Defense rests at Trump's criminal trial without him testifying

Former US President Donald Trump speaks to the press with his lawyer Todd Blanche at the end of the day of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 14, 2024. [AFP]

Testimony ended Tuesday in the New York criminal trial of Donald Trump, the first ever for a U.S. president. But the 12-member jury will not hear closing arguments by one of his lawyers and a prosecutor until May 28. Deliberations on his guilt or innocence will begin a day later.

Trump had long said he wanted to testify in his own defense, but in the end, did not. He walked out of court after his defense lawyers rested their case in the sixth week of the trial after calling just two witnesses.

Trump raised his hand in a fist in the court entryway where he often has railed against the case but did not stop to answer reporters’ questions about why he did not testify.

The crux of the case against Trump centers on prosecutors’ claims that he sanctioned his one-time political fixer Michael Cohen to pay $130,000 in hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels just ahead of the 2016 election.

The aim, prosecutors have contended, was to influence the outcome of the election that Trump won to silence Daniels from talking about her claim of a one-night sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier.

The 34-count indictment accuses the former president of falsifying business records at his Trump Organization real estate conglomerate to hide his 2017 reimbursement to Cohen for the hush money, by claiming it was money owed Cohen for his legal work, which Cohen said during four days of testimony was not the case.

Trump has denied a liaison with Daniels and all the charges he faces.

Because the trial has typically been recessed on Wednesdays and with the Memorial Day holiday next Monday, New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan pushed off the conclusion of the case.

"I think the best thing that we can do is to adjourn now until next Tuesday," he told the jurors. "At that time, you will hear summations from the attorneys. Probably Wednesday, I’ll ask you to come in … hear the jury charge and then I would expect that you will begin your deliberations hopefully at some point on Wednesday."

Merchan ordered the jurors to not talk about or research the case, saying, "It might be tempting to think now that both sides have rested you can kind of let up a bit, but in fact these instructions take on even greater significance."

After dismissing the jurors for a week, Merchan held a lengthy discussion with prosecutor Matthew Colangelo and Trump defense attorney Emil Bove about the details in the legal instructions he will read to the jury before it begins its deliberations. Merchan said he would complete a final version of his jury instructions by Thursday.

In numerous instances, Bove sought to add language to the instructions that conceivably would make it more difficult for the jurors to find Trump guilty. But Merchan mostly sided with Colangelo to not deviate from standard jury instructions.

In one instance, Bove wanted jurors instructed that they not only had to agree unanimously that Trump had falsified records to conceal a conspiracy to win the 2016 election by unlawful means but also had to agree unanimously on what the unlawful means were.

Bove acknowledged such unanimity was not required by law but said Merchan could require it because of the importance of the case.

Colangelo argued that Trump should be treated like any other defendant. Merchan agreed, saying, "There's no reason to rewrite the law for this case."

In another instance, Bove wanted Merchan to tell the jurors that a hush money deal by itself is not illegal. Merchan said he would not make that statement to the jurors because there had been testimony several times in the case to that effect.

After the hearing ended, Trump assailed Merchan as he often has, saying, "The judge is so biased, so corrupt. And he is so conflicted."

"When you have a corrupt judge, lots of bad things happen," Trump said.

Defendants in U.S. trials are not required to testify and when they do, often hurt their case more than help it. Trump was apparently talked out of testifying by his lawyers.

Over years in the public eye, both as a real estate magnate and a politician, Trump has waxed and waned in his views on whether criminal defendants should testify. At times he has said they look “guilty as hell” if they don’t take the witness stand to defend themselves, and at other times said they should exercise their constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Trump, the country’s 45th president and now the presumptive Republican presidential candidate in the November election against President Joe Biden, would have faced a tough cross-examination by prosecutors about the details of the case and Cohen’s testimony implicating him.

Merchan also had already ruled that prosecutors would have been allowed to ask Trump about two civil cases he lost in the last few months where he was ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. One involved business fraud at his Trump Organization real estate conglomerate and the other his defamation of a New York writer who had won a sexual assault decision against him.

But Cohen was a flawed witness for the prosecution, acknowledging he has been a serial liar over the years and stole $60,000 from Trump’s company. He also pleaded guilty to a campaign finance law violation linked to the hush money payment, perjury and other offenses and served 13½ months in a federal prison.

The last witness in the case called by the defense, New York lawyer Robert Costello, attempted to cast Cohen as a liar not to be believed. Costello had advised Cohen after federal agents raided Cohen’s then-residence, a New York hotel room, in April 2018, but was never hired as his attorney.

Costello said Monday that Cohen told him, "'I swear to God, Bob, I don’t have anything on Donald Trump.’”

"Michael Cohen said numerous times that President Trump knew nothing about those payments. That he did this on his own. He repeated that numerous times," Costello said.

At the time, Trump and his allies worried that Cohen might turn against the president and implicate him in the hush money payment to Daniels but that only came months later. Costello indicated to Cohen that he, meaning Cohen, had “friends in high places,” a reference to Trump, but Cohen did not retain the lawyer and eventually turned against Trump, ending his years of tending to the future president’s every need.

Evidence in the trial shows that Trump repaid the hush money to Cohen in 2017 after he became president, personally signing nine of the 11 checks.

Cohen alleged that Trump twice approved the arrangement to pay him back, including once at his Trump Tower in New York and a second time in the Oval Office at the White House after he became president.

Blanche never questioned Cohen about the two crucial conversations he claimed to have had with Trump about the reimbursement scheme.

Since his release from prison, Cohen has often assailed Trump and testified last week he wants Trump convicted. If Trump is found guilty, he could be placed on probation or sentenced to up to four years in prison.