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Judgment day looms for Donald Trump in New York

Former President Donald Trump returns to court for his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 28, 2024. Julia Nikhinson/Getty

Donald Trump, who built a mystique as the brash epitome of power, has never been more powerless to dictate his own fate.

His reputation, future, and even perhaps the White House’s destiny, will on Wednesday be placed in the hands of 12 citizens of his native New York City, proving that not even once-and-possibly future commanders in chief are above the law.

Seven men and five women jurors will retire for deliberations on Trump’s six-week hush money trial after Judge Juan Merchan instructs them on the law and their duties. No jury in American history has faced such a task — deciding whether a former president and presumptive major party nominee will be convicted of a crime. And while the jury, which can deliberate for as long as it needs, is bound to decide its verdict on 34 felony charges on the testimony and evidence in the case alone, its decision will reverberate across the nation and the world at a critical moment of the 2024 presidential election.

The trial slogged toward its end on Tuesday in nearly 10 hours of closing arguments that burst into open hostility between rival lawyers.

“You have to put aside the distractions, the press, the politics, the noise. Focus on the evidence and the logical inference that can be drawn from that evidence,” prosecution lawyer Joshua Steinglass told the jury.

“In the interest of justice and in the name of the people of the state of the New York, I ask you to find the defendant guilty. Thank you.”

Prosecutors accused the ex-president of “a conspiracy and a cover-up” and of betraying 2016 voters by illegally falsifying financial records to hide a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the election. Trump denies having an affair with Daniels and has pleaded not guilty in this first of four looming criminal cases — which may be the only one to go to trial before November’s election. In order to convict Trump, jurors must first decide that he falsified financial documents and did so with the express purpose of committing another crime.

The ex-president watched quietly but intently in court Tuesday after days of firing off furious rhetorical assaults on the judge, prosecutors and the legal system.

His lead defense counsel, Todd Blanche, tried to eviscerate the credibility of the case’s central witness, Michael Cohen, branding the self-described former Trump “thug” as the “GLOAT” — “the Greatest Liar of All Time,” while insisting there was no crime and no proof Trump orchestrated the plan to pay off Daniels. And conjuring a dark image that seemed to capture his client’s cynical view of democracy, Blanche said: “Every campaign in this country is a conspiracy to promote a candidate, a group of people who are working together to help somebody win.”

The former president, who chose not to testify in his own defense, looked on, often with his arm draped across a chair, in the unusual position of having to leave others to speak for him. Trump has now spent six ignominious weeks breathing the stale air of a foreboding tower block of a courthouse that has dispensed justice to some of New York’s most storied murderers, crooks and Mafia dons. The yellowing white-wash, austere furniture and florescent lights that form the soulless abyss of America’s criminal justice system may have been an insult to the eyes of a developer who frequently boasts about the splendor of his buildings and is more at home under the glistening chandeliers and gold-leafed opulence of his multiple residencies.

The final stages of any criminal trial reach a somber register as the gravity of the moment for the accused begins to come into view. In this case, which is entwined with a presidential election that will decide the country’s future, the consequences are even more profound. And there’s also a poignant personal dimension. The city where Trump made his name and reshaped the skyline while romping through the tabloid era of the 1980s is about to judge its estranged son.

A political circus erupts outside the court

Events outside the courtroom highlighted the rising stakes of the eventual verdict just five months from a currently tight election between Trump and President Joe Biden. Hollywood legend Robert De Niro showed up on behalf of the Biden campaign to blast “the loser Trump,” accompanied by some of the police officers beaten up by the ex-president’s mob in the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. The star of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” — a New York City icon in his own right — got into a quintessential finger-pointing standoff with a heckling bystander spreading misinformation about the assault on the Capitol.

Moments later, Trump’s adult sons, Don Jr. and Eric, showed up for their father, who has come perilously close to incurring a jail spell for repeatedly violating a gag order. “We understand that this is a political persecution. That was evidenced, today by the Biden campaign themselves holding a rally here,” Don Trump Jr. said. “They bring in Robert De Niro … but apparently he needs attention because it’s been a while since he’s cranked out a good movie.”

The Biden campaign has tried to keep its distance from Trump’s criminal tribulations, partly to avoid accusations like those from the ex-president’s camp on Tuesday. But its decision to engage as the presumptive GOP nominee’s trial reached a pivotal point began to answer the question of how Biden’s team will react to the end of the trial — and Trump’s emergence from weeks of the campaign trail being diverted through the courtroom.

Despite the circus unfolding outside the court, there is no sign that the trial has gripped the national imagination like previous celebrity cases — such as the O.J. Simpson saga or the trial of the late King of Pop Michael Jackson. That’s partly to do with the lack of television cameras in Merchan’s courtroom. Some polls have, however, suggested that a guilty verdict could give some Republican voters pause about choosing a convicted felon in November, despite the way Trump weaponized his legal woes as an asset in the GOP primary and his strategy of portraying himself as a persecuted victim in the general election. In a close White House race, only a few thousand defections from the former president could have an outsize effect since the result is likely to be decided in only a handful of swing states by tens of thousands of votes.

If Trump is convicted, he’s sure to lash out and redouble his vow to dedicate any second presidency to personal and political “retribution” in a way that could play into Biden’s dominant campaign theme that US democracy is in mortal peril. An acquittal, on the other hand, could validate for Trump’s supporters his claims that all his legal woes are a witch-hunt.

The defense rounds yet again on Michael Cohen

Trump bitterly complained on Tuesday that the defense got the right to deliver the first summation, meaning that the prosecution argument could be freshest in the jurors’ minds when they come to deliberate. But he didn’t mention that is how the law works in New York state.

On one of the most critical days of Trump’s life, Blanche set out about methodically dismantling the prosecution case, seeking to cast reasonable doubt on multiple examples of testimony and evidence. To begin, as Blanche spoke calmly and conversationally, there were none of the often self-defeating histrionics that the ex-president sometimes demands of his lawyers. All Blanche had to do was to cast doubt in the mind of one juror, which could force the judge to declare a mistrial if the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict. “We have no burden to prove anything,” Blanche told the jury. “The burden is always on the government.”

Blanche insisted that Cohen did considerable legal work for Trump as his private attorney, countering prosecution arguments that payments made to him once Trump became president were disguised reimbursements for the $130,000 that Cohen paid to Daniels. He told jurors that there was no proof that Trump orchestrated a scheme to subvert the 2016 election or that he even knew what staffers were doing in his name. The attorney returned time and time again to the credibility of Cohen, the most important prosecution witness, portraying him as a serial liar who was caught “red handed” not telling the truth on the stand and who was making millions of dollars on the back of Trump’s legal storm.

“You cannot convict President Trump,” Blanche said, before repeating himself for emphasis while impressing on the jury the gravity of the historic deliberation that lies before them. “You cannot convict President Trump of any crime beyond a reasonable doubt based on the words of Michael Cohen.” At the end of his summation, Blanche listed 10 reasons why jurors should have reasonable doubt — including that there was no intent to falsify documents on Trump’s part and no evidence of an orchestrated attempt to meddle in the 2016 election, while arguing that Trump’s intent was to keep stories about Daniels from embarrassing his family.

Blanche kept his Trumpiest flourish for his last moments with the jury — pleading with them not to send the ex-president to prison, in an infringement of legal etiquette and incurring the fury of Merchan. After the jurors returned from a break, the judge warned that their job was to judge the evidence, not to speculate on what punishments Trump might face if he is found guilty.

Prosecution expands its case on election interference

Steinglass opened his final argument with a long rebuttal of Blanche’s summation, as he sought to show that Cohen’s credibility was not a deal breaker and that in any case the charges were carried by other testimony.

Steinglass repeatedly billed the alleged crime not as a seedy attempt to hide a personal transgression but a threat to the integrity of the electoral system. “You may say, who cares if Mr. Trump slept with a porn star 10 years before the 2016 election? Many people feel that way. It’s harder to say the American people don’t have the right to decide for themselves whether they care or not,” he said.

Some observers have suggested that the extraordinary precedent of indicting and trying an ex-president should stem from an alleged offense that threatens the integrity of the republic itself. Trump’s other looming trials — including over the attempt to subvert the 2020 election and his alleged mishandling of classified documents — might come closer to reaching this bar. But Steinglass dismissed the notion that the current case is relatively trivial.

He said the value of the “corrupt bargain” involved “cannot be overstated.” He continued: “It turned out to be one of the most valuable contributions anyone ever made to the Trump campaign,” adding that “this scheme cooked up by these men at this time could very well be what got President Trump elected.”

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