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The last words: What each side said in closing arguments for Trump's New York trial

Former President Donald Trump leaves Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City at the end of the day's proceedings Tuesday during his criminal trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments.
Charly Triballeau
AFP via Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump leaves Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City at the end of the day's proceedings Tuesday during his criminal trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments.

NEW YORK — Lawyers gave their final arguments Tuesday in their effort to convict or acquit former President Donald Trump of 34 felony counts of falsified business records as the historic trial pushes closer to an end.

A 12-person jury, which has listened to 22 witnesses and over six hours of arguments, is set to begin deliberating Wednesday. It could be hours or days or weeks before they have a decision. A unanimous jury is needed to either convict or acquit Trump.

Trump, who has pleaded not guilty, frequently called the trial “election interference” for preventing him from campaigning for president, falsely claiming a partisan conspiracy against him.

On Tuesday, Trump was joined in court by more family members than usual. Children Donald Jr., Eric and Tiffany were present in the courtroom, as well as son-in-law Michael Boulos and daughter-in-law and RNC co-chair Lara Trump.

As Trump lawyer Todd Blanche was beginning his closing arguments, the Biden-Harris campaign held an event outside the courthouse in Manhattan featuring actor Robert De Niro and U.S. Capitol police officers Harry Dunn and Michael Fanone.

Prosecutors allege that Trump knew about a settlement negotiation with adult film actor Stormy Daniels to keep her allegations of an affair out of the press ahead of the 2016 election and that Trump directed his former “fixer” Michael Cohen to make a settlement payment of $130,000 to her. Prosecutors argue that the falsified business records, in part labeled as "legal retainers," are a paper trail for Cohen.

Trump has long argued he was only paying his lawyer.

The defense gave closing arguments first, focusing on Michael Cohen

As is New York law, Trump’s defense gave the first set of closing arguments, which lasted over two hours. Blanche focused on the credibility issues surrounding Cohen.

Here are four highlights from his summary of their defense:

1. Who didn't testify

The defense spent time pointing out potential witnesses the jury did not hear from — specifically Allen Weisselberg, Don Jr. or Eric Trump, who were Trump Organization executives at the time; Dylan Howard, a former editor of the National Enquirer; Gina Rodriguez, who managed Daniels; or Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller.

2. The documents

Blanche argues Trump’s sons signed two checks that constitute some of the felony counts. And he also told the jury that Cohen was the one who generated the 11 invoices that make up 11 of the felony counts on Trump.

He maintained that the allegedly false retainer was a legitimate retainer of services — especially because Cohen billed himself as Trump’s personal lawyer.

“You shouldn’t think the word ‘retainer’ differentiates from the reason for the payment — it's just a single word,” Blanche said.

3. Cohen's credibility

Blanche attempted to cast doubt on various conversations Cohen recalled having with Trump, including at the White House, allegedly about the deal to silence Daniels. But the defense also argued that Cohen lied on the stand, answering questions one way to the prosecution but a different way with the defense.

“Cohen lied to you,” Blanche claimed repeatedly to hammer the point home to the jurors at various stages of his speech.

He also spent time casting doubt on the secret recording Cohen made of a conversation with Trump that allegedly confirms knowledge of the payment and settlement to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

4. Election influence

Blanche reiterated one of the points he made in openings: It doesn’t matter if there was a conspiracy to try to affect the election. “Every campaign is a conspiracy to promote a candidacy,” Blanche said.

It is commonplace, Blanche said, for celebrities and candidates to work with media organizations, such as tabloids, to promote themselves and their campaigns.

Blanche argued that it “makes no sense” that Trump, Cohen and former publisher David Pecker genuinely believed they could influence the 2016 election through the use of the National Enquirer tabloid.

“There is nothing wrong with President Trump wanting to get positive news stories,” said Blanche. But he added: ”The idea that sophisticated people believed positive stories in the National Enquirer could influence the election is preposterous.“

Blanche said the reach of the tabloid was far below what would have ever been needed to swing the election.

The prosecution pushes back

Prosecutors spent six hours walking the jury through every part of their case and refuting claims made by the defense. Prosecutor Josh Steinglass walked the jury through all their evidence: of the 2006 sexual encounter described by Daniels, saying that Cohen knew what happened in that hotel room “and that goes to motive.” Steinglass told the jury of Daniels' testimony: “That is the display the defendant didn’t want the public to see.”

Here are four highlights from their closing arguments:

1. The 1 minute and 36 second phone call 

Steinglass took out his own phone, set the timer and reenacted a call that was at the center of Cohen’s cross and direct examination two weeks ago. Cohen testified that in a phone call, he had both spoken with Trump’s bodyguard about a harassing teen and separately with Trump about the payment to Daniels. Trump’s lawyers aimed to discredit Cohen’s memory of that conversation — arguing that it would be hard to broach both subjects in that short time.

Starting with, “Hey, Keith, how’s it going?” Steinglass went through a simulated phone call where he discussed the issue of a teenage prankster who had been harassing Cohen, and then said, “Can I talk to the boss?” Then Steinglass simulated a brief conversation about taking care of “that thing,” and a little small talk.

“And all that took 49 seconds,” about half the time of the call in question, Steinglass said, adding that this was just one of 20 calls Cohen had.

2. The validity of witnesses

Steinglass told the jury that in order to acquit Trump, they would have to disregard several witnesses’ testimony — not just Cohen's — including that of former Trump Organization controller Jeffrey McConney, and other pieces of evidence like handwritten notes on bank statements that detailed the math of how the payments would be made.

Steinglass referenced various witnesses who came to testify, including current and former employees of Trump’s business and administration. He also referred to the witnesses who work for companies that published Trump’s books about his business philosophy.

Rereading paragraphs from the books, Steinglass doubled down on Trump’s “frugality” and reminded the jury of Pecker’s testimony, where Trump was also described as frugal.

2. Trump's business practices

Steinglass once again went through the specific checks and invoices in question and how Deborah Tarasoff, the accounts payable supervisor at the Trump Organization, packaged them together to send to Trump even after he went to the White House.

Prosecutors pushed that even the chief financial officer, Weisselberg, could only approve invoices up to $10,000.

“Despite his frugality, and attention to detail, the defendant didn't ask any questions, 'cause he already knew the answers,” Steinglass argued, asking the jury to not believe the “bogus narrative that the defendant was too busy” while at the White House to notice the large sums of money was being spent.

There were two documents that showed handwritten notes from Trump’s chief financial officer and his comptroller that clearly lay out the reimbursement scheme: 130 times two, to cover taxes, plus another expense, plus a bonus, for a total of $420,000. Steinglass said, “They are the smoking guns.”

“They completely blow out of the water the defense claim that these were for legal work,” he said, adding, “I am almost speechless that they are still trying to make this argument that this was for legal retainer.”

3. Election concerns

Steinglass focused on the concerns he said Trump had about how the story of the alleged affair with an adult film star could hurt his 2016 presidential run. He argued that Trump himself told Pecker and Cohen to handle quashing negative media — specifically allegations from women about Trump in the leadup to 2016.

The prosecutor said that it all started at that August 2015 meeting in Trump Tower with the National Enquirer publisher, Pecker. Steinglass said: “Once money starts changing hands, that’s a federal election law violation.”

He doubled down that Trump’s concern was not his family, but the election, and the deal with the tabloid shows that was the motivation for a settlement 10 years after the alleged encounter.

“This is buying a story that you do not intend to print, so that no one else can print it,” Steinglass said, referencing Blanche’s argument that tabloids often purchase stories and then choose not to run them.

Tying this to the Daniels payment, Steinglass reminded jurors of the timing — how the deal to have Daniels sign a nondisclosure agreement came after the Access Hollywood tape became public.

“Stormy Daniels was a walking and talking reminder that the defendant was not only words,” Steinglass said.

NPR's Andrea Bernstein contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.