15 July 2024

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump exits Trump Tower to attend his hush money trial at Manhattan criminal court in New York City on May 28, 2024.

Eduardo Munoz | Reuters

A prosecutor told jurors Tuesday that a scheme to catch and kill potentially damaging stories about Donald Trump beginning in 2015 “could very well be what got President Trump elected” the following year.

Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Joshua Steinglass argued that the value of a “corrupt bargain” between the publisher of the National Enquirer, Trump and his then-personal lawyer Michael Cohen to suppress negative stories about Trump cannot be overstated, and might have been one of the most valuable political contributions ever.

“This scheme, cooked up by these men … could very well be what got President Trump elected,” said Steinglass in his closing argument at Trump’s criminal hush money trial in Manhattan Supreme Court.

David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, testified at trial about his agreement with Trump and Cohen to alert them to possibly damaging stories about the then-Republican presidential nominee, and his publication of negative stories about Trump’s political opponents, among them 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Pecker testified about how his company paid $150,000 to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, to buy her silence before the 2016 election about her alleged sexual affair with Trump.

Pecker’s company also paid a Trump World Tower doorman, Dino Sajudin, $30,000 for his claim that Trump had a child out of wedlock with a housekeeper, a story the National Enquirer never ran.

“This was really catch and kill,” Steinglass said.

“Keep in mind Mr. Pecker has no reason to lie, no bias toward the defendant and thinks Mr. Trump is still a friend and a mentor,” Steinglass said.

Earlier Tuesday, the judge presiding over Trump’s trial blasted the former president’s defense lawyer for arguing to jurors that “you cannot send someone to prison based on the words of Michael Cohen.”

After the 12-member jury had left the courtroom at the end of defense attorney Todd Blanche’s closing argument, Judge Juan Merchan laid into him.

“I think that statement was outrageous, Mr. Blanche,” Merchan said.

“Someone who has been a prosecutor for as long as you have and a defense attorney as long as you have,” the judge said.

“It’s simply not allowed. Period. It’s hard for me to imagine how that was accidental in any way,” Merchan added.

Steinglass complained about Blanche’s remark, which referenced Cohen’s trial testimony that he paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 before the 2016 election at Trump’s direction to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual tryst with Trump a decade earlier.

Steinglass called Blanche’s comment “blatant and wholly inappropriate.”

When jurors were brought back into the courtroom after lunch, Merchan told them that Blanche’s comment “is improper and you must disregard it.”

The judge also said that if the jury convicted Trump, it would be up to Merchan to impose the sentence.

Merchan also noted that a prison sentence is not mandatory if Trump is convicted.

In this courtroom sketch, defense lawyer Todd Blanche presents closing arguments as Justice Juan Merchan presides during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s criminal trial on charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016, in Manhattan state court in New York City on May 28, 2024.

Jane Rosenberg | Reuters

Jurors in criminal cases are instructed to consider whether a defendant committed a crime, and not to factor in the potential punishment for that crime, such as prison.

Blanche began his closing argument Tuesday morning by telling jurors that Trump “is innocent” of the charges in the case, 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

Trump “did not commit any crimes, and the district attorney has not met their burden of proof, period,” Blanche said.

The records at issue in the case described as legal expenses are the reimbursements that Trump and his company, the Trump Organization, gave his then-personal lawyer and fixer Cohen for paying off Daniels.

Prosecutors said the payment was designed to prevent the adult film actor from damaging Trump’s chances to win the White House in 2016.

Blanche argued, “You should want and expect more than the testimony of Michael Cohen” to convict Trump.

Blanche told jurors the records were not false, and there was no intent to defraud anyone by labeling the records as legal expenses.

“Cohen lied to you, Cohen lied to you,” Blanche said of Trump’s former lawyer, who testified at length about Trump directing him to pay off Daniels, and how he did little, if any, legal work for Trump on the heels of that payment.

“The story Mr. Cohen told you on that witness stand is not true,” Blanche said. “There is no proof that President Trump knew about the payment before it was made.”

But Blanche argued that Cohen had believed that Daniels’ shopping over her story about Trump to media outlets “was an extortion attempt” against Trump.

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump sits with his lawyer Todd Blanche as his criminal trial over charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016 continues, at Manhattan state court in New York City on May 28, 2024.

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

“And, by the way, it was another opportunity for Mr. Cohen to take advantage,” Blanche said. “He paid $130,000 to Ms. Daniels because he knew he could take credit whether they won the election or lost the election.”

“He was very worried about his future,” the lawyer said about Cohen. “You saw and heard multiple, multiple examples of that. He was worried about if President Trump won, he was worried about if President Trump lost.” 

Referring to Daniels, who also testified at the trial, Blanche said, “She wrote a book and she has a podcast. And a documentary.”

“This started out as an extortion, there’s no doubt about that, and ended very well for Ms. Daniels — financially speaking,” Blanche said.

Blanche said even if jurors determined there was a conspiracy to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, he expected them to conclude that Trump was innocent.

“As I said to you in the opening statement, it doesn’t matter if there was a conspiracy to win the election,” Blanche argued. “Every campaign is a conspiracy to promote a candidate.”

But Steinglass, in his own closing argument, said, “I’m not suggesting [Daniels] wasn’t looking to get paid, but that is a different thing from … extortion.”

Steinglass also said, . “This case is not about Michael Cohen.”

“This case is about Donald Trump.”

More news on Donald Trump

“In the end, it doesn’t really matter because you don’t get to commit election fraud or falsify your business records because you think you’ve been victimized,” the prosecutor said.

“You’ve got to use your common sense here.”

On his way into the courtroom, Trump called Merchan “highly conflicted” and “corrupt.”

“This is a dark day in America,” Trump told reporters. “This is a very dangerous day for America. It’s a very sad day.”

Trump is the first former U.S. president ever to be tried in a criminal case. If convicted, Trump faces a possible maximum sentence of four years in prison for each felony count.

He denies Daniels’ claim that the two had sex once in 2006, months after his wife Melania gave birth to their son, Barron.

In his opening statement, assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo had told jurors that the hush money payment to Daniels, and the reimbursements to Cohen, amounted to “election fraud. Pure and simple.”

This is developing news. Please check back for updates.

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