A High-Stress Countdown Begins - The New York Times

A High-Stress Countdown Begins – The New York Times

For many Americans, the Memorial Day break will mean barbecues, flag-draped parades and the glory of a three-day weekend. But for those centrally involved in the criminal trial of Donald Trump — including the defendant — it will be an anxious countdown to the culmination of the first trial of an American president.

The prosecution rested today, after 15 days of testimony and 20 witnesses — including an intense four days on the stand for Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer. That was followed by a sharp confrontation between the judge, Juan Merchan, and a defense witness, Robert Costello, a lawyer who consulted with Cohen.

Costello said he and Cohen spoke after the F.B.I. raided Cohen’s home in April 2018 and that Cohen told him that Trump “knew nothing” about the payments to a porn star at the center of the case. He added that Cohen said “that he did this on his own, and he repeated this numerous times.”

But Costello’s testimony was overshadowed by his behavior, which included saying “Jeez,” after a objection by prosecutors, one of many. Merchan sent the jury away and then scolded Costello for not displaying “proper decorum” in the courtroom and giving him “side eye.”

After a moment, Merchan then cleared reporters from the courtroom to continue to reprimand Costello — a dramatic step that put the defense on notice about controlling their witness, who is expected back tomorrow morning.

Merchan’s move put a tense cap on a gear-grinding day in which stops and starts and scheduling dominated. The judge had already decided that closing arguments would not occur until next Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day.

The jury is expected to be sent home for a long break tomorrow, Merchan said, though that would be thrown out if Trump suddenly decided to testify in his own defense. That seems very unlikely: It would open him up to a variety of questions about his behavior as well as previous cases that he has lost.

Trump is charged with falsifying 34 business records related to the reimbursement of a $130,000 hush-money payment by Cohen to Stormy Daniels, a porn star, just before the 2016 election.

Cohen and Daniels are now tent-poles of the prosecutors’ case: Daniels testified earlier this month, saying she had a brief sexual encounter with Trump in Lake Tahoe, Nev., in 2006. Cohen said he paid her off and then received a series of reimbursement checks from Trump, who signed many of them himself. Prosecutors will say the payment to Daniels was made to unduly influence the 2016 election.

Those checks and other documents — including ledgers and invoices — may be even more critical than the star witnesses, both of whom faced grueling cross-examination, in which defense lawyers suggested they were liars out for financial gain.

Late this afternoon, Blanche implied that Cohen was so dishonest that Merchan should dismiss the case, but Merchan shot back, saying, “You said that his lies were irrefutable, but you think he’s going to fool 12 New Yorkers into believing” lies?

Still that line of attack will be likely to suffuse the defense closings, as well as several other themes. One is that the payoff of Daniels — as part of a nondisclosure agreement — was not an unusual move (though it’s the false records from the reimbursement that are the basis of the state’s case, not the agreement).

Another defense assertion is that Trump was only acting to protect his family from “salacious” rumors. They may also say that the payment to Cohen was not to cover-up the payment to Daniels but for legitimate legal work, something Cohen says isn’t true.

For his part, Trump has denied the charges and having had sex with Daniels. He has continued to blast the case as politically motivated, while forecasting a possible conviction in fund-raising emails, including one yesterday in which he promoted a black MAGA hat. (“To remember what could be one of the Darkest Days in American history!”)

Trump has been in court now for six weeks. Over the last week, he watched the warts-and-all grilling of Cohen, who admitted lying and theft from the Trump Organization.

If Thursday’s performance by Todd Blanche, Trump’s lead attorney, was pure “Perry Mason,” today’s was more Hercule Poirot, as he poked and prodded Cohen, looking for flaws in his narrative. He repeatedly attacked Cohen’s credibility, including again mentioning an Oct. 24, 2016, phone call that he implied Cohen lied about on the stand. Cohen says the call was to brief Trump about Daniels; Blanche that it was about a series of prank phone calls Cohen had received.

You have “no doubt” in your mind? Blanche asked.

“No doubt,” Cohen replied.

Blanche repeatedly attacked Cohen’s motives, suggesting that Cohen was only in it for the money, an exchange that seemingly revealed a fascinating paradox: Trump’s biggest enemies sometimes actually benefit from his success.

Toward the end of his cross-examination, Blanche asked if Cohen had “a financial interest in the outcome of this case.” Cohen said yes.

He explained that Trump was a subject of his podcasts and his postings on TikTok.

“They make money,” he said, before adding: “Whether Mr. Trump is ultimately determined innocent or guilty is not going to affect whether I speak about it or not.”

He soon added that it would be better for him if Trump was acquitted, “because it gives me more to talk about in the future.”

That future could soon become clearer. Cohen walked off the stand at about 3:15 p.m., after some follow-ups from prosecutors meant to clean up some of the damage Blanche inflicted, including the admission that Cohen had stolen $30,000 from the Trump Organization. Cohen admitted it was wrong, but said it was an angry reaction to having his bonus sharply cut.

“It was almost like self-help,” he said.

At one point, Blanche seemed disdainful when mentioning Cohen’s ambitions, including a possible run for Congress and a reality show (called, naturally, “The Fixer”). He suggested those options arose from his fame — or infamy — in relation to Trump.

Cohen responded somewhat philosophically, saying his name recognition came from “the journey I’ve been on.”

“My journey,” he said, “is to tell my story.”

Here’s the team we have reporting on the trial. During the proceedings, we’ll be sending you updates more frequently, including breaking news alerts and our weekly analysis on Thursdays.

We’re asking readers what they’d like to know about the Trump cases: the charges, the procedure, the important players or anything else. You can send us your question by filling out this form.

How do members of the public attend the trial? Do they line up outside? How long are they waiting? — Johanna Lautenbach, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Jesse: Members of the public are lining up outside the courthouse at 100 Centre Street, not unlike members of the press, in order to gain access to the 15th-floor courtroom or the overflow courtroom — down the hall — which has more seats available. Some people line up for hours, or even overnight, looking to snag a seat (or in some cases, sell their spot on line).

  • In Florida on Wednesday, there will be the first of a series of hearings in Trump’s classified documents case that will stretch into late June. The hearing will concern an attempt by one of Trump’s co-defendants, Walt Nauta, to have the charges he is facing dismissed.

Trump is at the center of at least four separate criminal investigations, at both the state and federal levels, into matters related to his business and political careers. Here is where each case stands.

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