Legal expert calls out Trump lawyer's "blatant and wholly inappropriate" closing message to jury

Donald Trump; Todd Blanche Julia Nikhinson-Pool/Getty Images
Donald Trump; Todd Blanche Julia Nikhinson-Pool/Getty Images
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Trump lawyer Todd Blanche used his closing arguments to continue to attack former Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s credibility – a strategy that a legal expert called both expected and central to the defense’s push to distance the former president from the alleged scheme to disguise hush-money reimbursements as legal fees.

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass argued that voters in the 2016 presidential election should have been able to weigh whether Trump slept with an adult film star before they went to the polls. Steinglass said the campaign killed such salacious stories by falsifying business records that concealed the true purpose of payments to Cohen — all with the intent to defraud the public and ensure his candidacy.

"You don't get to commit election fraud or falsify business records because you think you've been victimized," Steinglass said, according to Newsweek reporter Katherine Fung.

But Blanche said the idea that the former president had time for the alleged “scheme” while serving as "the leader of the free world" was “absurd.”

"Cohen had an ax to grind because he did not appreciate what President Trump did or did not do for him after he became president of the U.S.," Blanche said.

Cohen has provided prosecutors with crucial testimony of his own interactions with Trump: including a key 2017 meeting at Trump Tower where he said Trump approved the reimbursement plan. Cohen also said that Trump knew about and approved the plan to pay off adult film star and director Stormy Daniels.

But Blanche urged jurors to not believe testimony from Cohen, who served time in federal prison for tax fraud and perjury. He called Cohen: "the human embodiment of reasonable doubt, literally.”

"Blanche's big finish was exactly what we expected – hammer home on reasonable doubt and give that reasonable doubt a name, "Michael Cohen," Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School with a focus on criminal law, told Salon.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, with prosecutors saying that audio recordings, internal business records and witness testimony prove he was scheming to kill damaging stories about alleged extramarital sex ahead of his 2016 campaign and disguising reimbursements for the hush money to Cohen as legal fees — all in violation of state and federal election law and state tax law. Each count carries up to four years in prison, which Trump would likely serve concurrently if convicted. Trump denies the charges, as well as the alleged sexual encounters.

Prosecutors say that the October 2016 release of the Access Hollywood tapes – in which Trump is heard talking about being able to grope female genitalia because he's famous – prompted the campaign to go into overdrive to work with the National Enquirer to quash other damaging stories, including Daniels’ account of a sexual encounter with Trump in Lake Tahoe in 2006.

That tape was "capable of costing him the whole election and [Trump] knew it," Steinglass said.

Prosecutors and defense are at odds over whether there’s evidence that Trump intended to defraud or unlawfully influence the 2016 election – an issue central to the felony charges.

Blanche said jurors have plenty of reasons to disbelieve prosecutors: from the defense's contention that Trump didn't tell Cohen about the payments to Daniels ahead of the 2016 election, to the Trump Organization reporting the payments to Cohen in an IRS filing.

"It doesn’t matter if there was a conspiracy to try to win an election, every campaign in this country is a conspiracy," Blanche said.

Steinglass urged jurors to weigh an Aug. 2015 meeting at Trump Tower where prosecutors say Cohen, Trump and former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker hatched the so-called "catch-and-kill" plan.

"The real game changer of this meeting was the catch-and-kill component, and that’s the illegal part," Steinglass said. "Because once money starts exchanging hands from the campaign.. that’s federal election campaign violations."

Steinglass said that plan wasn't merely influencing an election as part of a democratic process: "It was the subversion of democracy."

Levenson said prosecutors would use closing arguments to focus on the witnesses who testified, and the documents and communications that back their testimony.

“As he wraps up, it appears that Blanche is making this case into what it always has been ‘Cohen v. Trump,’ with the hope that Cohen is such a damaged witness that jurors won't believe him – especially on the key point of whether Trump knew about the scheme,” Levenson said.

On Tuesday, Blanche said Trump faced extortion and that his campaign used strategies common in the world of politics and entertainment – namely, that of NDAs and settlements – to protect his reputation and family.

“Trump is being portrayed as someone too busy and too important to really know what was going on, and this whole case has been about embarrassing Trump,” Levenson said. “They have also emphasized that there is nothing inherently sinister about NDAs.”

Prosecutors in turn argued that Cohen's penchant for willing to lie and break rules was exactly why Trump decided to hire him as his personal attorney and fixer.

"The defendant chose Michael Cohen to be his fixer because of his willingness to lie," Steinglass said.

Levenson said that line was the essence of the prosecution's rebuttal to the attack on Cohen.

"If Cohen was such a bad guy, why did Trump rely on him so much.  I also think it helps with the prosecution laid out in the beginning that this was about a cover-up – not just of the affair with Daniels, but Costello was being used to cover-up Trump's deal with Cohen," she said.

As Blanche ended his closing statements, he urged jurors not to send Trump to prison.

The New York Times reported that Judge Juan Merchan grew "clearly furious."

“Making a comment like that is highly inappropriate,” the judge said. “It is simply not allowed, period. It’s hard for me to imagine how that was accidental.”

And a prosecutor called the move a "blatant and wholly inappropriate effort to call sympathy for their client."

Levenson said the judge was "right to be mad."

"First, it is not at all clear that Trump will go to jail, even if convicted," she said. "Second, jurors are not supposed to consider the possible punishment in their deliberations."

Blanche also argued that Daniels, her manager, and a former National Enquirer editor conspired to get the money from Trump. Neither the manager nor editor testified in the trial.

Levenson said that Blanche's claim was a “bit of a surprise.”

“Defense counsel is using a common tactic of blaming people who are not in the courtroom and asking the jurors to speculate about what others might have testified to if they had been called,” Levenson told Salon in an email.

One central issue is whether the $420,000 that Trump paid to Cohen through 2017 was to pay Cohen back for paying off Daniels to the tune of $130,000.

Key pieces include Exhibits 35 and 36: handwritten notes that prosecutors say lay out the plan to reimburse Cohen.

McConney testified that Exhibit 36 contains his handwritten notes calculating 2017 payments to Cohen.

The notes read: “Bonus: $50,000” and include a calculation of “$180,000 x 2 for taxes” for a total of $420,000 divided by 12 for $35,000 a month.

“Wire monthly from DJT,” the note reads. “Start $35,000/month Jan 2017. Mike to invoice us.”

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Former Trump Organization controller Jeff McConney testified that nine of 11 checks to Cohen came from Trump's personal account, that Trump signed the checks from the Oval Office, and that the accounting department labeled the payments as “legal expenses.”

Cohen said he did “very minimal” work for Trump in 2017, including reviewing an agreement involving a wax figure of Melania Trump.

On Tuesday, Blanche stressed that Trump paid Cohen – his personal attorney – for legal services.

Blanche said Cohen’s invoices detailed how he was being reimbursed for legal services. He said Trump didn’t always look at the invoices, and that he never saw the 2017 checks.

And Blanche asked jurors: why would Cohen do any legal work for free for Trump?

Cohen had testified that he felt underpaid by Trump in past years.

Prosecutors say the $420,000 in payments include money for taxes, reimbursement for Cohen’s payment to a tech company and a $60,000 bonus.

The defense team asked Cohen whether he “stole” money from Trump by only paying the tech company $20,000.

Cohen told prosecutors he was “angry” because his annual bonus was slashed.

Blanche called Cohen a “thief.”

"Literally, stole, on his way out the door, stole tens of thousands of dollars from the Trump Organization,” Blanche said.

Steinglass questioned why the defense would trust Cohen's account of the bonus in the first place.

And he turned that argument on its head, saying: "The defense is trying to have it both ways."

Steinglass said if the defense denies that Cohen received the $420,000 as a reimbursement, then Cohen didn't steal anything — he was simply getting paid for his legal fees.