After 20 days in court for Trump's hush money trial, here's what you missed

Closing arguments are set to begin in Donald Trump’s hush money trial Tuesday, after which a jury of 12 New Yorkers will be tasked with deciding whether to convict him on charges that he falsified business records and acted to influence the 2016 election.

For weeks, prosecutors from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office have worked to show that Trump directed a scheme to cover up an alleged sexual encounter with a porn star at a fraught moment for his 2016 presidential campaign, which aides feared could throw his White House bid into turmoil. Jurors will be tasked with deciding whether the allegation that Trump approved of hush money payments and sought to break the law by falsely recording them were part of a broader criminal scheme — or an effort to avoid embarrassment.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records in connection with payments Michael Cohen made to adult film star Stormy Daniels. The government seeks to convince the jury that Trump sought to conceal the payments in furtherance of another crime and that that is enough to convict him in the legally convoluted case.

Here’s what you missed during 20 days in court for the Trump hush money trial:

Believing the star witness

Trump mouthed “bull----” as Daniels recounted the alleged tryst that she said led to her being paid $130,000 days before the 2016 election to stay silent.

But Trump otherwise said little as a parade of former aides and associates stepped onto the witness stand, where they recounted the events that led prosecutors to charge him with 34 felony counts.

Sitting feet away from him, Cohen, his estranged fixer, testified that Trump and his top finance executive were in on a scheme to disguise the reimbursement of his payment to Daniels as a legal retainer. Cohen said that when he later faced legal jeopardy for violating campaign finance law by coordinating the hush money payments, he came under a pressure campaign by people around Trump that he viewed as an attempt to stop him from flipping.

Cohen admitted calling Trump a “boorish cartoon misogynist” and “Cheeto-dusted” villain who should be caged “like an animal,” even as he took on a demeanor unrecognizable to people who had known him for years.

A defense attorney, Todd Blanche, urged the judge to “not let this case go to the jury relying on Mr. Cohen’s testimony,” that of an admitted liar who, during the trial, confessed to stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the Trump Organization.

Blanche sowed doubt about a phone call later in October 2016, when Cohen claimed to have discussed the Daniels payout with Trump, showing the court text messages that suggested Cohen had been speaking with Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller about prank calls he was receiving at the same time. Cohen responded that he could have discussed both matters during the call.

Blanche also displayed a January 2017 email from the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer asking Cohen to “prepare the agreement we discussed so we can pay you monthly” after Cohen claimed the repayment plan was meant to be secret and had never been committed to writing.

While the email could be read as confirmation that Trump and Allen Weisselberg, then the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, were involved in the plan, it also raised new questions about Cohen’s framing of the scheme.

Believing Trump when we didn’t hear from him

Despite having said he “absolutely” planned to testify, Trump ultimately did not. Instead, he sat largely silent at the defense table as smears and accusations flew around the courtroom and lawyers dredged up vivid tales of infidelity, theft and deception.

Hitting back at reports that he could be seen sleeping in court, Trump claimed he was simply resting his “beautiful blue eyes” while listening “intensely” to the proceedings to better “take it ALL in!!!”

Early in the trial, tabloid impresario David Pecker explained how he helped “catch and kill” damaging stories about Trump, a plan Pecker said was concocted with Trump and Cohen at a Trump Tower meeting as Trump, his longtime friend, mounted a presidential bid.

But Pecker did not want to pay for Daniels’ story, and he advised Cohen to do so, leading to a scramble to find the money for a deal that Cohen said earned Trump’s signoff. In prosecutors’ telling, the plan was in service of a scheme to defraud American voters by interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

“No, ma’am,” Cohen told prosecutors when he was asked whether he would ever have paid for Daniels’ nondisclosure agreement on his own.

Daniels also told the court that Cohen sought to stall the payment until after the election, when the story would no longer matter.

Lawyers for Trump sought to frame Daniels’ demands as an extortion effort.

Whether the jury believes that Cohen was motivated by vengeance or Daniels by profit, as the defense alleged, may not prove consequential.

Cohen offered no testimony to connect Trump to the crime of avoiding campaign disclosures, and he was the only witness who said Trump personally discussed the reimbursement.

How the two sides argue

Prosecutors will present their closing arguments Tuesday and try to convince the jury that Trump is guilty of directing a business records cover-up with the intent to commit another crime and that he sought to conceal the commission of that crime.

The facts of who paid whom and when are not in dispute, with nearly a dozen checks to Cohen signed by Trump having been entered into evidence. Trump denies anything false about the payments — not that they occurred.

The burden for Trump’s lawyers is lower. The defense will need to sow doubt in jurors' minds that while Trump may have made the payments, the allegation that he orchestrated a broader scheme to influence the election has not been proven.

The indictment alleges that 11 checks were issued from the Trump Revocable Trust and Trump’s personal bank account “for a phony purpose” and that, with falsified ledger entries and invoices, they formed the basis of a scheme to “conceal” a secret $130,000 payment to Cohen.

“Each check was processed by the Trump Organization and illegally disguised as a payment for legal services rendered pursuant to a non-existent retainer agreement,” Bragg’s office said.

After the defense’s closing arguments, state Judge Juan Merchan will instruct the jury on how to interpret the evidence and the law.

Court of public opinion

Defense witness Robert Costello delivered the final blows to Cohen’s credibility from the defense, telling the court that Cohen had repeatedly told him that “I don’t have anything on Donald Trump.” Cohen told him that “he did this on his own,” Costello testified. Cohen said that was because he did not trust Costello.

As he groused and grumbled on the stand, huffing “jeez” amid a sustained objection, Costello tested Merchan’s patience. “Are you staring me down right now?” Merchan admonished before he momentarily ordered the courtroom cleared.

The moment presented Trump’s allies with fodder to suggest Merchan was acting unfairly against him. Merchan “showed his bias” at that moment, alleged law professor Alan Dershowitz, who sat behind Trump last week.

It did not matter that Costello, under heated cross-examination, squirmed as he was presented with emails and records that exposed his denials as false, including Cohen's claim that Costello had offered a purported back channel to Trump as he faced possible legal jeopardy.

Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger produced an email in which Costello wrote to his law partner about the need to get Cohen “on the right page without giving him the appearance that we are following instructions from Giuliani or the president,” a reference to former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

For Trump, who never took the stand himself, Costello offered the defense a chance to impugn Cohen’s narrative by someone who heard his claims to the contrary at the time.

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has accused Bragg of carrying out a politically motivated “witch hunt” and Cohen as an embittered ex-employee set on targeting him at any cost.

To deliver that message, Trump has relied on a parade of allies and surrogates — from the House speaker to potential vice presidential running mates — to deliver attacks that he is barred from making by a gag order. One group recorded a campaign advertisement from the courthouse.

Trump has also still been able to speak to reporters before the cameras outside the courtroom, and he has launched dozens of fundraising missives during the trial.

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