Closing arguments wrap up in Trump’s hush-money trial: Here’s what to know

Jurors will now deliberate before delivering a verdict in historic New York trial against former US president.

Former US President Donald Trump sits at the defence table with his lawyers at the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City [Steven Hirsch/New York Post via AP]Published On 29 May 202429 May 2024

Lawyers in New York have presented sweeping, hours-long closing arguments in the unprecedented criminal trial against former United States President Donald Trump, accused of unlawfully covering up hush-money payments made to an adult film actress.

In the coming days, a 12-member jury could make yet another historic decision: whether Trump will be the first former US president in history convicted of a crime.

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Trump has been charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in relation to a $130,000 hush-money payment that his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

The prosecution has spent weeks seeking to demonstrate that the falsifications were part of a wider scheme to illegally influence the 2016 presidential election and prevent Daniels from going public with her claim that she had a sexual encounter with Trump.

The former president and presumptive Republican 2024 presidential nominee has denied that any such encounter took place. He also has roundly rejected the charges and dismissed the entire trial as a politicised attack.

For the felony charges against Trump to stick, jurors must agree with prosecutors’ claims that the falsifications were done with the intent to commit or conceal another crime.

Here’s what to know about the closing arguments and what comes next.

What did the defence say?

The first person to take the floor for closing arguments on Tuesday was Trump’s defence lawyer Todd Blanche, whose final statement to the jury took nearly three hours.

It was a sprawling summation, ranging from the minutiae of tax filings to broader questions about how modern political campaigns are run.

While prosecutors alleged Trump, Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker hatched a scheme to stifle negative news stories during the 2016 presidential campaign, Blanche maintained there was no malfeasance – only democracy in action.

“It doesn’t matter if there’s a conspiracy to win an election,” he said in one particularly audacious moment. “Every campaign in this country is a conspiracy to promote a candidate, a group of people who are working together to help somebody win.”

Blanche later took aim at Daniels’s testimony, saying her description of an alleged sexual encounter with Trump sought to elicit sympathy from jurors, while lacking relevance to the charges in question.

After that, he turned to Cohen, whom he portrayed as a serial liar and “the human embodiment of reasonable doubt”.

Blanche’s final message to the jurors urged them to put aside any personal feelings they have towards Trump. “This is not a referendum on the ballot box – who you voted for in 2016 or 2020, who you plan on voting for in 2024,” he said. “That is not what this is about.”

What did the prosecutors say?

In turn, the prosecution made its own hours-long closing statement, pushing the hearing into the evening hours, well beyond its usual 5pm clock-out.

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass meticulously laid out a series of events that he said amounted to an effort by Trump “to manipulate and defraud the voters, to pull the wool over their eyes in a coordinated fashion”.

To show a pattern of behaviour, Steinglass revisited other so-called “catch-and-kill” schemes related to Trump, including the National Enquirer’s purchase of model Karen McDougal’s allegations of an affair and efforts to quash claims by a Trump Tower doorman that Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock.

Steinglass went on to portray Cohen as a flawed individual but one who has offered invaluable insights into the world Trump operated in. The case, he told the jury, is not about “whether you like Michael Cohen”.

“It’s whether he has useful, reliable information to give you about what went down in this case, and the truth is that he was in the best position to know,” he said.

He added that the defence sought to redirect the jury’s attention towards Cohen’s misdeeds, and not Trump’s. “This case is not about Michael Cohen. It’s about Donald Trump.”

Steinglass also attempted to stamp out the defence argument that the hush money was a bid to save Trump’s family from humiliation, not influence the election.

“The defendant’s primary concern was not his family but the election,” Steinglass said, pointing out that the hush money was paid in 2016, 10 years after the alleged affair. If Trump were so concerned with his family, Steinglass asked, why did he wait for an election year to address Daniels’s story?

In addition, he tried to skewer the defence’s claim that because the hush-money payment passed through Cohen’s hands, they were legitimate “legal expenses”.

“Mr Cohen spent more time being cross-examined at this trial than he did doing legal work for Donald Trump in 2017,” Steinglass quipped at one point.

He pointed to a social media statement Trump made referencing a “reimbursement” to Cohen, as opposed to legal expenses.

“And yet, they still try to argue that the payments to Cohen in 2017 were for legal services rendered, because to say anything else is to admit that the business records were false, and they can’t do that,” Steinglass said, gesturing to the defence.

His closing argument surpassed five hours by the time it ended, just shy of 8pm local time.

Why was actor Robert De Niro outside the court?

Since Trump’s trial began in mid-April, politicians, supporters and members of the international press have descended on the Manhattan Criminal Court to participate in the proceedings.

Trump’s political allies – including Senator Rick Scott, Representative Matt Gaetz and former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy – have all appeared outside of the court to voice their support for the embattled Republican.

But on Tuesday, President Joe Biden campaign’s waded into the spectacle for the first time, sending actor Robert De Niro and two former police officers who were present when Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

If Trump gets re-elected, “he will never leave”, De Niro said. “If Trump returns to the White House, you can kiss these freedoms goodbye that we all take for granted.”

Trump currently faces two criminal cases related to efforts to overturn the 2020 election results: a federal case in Washington, DC, and a state indictment in Georgia. He also faces a fourth indictment in Florida, where he is accused of concealing classified documents after leaving office.

The New York trial, however, is the only one set to conclude before the election.

What comes next?

Before jurors begin their deliberations, Judge Juan Merchan, who is overseeing the case, will give detailed instructions laying out the specific legal questions at the heart of the case.

He will also direct them about what information they should and should not take into account as they decide whether Trump is guilty.

Jurors will then deliberate away from the public, where they will have access to all of the evidence presented. They will also be able to ask questions of the judge, who will confer with prosecutors and defence lawyers before deciding how to answer.

All 12 jurors must agree on a verdict for the judge to accept it. If they are unable to do so, the trial will be a deadlock and Merchan will declare a mistrial.

Once jurors inform the court they have reached a verdict, Merchan will summon the parties to the courtroom. He must still affirm the verdict and enter a final judgement. Either side may also ask him to effectively overrule the jury.

If Trump is found guilty, it will likely be weeks or months until he is eventually sentenced. While the charges carry a maximum of four years in prison, experts generally agree he is more likely to face a fine, probation or community service.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies