Takeaways from Donald Trump’s defense in the hush money trial

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The defense rested its case in Donald Trump’s criminal hush money trial on Tuesday after roughly 90 minutes of testimony – and without the former president taking the stand.

Trump’s attorneys called two witnesses: a paralegal who entered phone records into evidence and Robert Costello, an attorney who was in talks with Michael Cohen to represent him after the FBI raided his home and office in 2018.

Publicly, Trump left open the prospect that he could testify in his own defense, but his attorneys had always seemed to discount the possibility.

Ultimately, the most important witness for the defense was Cohen, who testified in the prosecution’s case but was subject to cross-examination that stretched across three days for more than eight hours in all.

Now the jury will get a week off thanks to the Memorial Day holiday, with closing arguments set for next Tuesday. A verdict is possible by the end of next week.

Here are takeaways from the final day of testimony in the Trump hush money trial:

Trump doesn’t take the stand

Over the last several months, Trump repeatedly teased that he would take the stand in his own defense.

“Well, I would if it’s necessary,” Trump said in an April 25 interview on Newsmax.

“Probably so, I would like to, I mean I think so,” Trump told a Wisconsin television station on May 7.

But on Tuesday, the opportunity for Trump to testify came and went quickly, with attorney Todd Blanche telling the judge once Costello was off the stand, “The defense rests.”

Ultimately, there was little suspense in the decision: the lawyers and the judge have been gaming out the trial’s end-game schedule for the past week as though Trump would not testify.

Part of the reason Trump was never expected to take the stand was the scope of the cross-examination. Prosecutors asked the judge to allow them to question the former president about a litany of his misdeeds related to other cases in order to impeach Trump’s credibility as a witness.

Following a routine hearing on what would be allowed – known as a Sandoval hearing – the judge ruled that prosecutors would have been allowed to question Trump about the $464 civil fraud verdict from last fall’s case brought by the New York attorney general, Trump’s two violations of the judge’s gag order in that case, the verdicts against Trump in the two E. Jean Carroll defamation cases and the settlement Trump reached with the New York attorney general that led to the dissolution of the Donald J. Trump foundation.

In addition, Trump would have been subjected to questions related to the case, of course, including his alleged affairs with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.

It all added up to the calculation from Trump and his attorneys that he was better staying off the witness stand.

The most important defense was the Cohen cross-examination

The cross-examination of Cohen, the prosecution’s final witness, lasted eight hours – roughly four times as long as the entire defense presentation.

The difference underscored the importance of Cohen – both for the prosecution’s case against Trump as well as how the defense’s efforts to discredit Trump’s former fixer as a witness could be key to an acquittal or hung jury.

Blanche tried to undercut Cohen’s credibility, accusing him of making up his conversations with Trump, stealing from his former boss and continuing to lie even after pleading guilty to perjury in 2018.

The most dramatic moment in the cross-examination came when Blanche confronted Cohen about an October 24, 2016, call he had with Trump’s bodyguard, Keith Schiller, at 8:02 p.m., in which Cohen testified that Schiller put Trump on the phone and Cohen told him he was going ahead with the payment to Daniels.

But Blanche showed Cohen text messages he exchanged with Schiller before and after that call, showing he was dealing with a teenager prank calling him and asking Schiller for help.

“That was a lie,” Blanche alleged of Cohen’s testimony he spoke to Trump about moving forward with the hush money deal. “You were actually talking to Mr. Schiller about the fact that you were getting harassing phone calls from a 14-year-old; correct?

“Part of it was the 14-year-old, but I know that Keith was with Mr. Trump at the time and there was more than potentially just this. That’s what I recall based upon the documents that I reviewed,” Cohen responded.

Prosecutors tried to rehabilitate Cohen’s testimony, introducing a screengrab from C-SPAN showing Trump leaving a Florida rally stage with Schiller five minutes before the call.

Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger also tried to remind jurors that it was Trump – not Cohen – who was on trial in this case.

“Now, I know it may feel like you are on trial here after cross-examination. Are you actually on trial here?” Hoffinger asked Cohen.

“No ma’am,” Cohen said.

After prosecutors rested, Blanche made a motion for Judge Juan Merchan to dismiss the case – a typical motion filed by defendants that rarely succeeds. Blanche argued that Cohen had lied in his testimony in this case and it should be tossed out.

“So, you want me to take it out of the jury’s hands and decide before it even gets to the jury that, as a matter of law, this person is so not worthy of belief that it shouldn’t be considered by the jury? That’s what you’re asking?” Merchan asked.

“That his entire testimony should not be considered by the jury. Absolutely. That’s exactly what we’re asking the court to do,” Blanche responded.

Merchan was skeptical, later asking Blanche: “You said his lies are ‘irrefutable,’ but you think he’s going to fool 12 New Yorkers into believing this lie?”

Costello had a bumpy ride

Arguing against prosecutors’ efforts to block Costello from testifying, Trump’s attorneys said that Costello would rebut prosecutors’ suggestion that Trump put on a “pressure campaign” to intimidate Cohen to keep quiet in 2018.

Merchan ruled Costello could testify but said he wouldn’t allow the testimony to become a mini-trial about whether there was in fact a pressure campaign on Cohen and how it affected Trump’s former fixer at the time.

Trump attorney Emil Bove sought to show Cohen used Costello’s legal services – and as a backchannel to Trump – though he never signed a retainer agreement and ultimately went with another lawyer to handle his federal case.

In their first meeting, Costello said Cohen was “absolutely manic” and suicidal after the FBI raid on his properties. According to Costello, Cohen said 10-12 times during the meeting, “I swear to God, Bob, I don’t have anything on Donald Trump.”

Costello’s testimony in front of the jury Monday quickly devolved into tension between Costello and the judge. Merchan cleared the courtroom to scold Costello for eye rolls and mutterings about the judge’s rulings that limited what he could say on the stand.

On cross-examination, Hoffinger sought to discredit Costello, suggesting he was more aligned with Trump’s interests than Cohen when he was advising him in the spring of 2018.

Hoffinger suggested Costello, who was in frequent contact with his close friend Rudy Giuliani, was a part of the pressure campaign to keep Cohen in line. Costello acknowledged he offered Cohen a backchannel to Trump through Giuliani but said that was for Cohen’s benefit.

Closing arguments set for Tuesday

Both sides are back in court Tuesday afternoon – without jurors present – in order to discuss the instructions that the judge will give to the jury before deliberations next week.

Then the court will be dark for a week, a scheduling decision Merchan chose so the final stages of the trial weren’t broken up by a four-day Memorial Day weekend.

Merchan told jurors they will return next Tuesday for closing arguments, which are expected to take the whole day. Once the jury gets its instructions, Trump’s fate will be in its hands.

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