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20 Jun 2024 5:10
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  •   Home > News > Law and Order

    Donald Trump's 'hush money' case comes to a head as defence, prosecution deliver closing arguments

    The first criminal trial of a former president in American history inches toward the end, as the prosecution and defence deliver closing arguments in a marathon session that stretches into the night.


    The first criminal trial of a former US president in the nation's history is coming to a close.

    For more than a month, Donald Trump has been forced to sit through a court case that spun out of a sexual liaison with a porn star that he says never happened.

    Trump is accused of falsifying business records to cover up a payment made to Stormy Daniels before his election in 2016.

    The payment was made by Trump's one-time lawyer Michael Cohen to stop Daniels from speaking about their alleged extramarital hook-up.

    Prosecutors have been trying to prove Trump was responsible for 34 instances where reimbursement payments to Cohen were falsely recorded as legal expenses.

    Trump's lawyers say the former president did nothing wrong, because Cohen had indeed provided legal services, and in any case, there was no evidence Trump knew how the expenses were recorded by his company's bookkeepers.

    On Tuesday, both sides outlined their cases in closing summations. 

    Here are the key points.

    The 'GLOAT': Trump's defence zeroes in on Michael Cohen 

    Trump isn't happy that his lawyers had to go first in delivering their closing arguments to the court, giving the prosecution the final say. He took to social media to describe it as "VERY UNFAIR".

    But it's standard practice in this sort of trial in New York, and his lawyer Todd Blanche used his time before the jury to get straight to his overall point. 

    "President Trump is innocent," he said. 

    "He did not commit any crimes and the district attorney has not met their burden of proof. Period."

    Blanche quickly focused on Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer and fixer who was the prosecution's star witness. 

    Cohen had testified that he paid Daniels, at Trump's instruction, to buy her silence and protect the-then presidential candidate's 2016 election campaign. 

    But Blanche argued Cohen couldn't be trusted, pointing to his history of lying under oath and his past criminal convictions, arguing he was "an MVP of liars."

    Playing off another sporting reference, he described Cohen as "the GLOAT: the greatest liar of all time".

    Blanche finished by urging jurors to put their personal views of the former president (and current candidate) aside when weighing their decision. 

    "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.

    "If you focus just on that evidence you heard in this courtroom, this is a very, very quick and easy 'not guilty' verdict."

    Prosecution outlines conspiracy to 'hoodwink the American voter'

    After Trump's lawyers worked to paint Cohen as a dishonest, dodgy operator, prosecutors pointed out he was once Trump's choice to be his right-hand man, and many of the lies he told in the past were in service of the former president.

    "We didn't chose Michael Cohen to be our witness; we didn't pick him up at the witness store," New York prosecutor Josh Steinglass said. He argued Trump "not only corrupted those around him, he also got them to lie to cover it up".

    He suggested Trump's attacks on Cohen outside the courtroom were an attempt to intimidate other potential witnesses. He took jurors through some of Trump's social media posts and said: "The defendant wanted everyone to see the cost of taking him on".

    But he pointed out that other witnesses, who corroborated Mr Cohen's evidence at least in part, were still loyal to the former president and had no reason to lie.

    Steinglass suggested the "hush money" payment to Daniels represented an attempt to "hoodwink" voters before the 2016 election.

    "We'll never know if this effort to hoodwink the American voter impacted the election, but that's something we don't need to prove," he said.

    He described Daniels' detailed account of her encounter with Trump as "cringeworthy", "messy" and "uncomfortable to hear", but said that was "kind of the point".

    "In the simplest terms, Stormy Daniels is the motive," he said.

    A Hollywood intervention

    Tensions outside court appear to have ratcheted up a notch as the trial draws to a close, with President Joe Biden's campaign sending in a celebrity spokesperson to rally against Trump. 

    Hollywood star Robert De Niro appeared outside the court alongside two police officers who defended the US Capitol during the January 6 attack.

    "I am so angry that this person, and let alone a New Yorker, came and hustled the world, and hustled this country... and they believe him," the actor said.

    "It's terrifying, I have to say something."

    De Niro was confronted by Trump supporters, one of whom accused him of being a "f***ing traitor".

    "You're a punk De Niro, you're only a wise guy in the movies," another yelled. 

    Trump's campaign immediately followed up with its own, less star-studded press conference, in which De Niro was described as a "washed up actor".

    "After months of saying politics had nothing to do with this trial, they showed up and made a campaign event out of a lower Manhattan trial day for President Trump," senior campaign advisor Jason Miller said.

    Biden's campaign argued the event wasn't organised to discuss the case, but to make the most of the large crowd of reporters assembled outside the court each day.

    But it was an unexpected intervention at the pointy end of a trial that the president himself has tried to refrain from commenting on, amid Trump's unfounded allegations that Biden has something to do with it.

    And the former president's supporters will likely continue to criticise the move.

    Jurors prepare to deliberate after a marathon

    As in all criminal cases, jurors can only convict Trump if they are convinced beyond reasonable doubt that he is guilty.

    After closing arguments wrap up, the judge will provide the jury with a set of instructions on how it needs to go about reaching its decision – for example, setting out the relevant law and legal terminology, and explaining what the jurors can and can't take into account.

    This is a standard part of a criminal trial but it can be critical to deciding the outcome, and lawyers for both the prosecution and the defence haggled over the specifics in court last week. 

    Closing arguments made for a marathon session on Tuesday.

    The court, which usually closes at 4:30pm, sat until 8:00pm. During a late break in proceedings, Trump posted "BORING!" to social media.

    So jurors' instructions are set to be given on Wednesday, local time, and Judge Juan Merchan has suggested they'll take about an hour. 

    After that, the jury starts deliberating behind closed doors – and there's no way of knowing how long it could take.

    Jurors must reach a unanimous decision in order for their decision to stand. 

    But they don't necessarily have to return the same verdict on all of the 34 counts of falsifying business records that Trump is charged with. 

    If jurors can't agree on the outcome, it could result in what's known as a hung jury, in which case the judge could declare a mistrial.

    Prosecutors could then try to start the trial all over again. 

    But with the presidential election now less than six months away, it's not clear whether it would take place before Americans vote. 

    If Trump is convicted, jail is possible. The maximum sentence for falsifying business records is four years. 

    But a prison sentence is considered unlikely, due to Trump's clean criminal record. (His previous court defeats – including in a sexual abuse case, a related defamation claim and a business fraud suit – have all been in civil, not criminal, courts.)

    Many Americans have largely tuned out of Trump's long-running legal sagas, but opinion polls suggest a guilty verdict could be politically damaging for Trump. 

    A Reuters/Ipsos poll in April found 24 per cent of Republicans, and 60 per cent of independents, said they would not vote for Trump if he were convicted.

    But an acquittal could boost his election prospects, potentially by providing ammunition for his argument he is being politically persecuted. 

    ABC/wires

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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