Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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Trump’s Destiny Sealed? Jury Deliberates After Explosive Closing Arguments

Prosecution dismantles moral relativism defense, argues Trump hush money plot subverted democracy in 2016 election.

Donald Trump hush money trial jury
Sketch: Christine Cornell

After a series of protracted and passionate closing arguments, the fate of Donald Trump now rests with twelve jurors in his landmark hush-money trial. The jurors, who began deliberations just before lunchtime on Wednesday, find themselves in the eye of a historical storm, shouldering the formidable task of delivering a verdict regarding a former U.S. president’s alleged illicit activities.

At the heart of this landmark case lies an explosive allegation: that Trump orchestrated an illicit hush money scheme to bury allegations of an extramarital affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels in the final days of his 2016 presidential campaign. The former president stands accused of a staggering 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to conceal the $130,000 payout to Daniels in order to influence the election.

Defense Urges Jury to Disregard Cohen’s Testimony

The day kicked off with Trump’s defense attorney, Todd Blanche, taking center stage for nearly three hours. Blanche’s strategy hinged on an all-out offensive against the credibility of the prosecution’s star witness, Michael Cohen—Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer. Employing a blend of scathing insults and sports analogies, Blanche dubbed Cohen the “Greatest Liar of All Time” and “MVP of Liars,” repeatedly imploring the jury to disregard his incendiary testimony that directly implicated the former president.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche sought to shift culpability onto Michael Cohen, asserting it was the former fixer, not Donald Trump, who spearheaded the transaction with Stormy Daniels. Furthermore, Blanche maintained the $420,000 in payments Trump made to Cohen, labeled as “legal services,” were indeed legitimate expenditures unconnected to the hush money payout. 

Blanche challenged the prosecution’s portrayal and former Trump aide Hope Hicks’ testimony depicting the campaign as being rocked by the release of the incendiary “Access Hollywood” tape. Rather than portraying it as a crippling crisis, Blanche insisted Trump never believed the recording of his lewd comments about groping women would jeopardize his electoral chances.

“He never thought it was going to cause him to lose the campaign. And, indeed, it didn’t,” Blanche argued. 

Rather than fearing that Stormy Daniels’ allegations could compound the damage and imperil his White House bid, Blanche claimed Trump’s primary concern was how the tape might impact his family.

“You cannot convict President Trump of any crime beyond a reasonable doubt on the words of Michael Cohen,” Blanche declared, his voice rising as he accused Cohen of perjury. The defense painted Cohen as a bitter, greedy liar hellbent on exacting revenge after being denied a coveted White House job. “He has an ax to grind,” Blanche asserted.

Blanche’s ire extended to Daniels herself, whom he painted as an extortionist seeking to line her pockets at Trump’s expense. “This started out as an extortion, there’s no doubt about that, and it ended very well for Ms. Daniels, financially speaking” the defense lawyer sneered.

Prosecution Dismantles Defense’s Narrative

The prosecution swiftly pushed back during their closing arguments, with Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass launching a sweeping rebuttal that spanned over four hours and carried the proceedings late into the evening. Steinglass reminded the jury that while Cohen was indeed an imperfect witness with a history of deception, he was the insider who could offer an unparalleled glimpse into Trump’s inner circle.

“We didn’t pick Michael Cohen up at the witness store,” Steinglass retorted. “The defendant chose Michael Cohen as his fixer because he was willing to lie and cheat on his behalf.”

The prosecutor pointed out that Cohen’s testimony was thoroughly corroborated by a mountain of evidence—from emails and text messages to secretly recorded audio of Trump discussing the hush money deal. He portrayed Cohen as understandably embittered, being “the only one who’s paid the price for his role in this conspiracy” thus far.

A key moment came when Steinglass detailed how David Pecker, former publisher and a longtime Trump ally, admitted to concocting a plan with Donald Trump and Michael Cohen to help Trump get elected. Pecker, through the National Enquirer—a publication he led—played a pivotal role by suppressing potentially damning stories through a practice called “catch and kill” which effectively stopped troubling stories about Trump from going public.

Steinglass portrayed the web of deception as a concerted attempt to sway the 2016 election, accusing Trump of working in unison with Cohen and Pecker to hide unsavory news from voters—acts which he argued played a critical role in Trump’s ascent to the presidency.

Hush Money Linked to Fallout From “Access Hollywood” Tape 

At the center of the hush money payments was the “Access Hollywood” tape, the bombshell recording released in October 2016 where Trump brazenly boasted about sexually assaulting women. As Steinglass recounted through a flurry of witness testimony and communication logs, the tape’s release triggered “pandemonium” within Trump’s camp, prompting a desperate bid to portray his lewd comments as mere “locker room talk.”

Steinglass methodically guided jurors through the prosecution’s theory, asserting that Trump directed the illicit payment to bury Daniels’ claims of a 2006 sexual encounter—a potentially campaign-derailing bombshell after the explosive “Access Hollywood” tape scandal. The prosecutor framed the hush money as a desperate bid to salvage Trump’s presidential bid.

It was against this backdrop of crisis that Trump allegedly approved the clandestine payment to Daniels. “Stormy Daniels was a walking, talking reminder that the defendant was not only words” Steinglass exclaimed, arguing the hush money was a craven attempt to “muzzle” an existential threat to Trump’s electoral prospects.

Defense Calls CFO’s Records “A Lie” Without Proof

Pivoting to the money trail, the prosecutor brandished what he termed the “smoking gun” evidence—handwritten notes from Trump’s own CFO detailing the financial machinations to “gross up” Cohen’s reimbursement and bury it under innocuous “legal fees.” These scribbles, Steinglass declared, “completely blow out of the water” any claims that the colossal $420,000 payout was legitimate billable work.

Steinglass emphasized that these scribbled notes—which explicitly mentioned “grossing up” the amount (covering the income tax owed by the payee by tacking it on to the reimbursement)—completely undermined any assertions that the staggering $420,000 payout to Cohen was for legitimate legal services. The prosecutor asserted that Weisselberg’s own words exposed the true nature of the transaction—a scheme to disguise the reimbursement for the $130,000 Michael Cohen paid to silence Daniels about her alleged affair with Trump.

In a bewildering attempt to counter this damning evidence, Trump’s defense attorney Todd Blanche resorted to the implausible claim that Weisselberg’s notes describing the “gross up” were simply “a lie.” Blanche offered no substantive explanation for why or how the CFO’s notes would be fabricated, instead baldly asserting that the $420,000 was compensation for genuine legal expenses.

Prosecutor Reenacts Trump-Cohen Call

At one point, Steinglass dramatically re-enacted a brief phone call between Trump and Cohen, aiming to counter Blanche’s insinuation that it was too short for any substantive discussion regarding the hush money payment made to Stormy Daniels. 

The defense had claimed that the roughly 90-second call was only about Cohen being harassed by a prank caller, rather than a discussion about the Daniels payoff. Steinglass, however, offered a pointed rebuttal through a staged reenactment.

Steinglass demonstrated how the brief call could have easily accommodated both addressing the prank calls made to Cohen and updating Trump on the Daniels payment negotiations. His performance highlighted that the duration cited by the defense was more than sufficient to cover multiple topics.

This dramatic display undercut what the defense had positioned as a key argument casting doubt on Cohen’s testimony about Trump’s knowledge of the hush money deal. Observers in the courtroom noted Steinglass’s rebuttal dismantled a key aspect of the defense’s case.

Prosecution Rebukes Moral Relativism

Throughout the closing arguments, references to Trump’s character surfaced as subtext. The defense portrayed the Stormy Daniels saga as a pedestrian campaign tactic, with Blanche asserting: “It doesn’t matter if there was a conspiracy to try to win an election. Every campaign in this country is a conspiracy to promote a candidate.”

But Steinglass rebuked such moral relativism, arguing that the case is a litmus test for America’s democratic ideals. “This scheme, cooked up by these men, at this time, could very well be what got President Trump elected,” he declared ominously.

New York Jurors to Weigh Complex Web of Evidence

With closing arguments ending shortly after 10 p.m., the case now shifts to the jury room for deliberations beginning on Wednesday. The 12 New Yorkers on the panel, operating under a veil of anonymity, must sift through a complex web of evidence and testimony before rendering their verdict.

Their decision will be monumental: Should they convict Trump on even one of the 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, the former president could face up to four years in prison—an unprecedented outcome that would reverberate throughout the U.S. legal and political landscape. Acquittal, on the other hand, would be a major victory for Trump, allowing him to potentially re-enter the White House while avoiding the taint of a criminal conviction. There could also be a hung jury if they can’t come to a unanimous verdict, which would result in a mistrial. 

For the Americans following the drama from afar, it marks perhaps a critical juncture in holding a former commander-in-chief legally accountable for alleged misdeeds—and determining whether the presidency exists above the law’s reach or remains grounded by the bedrock democratic principle that no one is above the law.