Crime, Law and Justice

Prosecutor says Trump tried ‘to hoodwink voters’ while defense attacks key witness in last arguments

A courtroom sketch
In this courtroom sketch, Tuesday, May 28, 2024, Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steingless delivers the prosecution closing arguments in Donald Trump's criminal trial, in New York.
Elizabeth Williams via AP

Donald Trump engaged in a conspiracy “to hoodwink voters” in 2016, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday during closing arguments in the former president’s hush money trial, while a defense lawyer branded the star witness as the “greatest liar of all time” and pressed the panel for an across-the-board acquittal.

The lawyers’ dueling accounts, wildly divergent in their assessments of witness credibility, Trump’s culpability and the strength of evidence, offered both sides one final chance to score points with the jury before it starts deliberating the first felony case against a former American president.

The landmark case, the only one of four criminal prosecutions against Trump to reach trial, centered on allegations that Trump and his allies conspired to stifle potentially embarrassing stories during the 2016 presidential campaign through hush money payments — including to a porn actor who alleged that she and Trump had sex a decade earlier.

“This case, at its core, is about a conspiracy and a cover-up,” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass told jurors, who are expected to begin deliberations Wednesday. He later added: “We’ll never know if this effort to hoodwink voters made the difference in the 2016 election, but that’s not something we have to prove.”

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche told jurors that neither the actor, Stormy Daniels, nor the Trump attorney who paid her, Michael Cohen, can be trusted.

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

Following more than four weeks of testimony, the summations tee up a momentous and historically unprecedented task for the jury as it decides whether to convict the presumptive Republican presidential nominee ahead of the November election.

The political undertones of the proceedings were unmistakable as President Joe Biden’s campaign staged an event outside the courthouse with actor Robert De Niro while Blanche reminded jurors the case was not a referendum on their views about Trump.

In a marathon five-hour argument that stretched deep into the evening, Steinglass stressed to jurors the trove of evidence they had viewed but also sought to defray potential concerns about witness credibility. Trump and his legal team, for instance, have repeatedly denounced Cohen as a liar.

The prosecutor acknowledged that Daniels’ account of the alleged 2006 encounter in a Lake Tahoe hotel suite, which Trump has denied, was at times “cringeworthy.” But he said the details she offered — including about decor and what she said she saw when she snooped in Trump’s toiletry kit — were full of touchstones “that kind of ring true.”

He said the story matters because it “reinforces (Trump’s) incentive to buy her silence.”

“Her story is messy. It makes people uncomfortable to hear. It probably makes some of you uncomfortable to hear. But that’s kind of the point,” Steinglass said. He added: “In the simplest terms, Stormy Daniels is the motive.”

The payoff unfolded against the backdrop of the disclosure of a 2005 “Access Hollywood" recording in which Trump could be heard bragging about grabbing women sexually without their permission. Had the Daniels story emerged after that recording, it would have undermined his strategy of spinning away his words, Steinglass said.

“It’s critical to appreciate this,” Steinglass said. At the same time he was dismissing his words on the tape as “locker room talk,” Trump “was negotiating to muzzle a porn star,” the prosecutor said.

Blanche, who spoke first, sought to downplay the fallout by saying the “Access Hollywood” tape was not a “doomsday event.”

Steinglass also maintained that the prosecution’s case did not rest solely on Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer who paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet. Cohen later pleaded guilty to federal charges for his role in the hush money payments, as well as to lying to Congress. He went to prison and was disbarred, but his direct involvement in the transactions made him a key trial witness.

“It’s not about whether you like Michael Cohen. It’s not about whether you want to go into business with Michael Cohen,” Steinglass said. “It’s whether he has useful, reliable information to give you about what went down in this case, and the truth is that he was in the best position to know.”

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, charges punishable by up to four years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty and denied wrongdoing.

The two sides also differed on a recording Cohen made of himself and Trump discussing what prosecutors say was a plan to buy the rights to the story of a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, from the National Enquirer, after the publication’s parent company paid her $150,000 to keep quiet about an affair she says she had with Trump.

Blanche said the September 2016 recording, which cuts off before the conversation finishes, is unreliable and isn’t about McDougal at all, but rather about a plan to buy a collection of material the tabloid had hoarded on Trump. Steinglass said the recording was part of a “mountain of evidence” against Trump.

Though the case featured sometimes seamy discussion of sex and tabloid industry practices, the actual charges concern something decidedly less flashy: reimbursements Trump signed for Cohen for the payments.

The reimbursements were recorded as being for legal expenses, which prosecutors say was a fraudulent label designed to conceal the purpose of the hush money transaction.

Defense lawyers say Cohen actually did substantive legal work for Trump and his family. But Steinglass said that argument is undermined by a 2018 Trump tweet in which the then-president described the arrangement with Cohen as a “reimbursement” while insisting it was unrelated to his candidacy.

“Mr. Cohen spent more time being cross-examined at this trial than he did doing legal work for Donald Trump in 2017,” Steinglass quipped. “Do you think there’s any chance Donald Trump would pay $42,000 an hour for legal work by Michael Cohen?”

In his own address to the jury, Blanche castigated the case’s entire foundation.

He said Cohen, not Trump, created the invoices submitted to the Trump Organization for reimbursement, and he rejected the prosecution’s caricature of a details-oriented manager, suggesting instead that Trump was preoccupied by the presidency and not the checks he was signing. And he mocked the idea that the alleged hush money scheme amounted to election interference.

“Every campaign in this country is a conspiracy to promote a candidate, a group of people who are working together to help somebody win,” Blanche said.

He reserved his most animated attack for Cohen, with whom he tangled during a lengthy cross-examination.

Mimicking the term “GOAT,” used primarily in sports as an acronym for “greatest of all time,” Blanche labeled Cohen the “GLOAT" — greatest liar of all time — and called him “the human embodiment of reasonable doubt.”

“He lied to you repeatedly. He lied many, many times before you even met him. His financial and personal well-being depend on this case. He is biased and motivated to tell you a story that is not true,” Blanche said, a reference to Cohen’s social media attacks on Trump and the lucrative income he has derived from books and podcasts about Trump.

The attorney’s voice became even more impassioned as he revisited one of the more memorable moments of the trial: when Blanche sought to unravel Cohen’s claim that he had spoken to Trump by phone about the Daniels arrangement on Oct. 24, 2016.

Cohen testified that he had contacted Trump’s bodyguard, Keith Schiller, as a way of getting a hold of Trump, but Blanche asserted that at the time Cohen was actually dealing with a spate of harassing phone calls and was preoccupied with that problem when he spoke with Schiller.

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

In his testimony, Cohen acknowledged a litany of past lies, many of which he said were intended to protect Trump. But he said he had subsequently told the truth, at great cost: “My entire life has been turned upside-down as a direct result,” he said.

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