Closing arguments set for Tuesday in Trump's hush money trial

Former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Manhattan Criminal Court, May 21, 2024, in New York. [AP Photo]

Closing arguments are set for Tuesday in the New York hush money criminal trial of Donald Trump, the last chance for the former president’s defense lawyer to convince a 12-member jury that he is innocent of charges that he illegally tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, while a prosecutor lays out the evidence against him.

The final arguments in the first-ever criminal case against a U.S. president could take hours and follow testimony that lasted five weeks.

New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan is then expected to instruct the jury Wednesday morning about the legal issues linked to the case before it begins deliberating.

Under the U.S. legal system, the jurors will have to unanimously decide whether to acquit the 77-year-old Trump or find him guilty. If they cannot agree, resulting in a hung jury, prosecutors then would decide whether to retry the case.

For Trump, the outcome is consequential, not only for his personal freedom but his political fate. He is the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential candidate, set to run again in the November election against President Joe Biden, the Democrat who defeated him in 2020.

National polls show Biden and Trump locked in a tight contest, but some opinion polls indicate Trump supporters could switch their vote to Biden or not vote at all if the former president is convicted.

In the criminal case, Trump is accused of sanctioning a scheme in which his political fixer, Michael Cohen, made a $130,000 hush money payment to porn film star Stormy Daniels just ahead of the 2016 election to keep her from talking publicly about her claim of a one-night tryst with Trump at a celebrity golf tourney a decade earlier.

Trump has denied the liaison with Daniels and the 34-count indictment he is facing — falsifying business records at his Trump Organization real estate conglomerate to hide the 2017 reimbursement to Cohen, labeling it as payments for legal work he had done for Trump.

If convicted, Trump could face probation or be sentenced to up to four years in prison, although he is certain to appeal and could continue to run for the presidency.

Trump is facing three other indictments, including two accusing him of illegally trying to upend his 2020 election loss. But all three cases are tied up in legal wrangling between his lawyers and prosecutors. As a result, the New York case nearing completion may be the only one decided before the November election.

Trump had often said he wanted to testify in his own defense at the trial, but in the end, did not, which was his right.

Trump’s team put only two witnesses on the stand. One of them, New York lawyer Robert Costello, said that in 2018, Cohen assured him he had “nothing on Trump” and that he, not Trump, concocted the hush money payment deal with Daniels.

Early in the case, Trump often assailed Cohen and other witnesses, despite Merchan’s gag order prohibiting Trump from attacking them and jurors. Merchan excluded himself and prosecutor Alvin Bragg from the edict.

Merchan found Trump in contempt of court 10 times and fined him $10,000, after which Trump seemed to aim his broadsides solely at the judge and prosecutor.

Trump urged several Republican lawmakers to show up in the courtroom in the seats behind the defense table as a show of support. The legislators, including House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson, often stayed for an hour or two of testimony and then, because they were not subject to the gag order, walked outside the courthouse and held news conferences to criticize witnesses against Trump, especially Cohen and Daniels.

Cohen testified that he did little legal work for Trump in 2017, and that the country’s 45th president twice authorized the reimbursement plan and the claim that it was for legal work, once at his Trump Tower in New York before he assumed the presidency and again in the White House Oval Office less than three weeks after he was inaugurated.

But the question for the jurors is Cohen’s credibility.

He acknowledged during hours of testimony that he has over the years been a serial liar on Trump’s behalf and to protect his own wife from tax evasion charges. He said that as part of the hush money reimbursement plan, he stole $60,000 from the Trump company because he felt Trump had shorted him on his year-end 2016 bonus.

Cohen testified that with Trump’s consent, Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s then-chief financial officer, “grossed up” the overall reimbursement to $420,000, in part to cover Cohen’s tax liability, and that the reimbursement was paid out in $35,000 monthly increments in 2017, with Trump signing nine of the 11 checks to Cohen.

Despite his pivotal role in the reimbursement, Weisselberg, now serving a five-month prison sentence for lying under oath in a previous Trump-related business fraud civil case, was not called as a witness by either side.

Early witnesses in the trial portrayed Cohen as brash, profane and volatile. However, on the witness stand, the 57-year-old disbarred lawyer was reserved and did not erupt under hours of a withering cross-examination by Trump lawyer Todd Blanche.

For years, Cohen was a Trump loyalist, his lawyer and political fixer who tended to Trump’s every whim during his years as a New York real estate magnate and during his 2016 run for the presidency. As news of Daniels’ claim of a liaison with Trump and the hush money reimbursement to Cohen became public in 2018, the relationship between the then-president and Cohen ruptured after federal agents raided his then-New York home, a hotel room.

In the end, Cohen pleaded guilty to perjury in connection with his lying to a congressional panel about a Trump Tower construction project in Moscow that never materialized, tax fraud and a campaign finance law violation linked to the hush money payment to Daniels. He served 13½ months in a federal prison and another year and a half in home confinement.

Since then, he has turned into a persistent Trump critic. He testified pointedly that he hopes Trump is convicted.

David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid newspaper, testified how he agreed in a 2015 Trump Tower meeting with Trump and Cohen to publish positive stories about Trump as he sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, along with negative and embarrassing stories about his political opponents, and to keep other inflammatory stories about Trump from being published.

It was called “catch and kill” in the vernacular of the world of tabloid news. In one instance, Pecker said he paid $150,000 to Karen McDougal, Playboy magazine’s 1998 Playmate of the Year, to buy the rights to her claim of a 10-month affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007, with no intention of publishing anything about it. Trump denied her claim as well, but prosecutors did not call her as a witness.

A month before the 2016 November election, The Washington Post unearthed a 2005 outtake from the celebrity-driven “Access Hollywood” show in which Trump boasted that he could grope women at will because he was a star.

The emergence of the tape led directly to the hush money payment to Daniels. The Trump campaign was worried that the Access Hollywood footage might offend female voters and that one more sex-related Trump story would be worse. Daniels, at the same time, was hawking her Trump story or wanted money to stay quiet.

Cohen said he created a shell company, transferred money into it from his home equity line of credit and wired Daniels’ lawyer the $130,000 in hush money just days before the election. Cohen testified Trump told him to “just do it,” and Cohen said he would not have made the payment on his own without Trump’s assent.

Within a week, Trump narrowly defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former first lady and U.S. secretary of state, to win a four-year term in the White House.