- are expected to begin deliberating on Wednesday morning after Judge Juan Merchan instructs them on the law related to the case.

The prosecution's case

The state's case centers around what they argue was a pressing concern for Trump as he announced his candidacy in the 2016 election.

"There's going to be a lot of women coming forward," Cohen testified Trump warned him at the start of the campaign.

As the campaign gained momentum, prosecutors say Trump engaged in a criminal conspiracy that began with an August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower.

Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker testified that during a meeting with Trump and Cohen, he agreed to help the Trump campaign by running positive stories about Trump, pushing negative stories about his opponents, and acting as the campaign's "eyes and ears" by flagging negative stories about Trump related to women.

"If hear anything about women selling stories ... I would notify Michael Cohen and then he would be able to have them killed in another magazine or have them not be published or somebody would have to purchase them," Pecker testified.

Acting on his agreement with Trump and Cohen, Pecker said that his company paid for two stories, including a $30,000 payment to a former doorman who falsely alleged that Trump had an illegitimate child, and a $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal who alleged a months-long affair with Trump, which Trump has steadfastly denied.

Pecker told jurors that he had already spent too much on those agreements when he got word in October 2016 that Daniels was selling her story of an alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Trump that Trump has denied. Pecker testified that he flagged the story to Cohen, who told jurors that he brought the matter directly to Trump.

"This is really a disaster. Women will hate me. Guys may think it's cool, but this is going to be a disaster for the campaign," Cohen testified about Trump's reaction to the story.

Prosecutors called Daniels to the witness stand to describe her alleged sexual encounter with Trump, offering details that prosecutors said were necessary for the jury to understand Trump's motivation to kill the story.

"I told very few people that we had actually had sex because I felt ashamed that I didn't stop it, that I didn't say no," Daniels told jurors.

The possibility of Daniels' allegations becoming public came as Trump's campaign was in crisis mode after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape, which prompted some prominent Republicans to withdraw their support for Trump and the Republican National Committee to consider finding a new candidate to replace him, former Trump aide and one-time RNC staffer Madeleine Westerhout testified.

Cohen told jurors that he spoke with Trump about the Daniels matter more than 20 times in October 2016. According to Cohen, Trump authorized him to make a $130,000 payment to Daniels pursuant to a nondisclosure agreement, effectively killing the story just days before the 2016 election.

Cohen also said that in January 2017, he attended a meeting with Trump and former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg where they agreed on a plan to reimburse Cohen for the Daniels payment and the taxes he would owe on the reimbursement -- as well as his bonus and another expense reimbursement -- through 12 $35,000 payments.

Jurors saw each of the invoices submitted by Cohen for legal services pursuant to a retainer agreement, as well as the internal vouchers generated by the Trump Organization to pay Cohen, and the checks signed by Trump and the representatives of his trust. Prosecutors allege that the business records were falsified to disguise the reimbursement for Cohen's payment to Daniels, further hiding the existence of the hush money payment from the public.

The defense's case

Defense lawyers have sought to distance Trump from the allegedly falsified documents and limit the suggestion that the former president acted with fraudulent intent -- beginning with discrediting the prosecution's star witness, Michael Cohen.

"He has a goal, an obsession with getting Trump, and you're going to hear that," defense lawyer Todd Blanche said during his opening statement. "I submit to you that he cannot be trusted."

Across three days of cross-examination, defense lawyers painted Cohen as a spiteful employee intent on revenge by highlighting his criminal history, past lies under oath, and animosity toward Trump.

Cohen also admitted to stealing $30,000 from the Trump Organization by overcharging the company for an IT expense, and defense lawyers say he lied on the witness stand about an October 2016 phone call that he said he made to confirm with Trump the plan to pay Daniels $130,000.

Defense lawyers also attempted to distance Trump from the creation of the allegedly falsified documents, arguing that the payments were orchestrated by accountants within the Trump Organization after receiving invoices from Cohen.

For the nine checks that bear Trump's signature, defense lawyers elicited testimony from Westerhout saying that Trump, at times, signed checks without examining them.

Another former White House aide, communications director Hope Hicks, offered testimony to support the defense's argument that the nondisclosure agreement with Daniels was prompted by Trump's desire to protect his family -- and not done to influence the election.

"I don't think he wanted anyone in his family to be hurt or embarrassed by anything that was happening on the campaign," Hicks said. "He wanted them to be proud of him."

Tuesday, May 28, 2024 at 6:33AM by Peter Charalambous, ABC News Permalink