New York jury hears closing arguments as Trump hush-money trial nears end

Prosecutors and defence lawyers making final pitch to jury before deliberations begin in ex-president’s historic trial.

Former US President Donald Trump arrives at courthouse in New York
Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business documents related to a hush-money payment [File: Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

Closing arguments in the historic criminal trial of Donald Trump have stretched into the evening hours in New York City, as the defence and the prosecution make their final case to the jury before deliberations.

The former United States president stands accused of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, in order to cover up a hush-money payment made to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election.

But Tuesday’s proceedings started with the defence making a nearly three-hour argument to convince jurors that Trump did not break the law.

“President Trump is innocent. He did not commit any crimes, and the district attorney has not met their burden of proof. Period,” Trump lawyer Todd Blanche said on Tuesday morning.

But in the afternoon, the prosecution responded with its own lengthy closing argument, forcing the trial to go into overtime as lawyer Joshua Steinglass took over five hours to walk the jury through the evidence.

“This case, at its core, is about a conspiracy and a cover-up,” Steinglass told the jurors, adding that the prosecution presented “powerful evidence of the defendant’s guilt”.

Prosecutors have argued that Trump orchestrated the hush-money payment to ensure Daniels would not go public with her claim she had a sexual encounter with the former president.

They then allege Trump attempted to conceal the payment, to avoid any fallout during his 2016 presidential bid.

Trump has denied any affair took place, and he has called the trial a politically motivated “witch hunt”. He is currently the presumptive Republican nominee for this November’s presidential race.

The closing arguments came after nearly two dozen witnesses took the stand in the historic case, the first criminal trial ever against a former US president.

Prosecutors have the burden of proving their case “beyond a reasonable doubt”, the level of certainty required by US law.

If found guilty, Trump faces up to four years in prison, although imprisonment is unlikely for a first-time felon convicted of such a crime.

A conviction also will not prevent Trump from trying to take back the White House in the November election, and it would not block him from taking office if he won.

But a guilty verdict could affect Trump’s chances in the tight race against President Joe Biden. Recent polls show some Trump supporters would not cast a ballot for him if he is convicted of a felony crime.

“This is a dark day in America. We have a rigged court case that should have never been brought,” Trump told reporters as he entered the courtroom on Tuesday. “We’ll see how it goes. This is a very dangerous day for America. It’s a very sad day.”

The trial

The case centres on a $130,000 payment Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, made to Daniels in the final days of the 2016 election.

Trump has denied Daniels’s claim that she had a sexual encounter with him in 2006, and his lawyer, during hours of questioning in the trial, accused her of making it up.

When Trump reimbursed Cohen, the money was logged as payments for legal services.

Prosecutors say this was designed to conceal the true purpose of the transactions and to protect Trump’s reputation during the 2016 election, during which time he faced allegations of inappropriate conduct with women.

Trump ultimately defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the race.

Defence lawyers, however, contend the money was a legitimate payment for legal services, given that Cohen was Trump’s personal lawyer.

They also argued that Trump’s celebrity status, particularly during the campaign, made him a target for extortion.

“This case is about documents. It’s a paper case,” Blanche, the former president’s lawyer, said during his closing arguments on Tuesday morning.

The defence attempted throughout the trial to discredit the prosecution’s witnesses, including Cohen, whom they have sought to portray as a serial liar who has an axe to grind with his former boss.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal charges related to the hush-money payments as well as for lying to the US Congress.

“He’s literally like an MVP of liars. He lies constantly,” Blanche said of Cohen. “He lied to Congress. He lied to prosecutors. He lied to his family and business associates.”

Steinglass, the prosecutor, told the jurors they were free to consider Cohen’s felony convictions and history of lying when weighing his credibility, but he urged them not to dismiss his testimony out of hand.

“Mr Trump not only corrupted those around him. He also got them to lie to cover it up,” Steinglass said.

He also reminded the jurors, “This case is not about Michael Cohen. It’s about Donald Trump.”

After the closing arguments wrap up, the judge will instruct the jury, likely on Wednesday, about the law governing the case and the factors it can take into account during deliberations.

There is no time limit on how long the jury takes to deliberate, and a verdict might not come by the end of the week.

To reach a verdict, all 12 jurors must agree with the decision for the judge to accept it. If the jury is unable to unanimously decide a verdict, it would deadlock, and the judge would declare a mistrial.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies