Trump hush-money trial: Defence rests without Trump taking the witness stand

Donald Trump’s lawyers have rested their defence without the former president taking the witness stand in his New York hush money criminal trial

Updated - May 22, 2024 12:24 am IST

Published - May 22, 2024 12:15 am IST - NEW YORK

Former U.S. President Donald Trump sits with his lawyer in a courtroom at the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, U.S. May 21, 2024.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump sits with his lawyer in a courtroom at the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, U.S. May 21, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Donald Trump’s lawyers rested their defence on May 21 without the former president taking the witness stand in his New York hush money criminal trial, moving the case closer to the moment when the jury will begin deciding his fate.

“Your honor, the defence rests,” Mr. Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche told the judge. Mr. Trump’s team concluded with testimony from a former federal prosecutor who had been called to attack the credibility of the prosecution’s key witness, one of two people summoned to the stand by the defence. The Manhattan district attorney’s office called 20 witnesses over 15 days of testimony before resting its case Monday.

The jury was sent home for a week, until May 28, when closing arguments are expected, but the attorneys planned to return to the courtroom later Tuesday to discuss how the judge will instruct jurors on deliberations. Trump, the first former American president to be tried criminally, did not stop to speak as he left the courthouse and ignored a question about why he did not testify.

Political twist to the proceedings

Mr. Trump had previously said he wanted to take the witness stand in his own defence, but there was no requirement or even expectation that he do so. Defendants routinely decline to testify. His attorneys, instead of mounting an effort to demonstrate Mr. Trump’s innocence to jurors, focused on attacking the credibility of the prosecution witnesses. That’s a routine defence strategy because the burden of proof in a criminal case lies with the prosecution. The defense doesn’t have to prove a thing.

Yet even as the Mr. Trump denounces the trial as a politically motivated travesty of justice, he has been working to turn the proceedings into an offshoot of his presidential campaign. He’s capitalised on the trial as a fundraising pitch, used his time in front of the cameras to criticise President Joe Biden and showcased a parade of his political supporters.

Prosecutors have accused the presumptive Republican presidential nominee of a scheme to scoop up and bury negative stories in an illegal effort to influence the 2016 presidential election. Mr. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing. It's the first of Trump's four criminal cases to go to trial, and quite possibly the only one before the 2024 presidential election.

“They have no case,” Mr. Trump said May 21 morning before court adjourned. “There’s no crime.”

The prosecution's case

Jurors have been given a lesson on the underbelly of the tabloid business world, where Trump allies at the National Enquirer launched a plan to keep seamy, sometimes outrageous stories about Mr. Trump out of the public eye by paying tens of thousands of dollars to “catch and kill” them. They watched as a porn actress, Stormy Daniels, recounted in discomfiting detail an alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump in a hotel room. He says nothing sexual happened between them.

And they sat intently in the jury box as Trump's former-lawyer-turned-foe Michel Cohen placed the former president in the middle of the scheme to buy Daniels' story to keep it from going public as Republicans were wringing their hands in distress over the fallout from the infamous “Access Hollywood" tape.

But the crux of the prosecution's case centres not on the spectacle, but on business transactions, including internal Trump Organization records in which payments to Cohen were falsely labelled legal expenses.

Prosecutors argued that those payments were really reimbursements to Cohen doled out in chunks, for a $130,000 payment he made on Mr. Trump's behalf to keep Ms. Daniels quiet. Mr. Trump has been charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records.

As he left a news conference Tuesday with supporters of the former president outside the courthouse, Mr. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. defended his father’s decision not to testify. “There’d be absolutely no reason, no justification to do that whatsoever. Everyone sees it for the sham that it is,” he said.

Rival testimonies

The final witness was Robert Costello, called in to undermine Cohen's credibility. The two had a professional relationship that splintered in spectacular fashion. During his testimony Monday, he angered the judge by rolling his eyes and talking under his breath. The judge cleared the courtroom and threatened to remove him if he didn't show more respect for decorum.

Mr. Costello had offered to represent Cohen soon after the lawyer’s hotel room, office and home were raided and as Cohen faced a decision about whether to remain defiant in the face of a criminal investigation or to cooperate with authorities in hopes of securing more lenient treatment.

He has repeatedly maligned Cohen’s credibility and was even a witness before last year’s grand jury that indicted Trump, offering testimony designed to undermine Cohen’s account. In a Fox News Channel interview last week, Mr. Costello accused Cohen of lying to the jury and using the case to “monetise” himself.

He contradicted Cohen’s testimony describing Mr. Trump as intimately involved in all aspects of the hush money scheme. He told jurors on Monday that Cohen told him Mr. Trump “knew nothing” about the hush money payment to Ms. Daniels. “Michael Cohen said numerous times that President Trump knew nothing about those payments, that he did this on his own, and he repeated that numerous times,” he testified.

Cohen, however, testified earlier Monday that he had “no doubt” that Mr. Trump gave him a final sign-off to make the payments to Daniels. In total, he said he spoke with Trump more than 20 times about the matter in October 2016.

Prosecutors have said that they want to show that Costello was part of a pressure campaign to keep Cohen in Trump’s corner once the then-attorney came under federal investigation. On that theme, Hoffinger asked Costello about a 2018 email in which he assured Cohen that he was “loved” by Trump’s camp, “they are in our corner” and “you have friends in high places.”

Asked who those “friends in high places” were, Mr. Costello said he was talking about Mr. Trump, then the president. He bristled as he insisted he did not feel animosity toward Cohen and did not try to intimidate him. “Ridiculous. No,” he said to the latter.

Team Trump’s long-shot request

The judge has yet to rule on a defence request to throw out the charges before jurors even begin deliberating based on the argument that prosecutors have failed to prove their case. The defence has suggested Mr. Trump was trying to protect his family, not his campaign, by squelching what he says were false claims. Such long-shot requests are often made in criminal cases but are rarely granted.

Mr. Blanche argued that there was nothing illegal about soliciting a tabloid’s help to run positive stories about Trump and identify potentially damaging stories before they were published. No one involved “had any criminal intent,” he said. “How is keeping a false story from the voters criminal?” he asked.

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo shot back that “the trial evidence overwhelmingly supports each element” of the alleged offenses and said the case should proceed to the jury.

After the defense rested, Judge Merchan dismissed the jurors and looked ahead to closing arguments — the last time the jury will hear from either side. Deliberations could begin as early as next Wednesday. The judge told the jurors that closing arguments would normally come immediately after the defence rested, but he thought they would take at least a day. Given the impending Memorial Day holiday, “there’s no way to do all that’s needed" before then, he said. “I’ll see you in a week,” he told the 12-person panel.

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