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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Victoria Bekiempis in New York

Prosecutors detail Donald Trump’s ‘corrupt bargain’ in closing arguments

Donald Trump leaves court on Tuesday
Donald Trump leaves court on Tuesday. Photograph: Julia Nikhinson/EPA

Donald Trump’s secret plot to bury negative press ahead of the 2016 election deprived Americans of their right to choose a candidate at the ballot box, said the prosecution in its summation on Tuesday at the former president’s New York hush-money trial.

Joshua Steinglass’s closing statement reminded jurors of a summer 2015 meeting at Trump Tower where the real estate mogul sat with then consigliere Michael Cohen and tabloid honcho David Pecker.

At this meeting, Pecker said, he agreed to apprise them of negative stories that could thwart Trump’s campaign, so they could work to bury them; this would come to include adult film star Stormy Daniels’ allegation of an extramarital liaison with Trump about 10 years prior.

“Three rich and powerful men, high up in Trump Tower, tried to become even more powerful by controlling the information that reached voters,” the prosecutor said.

“The value of this corrupt bargain: it turned out to be one of the most valuable contributions to the Trump campaign. This scheme cooked up by these men, at this time, could very well be what got Donald Trump elected.”

Steinglass discussed how the alleged scheme worked in the wake of embarrassing headlines. When a hot mic recording of Donald Trump boasting about grabbing women “by the pussy” emerged on 7 October 2016, his campaign spiraled into abject panic. Campaign staffers did damage control, labeling Trump’s comments during the Access Hollywood taping as “locker room banter”.

“That media strategy shifted from deny, deny, deny, to spin,” Steinglass said during his summation in Trump’s New York criminal hush-money trial.

Two women’s claims of sexual misconduct emerged days later. Trump’s camp knew their grip over the narrative was slipping and that one more allegation could sink him with female voters. When Daniels, who claimed to have had a sexual liaison with Trump in 2006, seemed like she wanted money in exchange for silence, it was a compelling offer.

“You really can’t understand this case without appreciating the climate,” Steinglass said. “He was negotiating to muzzle a porn star” who was threatening to go public.

“Stormy Daniels was a walking, talking reminder that the defendant was not only worse – she would have totally undermined his strategy for spinning the Access Hollywood tape.”

“In simplest terms, Stormy Daniels is the motive,” Steinglass said earlier in his summation.

Steinglass’s closing – which he said could take four and a half hours – came after Trump’s defense team presented an hours-long summation that featured eyebrow-raising elements, including his claim that conspiracies to win elections happen all the time.

“It doesn’t matter if there was a conspiracy to try and win an election,” Todd Blanche, Trump’s defense attorney, said of the alleged payoff plot involving Trump, who is accused elsewhere of election meddling and fomenting civil unrest to thwart Joe Biden from taking office. “Every campaign in this country is a conspiracy to promote a candidate.”

Blanche’s comment came as he insisted to jurors that Trump did not falsify business records – nor did he try to – and that jurors need not even consider his alleged efforts to sway the 2016 race by burying potentially damaging news coverage. Prosecutors allege that Trump plotted a catch-and-kill scheme during the summer 2015 meeting with Cohen and Pecker.

“Many politicians work with the media to try and promote their image,” Blanche also said, adding that Pecker had provided favorable coverage to Trump for decades – far before his candidacy – “because it was good for business”. He called this symbiosis between media and politicians “standard operating procedure”.

Blanche did not admit that Trump plotted with cronies to influence election results with a hush-money payment, and denied there was a conspiracy or collusion, but presented it more as a hypothetical: even if a media-campaign collusion did happen, there was “nothing criminal, nothing criminal about it, it’s done all the time”, Blanche said.

“You have to find that this effort was done by unlawful means,” he said at one point.

At the end of his summation, Blanche provided 10 reasons why jurors should find reasonable doubt and acquit Trump. Among these reasons: Cohen created the invoices for legal services, not Trump, and there was no proof that he ever saw the vouchers or checks which prosecutors claim are illegal, Blanche said.

Blanche also said there was no evidence that Trump tried to defraud anyone, noting that a tax document was issued to Cohen. He said that there was no reason to do anything illegal to cover up Daniels’ account, noting that it had already been public.

No 10 on Blanche’s list was Cohen.

“Cohen is the human embodiment of reasonable doubt,” Blanche said. He referred to the acronym “Goat”, which refers to athletes and performers at the top of their game.

“Have you guys heard of Goat, a goat, greatest of all time?” he said, noting that Tom Brady is called the Goat of football. “Michael Cohen is the Gloat – the greatest liar of all time.”

Trump, who is almost certain to secure the Republican presidential nomination, is charged with falsifying business records related to paying Daniels $130,000 for her silence about an alleged sexual liaison.

Prosecutors argue that the recording of these payments in business records amounts to election interference, as Trump was running in the 2016 race for the White House at the time of the payoff and seeking to cover up a potentially damaging scandal.

For weeks, testimony has gripped the US and the world amid the prospect that the former US president could be found guilty of a crime. But as details of the case and Trump’s liaison with Daniels have been brought before a Manhattan jury, they have had seemingly little impact on the 2024 race – where Trump still often narrowly leads Joe Biden in head-to-head polls and is performing strongly in the swings states that are crucial to victory.

Trump denies all the allegations.

Trump, sporting a crimson tie and crisp white shirt, was accompanied by his daughter Tiffany and two of his sons, Eric and Donald Jr, at court.

Central to the case is the testimony of Trump’s former lawyer and once-feared fixer Cohen. Cohen gave vital evidence for the role that Trump played in the alleged hush-money scheme, but was also brutally grilled by Trump’s lawyers for his previous history of lying and his evident dislike of his former boss and desire to see him behind bars.

What weight the jury places on the reliability of Cohen’s testimony is likely to decide the case one way or the other. If found guilty, Trump could face the prospect of jail, though that is mostly seen as unlikely. Any guilty verdict would also almost certainly trigger a lengthy series of appeals.

In his closing, Blanche repeatedly hammered on Cohen’s credibility. “The words that Michael Cohen said to you on that stand, they matter. They matter,” Blanche said. “He told you a number of things on that witness stand that were lies.”

He emphasized that the invoices in the case were submitted by Cohen, adding: “You cannot convict President Trump. You cannot convict President Trump of any crime beyond a reasonable doubt based on the word of Michael Cohen.”

Blanche urged jurors to want more than Cohen’s testimony and, referring to Daniels, “something beyond the word of a woman who claims that something happened in 2006”.

He also insisted that the key allegation of prosecutors – that business records were falsified because they wrongly claimed that repayments were for legal services – fell flat, insisting that Cohen was Trump’s personal lawyer and “was rendering services to President Trump in 2017 as his personal attorney”.

During his closing, Steinglass tried to address concerns about Cohen’s credibility as the defense repeatedly said that Cohen was dishonest and hell-bent on revenge. Steinglass admitted that Cohen had an interest in this case beyond just testifying – and told jurors they’re free to take that into account during deliberations.

“Michael Cohen is understandably angry,” Steinglass said. “To date, he’s the only one who’s paid the price. Pecker got a non-prosecution agreement. Cohen did the defendant’s bidding for years – his right-hand man, his consigliere … and when it went bad, the defendant cut him loose, like a hot potato, and tweeted out to the world that Cohen was a scumbag, a sleazebag, and all the while, the election law violations to which Cohen pleaded guilty were done at the direction of the defendant!”

Steinglass continued, saying Cohen “made his bed”, but “you can hardly blame him for making money off the one thing he has left, which is his knowledge of the inner workings of the Trump phenomena”.

“It’s obvious they want to make this case about Michael Cohen. It isn’t – that’s a deflection,” he said. “This case is not about Michael Cohen. This case is about Donald Trump – and whether he should be held accountable for making false entries in his own business records.

“Michael Cohen’s significance in this case is that he provides color and context to documents He’s like a tour guide.”

Trump also faces three other criminal trials: one for trying to sway the 2020 election in Georgia, another for his conduct around the January 6 attack on the Capitol and a third one related to his treatment of sensitive documents after he left the White House. However, all three have been seriously delayed and none are seen as likely to conclude – or even start – before November’s presidential election.

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