Trump braces for final act of his historic criminal trial

Donald Trump’s first criminal trial has arrived at its dramatic final act with lawyers for both sides primed on Tuesday to hammer home their cases before jurors consider a verdict that could make history.

The summations mark the climax of a trial that started more than a month ago. They are expected to last all day Tuesday and could stretch into the following day. After Judge Juan Merchan instructs jurors on the law, Trump and the rest of the country will be held in suspense to see whether he will become the first ex-president and presumptive GOP nominee to be convicted of a crime after allegedly falsifying financial records to hide a hush money payment to an adult film star in 2016.

The verdict will reverberate far beyond the courtroom and Trump’s personal life since the case has become intertwined with his bid to reclaim the White House. The stakes are especially high since this is likely to be the only one of four pending criminal trials expected to go to a jury before November’s election. The former president appeared to be in a bitter mood on the eve of his return to the courtroom, lashing out at opponents he called “Human Scum” in a message on social media marking Memorial Day.

Trump’s defense team is trying to spare their client the ignominy of a conviction that would stain his reputation. The ex-president’s lead lawyer, Todd Blanche, is expected to zero in on the credibility of Trump’s former fixer-turned-nemesis, Michael Cohen, who endured a bruising cross-examination, and to ask why other key figures in the ex-president’s business and personal orbit were not called by prosecutors, CNN’s Kara Scannell reported.

Joshua Steinglass, who is conducting closing arguments for the prosecution, will follow Blanche and is expected to spend several hours taking the jury through text messages, phone logs, other witnesses’ testimony and the 34 allegedly falsified documents to corroborate Cohen’s testimony. Ultimately, the team working for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, will try to convince seven men and five women jurors that Trump orchestrated a scheme to keep unflattering information from voters in what was an early example of election interference.

Trump has denied having an affair with Stormy Daniels and has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers do not have to convince all of the jury that he is innocent — they need only one juror to stand firm against the unanimous guilty verdict required to convict. Their conduct of the trial, in which they produced only two witnesses in a brief defense, signals they will argue that the state of New York has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the ex-president ordered and carried out a scheme, which, in any case, they say doesn’t amount to breaking the law. They argued during the trial that there was no evidence of criminal intent. And they will seek to leave jurors with a devastating final picture of Cohen, who admitted on the stand that he was a liar and was benefiting financially from a growing media empire targeting his ex-boss.

While there is a big difference with a hung jury that could force the judge to declare a mistrial, leaving an opening for prosecutors to try Trump again, any outcome that doesn’t end in a conviction could serve Trump’s political purposes, at least for now.

“I don’t know if the voting public sees much of a difference between the two. For many, including the defendant, the only relevant question is whether he is a convicted felon or not,” said CNN legal analyst Elliot Williams. “So, I’d assume the defense is really just hoping to plant a seed in the head of that one juror who has enough doubts about the case and might be stubborn enough not to back down.”

Cohen will be at the center of the drama again

Blanche argued earlier in the month that Cohen was so conflicted as a witness that the case should not even go to the jury. He told the judge: “He testified. And he lied under oath. In this courtroom. And the consequences of that lie, if accepted by the jury, is a conviction, potentially.”

Closing arguments are the stage in a case where lawyers summarize weeks of complex testimony and courtroom theatrics and sketch a narrative designed to shape the deliberations over evidence in the jury room. They are also used to impress upon jurors the huge stakes of a trial — both the grave reality that a person’s reputation and even liberty is on the line and the importance of upholding the rule of law.

The jury in this case must work through a complex legal equation at the heart of the case. To reach a guilty verdict, they must agree that New York state prosecutors have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump falsified business records — which is normally a misdemeanor in the state. Then, to convict Trump of a felony, the jury must determine that this was done to commit another crime — in this case in relation to the 2016 election.

The prosecution is likely to argue that while the defense roughed up Cohen, he was truthful about the key elements of the case, and that his testimony was corroborated in advance by weeks of evidence.

Former Manhattan prosecutor Jeremy Saland told “CNN This Morning” on Sunday that it was not important how jurors generally viewed Cohen as a person. “Whether you like Michael Cohen, whether you’d want him to date your sister, whether you’d want (him) to be your brother-in-law … you don’t have to like the guy. This is not a likability contest. (Was he) truthful in that moment in time? Was he honest and credible?”

In days of evidence, the prosecution built a brick-by-brick legal edifice to pre-but the attacks on Cohen’s credibility, which everyone knew were coming since the man who described himself as Trump’s former “thug” went to jail for offenses including lying to Congress.

“There were weeks and weeks of testimony from witnesses who testified and whose testimony was corroborated by emails, bank records, contemporaneous phone calls, text messages, and other documents of a conspiracy,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo argued in court.

That evidence was intended to create a storyline that highlighted Trump’s alleged affair with Daniels, in explicit detail, in order to explain to jurors why he might have wanted to cover it up. They secured testimony from former tabloid publisher David Pecker to highlight Trump’s history of shutting down embarrassing stories, and they produced evidence from former Trump associates, including ex-White House communications director Hope Hicks, to counter the idea Trump was simply seeking to hide his embarrassment about Daniels from his family and was instead most worried about voters forming an unfavorable impression of him in 2016.

Prosecutors also sketched a paper trail to suggest that Cohen was acting on the ex-president’s orders in making a $130,000 payment to Daniels and that Trump was involved in cooking the financial books while serving as president to disguise a reimbursement to his former fixer.

Another test of Trump’s brittle self-control

Tuesday’s closing arguments will create another personal test for Trump, whose attacks on witnesses previously caused Merchan to warn he could be jailed over further violations of a partial gag order. While staying just inside Merchan’s red line, Trump has continued to fire off daily rhetorical attacks on the judge, prosecutors and the Justice Department, along with false claims that the trial is part of an overarching conspiracy by President Joe Biden to destroy him before Election Day.

Trump has raised doubts that the 12 New Yorkers who will judge him in the city where he made his name will give him a fair trial. And he has been aided by a parade of Republican supporters, including House Speaker Mike Johnson, who showed up to bolster Trump’s assault on the justice system. Trump’s belligerence would be incredible coming from any defendant, let alone one seeking to reassume his role as titular head and ultimate defender of the Constitution as the 47th president.

Just over five months from the election, it’s unclear if or how public opinion that is already polarized around Trump will shift when the verdict is announced. The trial has not gripped the attention of the country as it might have were television cameras allowed in the courtroom. And Trump used his multiple criminal indictments to his political advantage in clearing the Republican nominating field. But some polls suggest a conviction could weigh against him in a tight election with Biden. Past behavior also suggests Trump would use any acquittal or a mistrial caused by a hung jury to claim vindication in all his criminal cases and to fuel the campaign of personal and political vengeance around which he’s promised to build a second presidency.

The final arguments will go ahead following an unusual weeklong break in the trial that occurred since Merchan wanted to avoid final arguments and jury instruction being interrupted by the Memorial Day holiday. The time off only seems to have escalated Trump’s fury as one of the defining weeks of his life dawns.

“Happy Memorial Day to All, including the Human Scum that is working so hard to destroy our Once Great Country,” Trump wrote in a post on his Truth Social network that was especially jarring on a day dedicated to fallen members of the military. Trump fulminated against judges who had presided over a massive fraud judgment against him, his firm and his adult sons that was worth nearly half a billion dollars and a defamation suit in which he was ordered to pay the writer E. Jean Carroll $83.3 million.

Trump concluded his tirade with the words: “Now for Merchan!”

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