As The Trump Trial Reaches Its Final Stages, A Look Back At How We Got Here

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The finish line is in sight.

Over the course of five weeks, around 20 witnesses have taken the stand in a lower Manhattan courtroom to testify in the criminal hush money trial of former President Donald Trump. All but two of them were called by New York state prosecutors. Each filled in details about how Trump allegedly covered up a hush money payment to the porn actor Stormy Daniels that now-disbarred attorney Michael Cohen made in desperation just days before the 2016 election in order to cover up her claims of an affair with Trump.

Trump has, of course, pleaded not guilty to the 34 felony charges. His lawyers have argued there was no crime, pointing to the fact that hush money payments are not inherently illegal. 

Prosecutors say the surrounding circumstances are what change everything. 

Now, the first criminal trial of a U.S. president is reaching its final stages, though jurors have been dismissed until next week due to scheduling issues surrounding the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. Attorneys for both parties are expected to give their closing remarks on the same day. New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan will then read to the jurors carefully crafted instructions on how to weigh the evidence and how to decide whether the prosecution has met their burden. 

Then, as soon as Wednesday, the jury will go off and deliberate — for minutes, hours or days. What happens when they are finished will be historic, no matter what they decide.

The minutiae of daily courtroom proceedings can make it harder to step back and look at the big picture, but that is the task that awaits the jury. 

In April, the prosecution began by rolling back the clock to the summer of 2015, when Trump allegedly held a Trump Tower meeting with David Pecker, who was at the time CEO of the National Enquirer’s publisher, American Media Inc. Pecker testified that he agreed to use his magazines to give Trump’s campaign a boost, putting out flattering stories about Trump and unflattering ones about his political enemies. And he would use his familiarity with the seedy tabloid marketplace to keep an eye out for anyone trying to sell a story that could hurt Trump. 

He proved unquestionably valuable. When a former Trump Tower doorman claimed to have a story about Trump fathering a child out of wedlock, Pecker swooped in to pay him for his silence. When former Playboy model Karen McDougal sought payment in exchange for details about an alleged yearlong affair with Trump, Pecker’s company cut her a check.

Judge Juan Merchan presides over court on Tuesday, May 7, as Stormy Daniels, far right, answers questions on direct examination by assistant district attorney Susan Hoffinger. Former President Donald Trump and defense attorney Todd Blanche look on.
Judge Juan Merchan presides over court on Tuesday, May 7, as Stormy Daniels, far right, answers questions on direct examination by assistant district attorney Susan Hoffinger. Former President Donald Trump and defense attorney Todd Blanche look on. Elizabeth Williams via Associated Press

But his generosity had limits. He had been expecting to be paid back. On the stand, Pecker told the jury that by the fall of 2016 he was not interested in forking over another pile of cash. That became a problem for Trump and Cohen, whose job was to make Trump’s problems go away. When The Washington Post published a hot mic tape from Trump’s appearance on “Access Hollywood” showing him make vulgar remarks about women, interest in Daniels’ story about her alleged Trump affair skyrocketed, according to testimony from her attorney at the time, Keith Davidson. 

Backlash to the “Access Hollywood” tape shows the numbing effect the steady stream of subsequent Trump scandals has had on the American public over the years. In early October 2016, Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” quote nearly derailed his campaign. Hope Hicks, Trump’s former campaign spokesperson, testified about the fear that struck the campaign after the tape was publicized.

It was Melania Trump who told her husband that he should respond by saying his comments were akin to “locker room talk,” according to testimony from Cohen, who helped fill in more details on what was allegedly going on behind the scenes. 

“This is a disaster. A total disaster. Women are going to hate me,” Cohen recalled Trump saying. 

Prosecutors stressed the “Access Hollywood” backlash to explain why Trump needed to secure Daniels’ silence. An alleged affair with a porn actor, at a time when Trump was married with a young child, would invite further waves of criticism when his campaign was already drowning.

On the stand, Cohen explained how he handled the matter: He took out a home equity line of credit to avoid withdrawing the hush money sum from the bank account that his wife monitored, set up a shell company and funneled $130,000 to Daniels through Davidson. 

Trump then allegedly repaid Cohen over the course of 2017 with monthly checks, which he signed himself in the Oval Office. The checks are the heart of the prosecution’s case; along with invoices and other statements, they represent the business documents he is accused of falsifying because they were labeled as payment for Cohen’s legal services, rather than reimbursements for hush money. The sum Cohen was refunded included other expenses and was “grossed up” to account for taxes, coming to a total of $420,000. 

Prosecutors called witnesses who could speak to the checks’ journey from conception to delivery — former White House staffers and Trump Organization employees. 

To battle the defense team’s suggestion that Trump was simply unaware of the repayments, prosecutors entered into evidence snippets from Trump’s various books in which he stresses the importance of keeping a watchful eye over every penny spent. Representatives from the companies that published Trump’s books were subpoenaed to help prosecutors because of a rule that requires evidence to be entered through a witness. An archivist from C-SPAN was required to fly in from Indiana to help the prosecutors enter other evidence. Ditto a transcription company representative from Texas. 

At every turn, Trump’s team has sought to discredit the prosecution’s witnesses and cast doubt on their evidence. They hit particularly hard on Cohen and Daniels, each of whom’s testimony provided some of the trial’s most riveting moments. Daniels, for example, shared details about her alleged 2006 sexual experience with Trump at a Lake Tahoe hotel room — sometimes too many details. 

Trump attorney Susan Necheles attempted to shame Daniels for what her client says is a false story, telling her at one point, “You have a lot of experience making phony stories about sex.” (In addition to acting, Daniels also writes and directs porn films.) Trump attorney Todd Blanche used the word “lie” every chance he got during his cross-examination of Cohen, who has admitted to telling lies on behalf of Trump in the past and served prison time for lying to Congress. 

As the prosecution’s last witness, and having been so close to Trump, Cohen’s testimony served to fill in the gaps that remained in the prosecution’s version of events. They used extensive phone logs, text messages and email records to illustrate how Cohen was allegedly acting at Trump’s direction — not going rogue, as the defense suggested. 

The prosecution team rested their case on Monday. By noon Tuesday, the defense had also rested, calling just two witnesses in an attempt to reshape the jury’s view of Cohen as a liar. One, a paralegal, introduced his own chart showing call logs between Cohen and a Trump-allied lawyer, Robert Costello. The other was Costello himself, whose antics on the stand drew an angry response from Merchan. While Cohen met with Costello while he figured out whether to cooperate with federal prosecutors in 2018, he did not hire Costello, testifying that he could not trust him. The overall effect was to suggest Cohen had a cozier relationship with the lawyer than he’d let on, and that Cohen was capable of acting erratically. 

Notably absent from the witness stand throughout all of the proceedings was one man — Trump himself. Despite repeatedly claiming that he would, the former president never testified in his own defense.