Jury in Trump's hush money case to begin deliberations after hearing instructions from judge

Jury in Trump's hush money case to begin deliberations after hearing instructions from judge

NBC Universal, Inc.

Jurors in Donald Trump's hush money trial are expected to begin deliberations Wednesday after receiving instructions from the judge on the law and the factors they may consider as they strive to reach a verdict in the first criminal case against a former American president.

The deliberations follow a marathon day of closing arguments in which a Manhattan prosecutor accused Trump of trying to “hoodwink” voters in the 2016 presidential election by participating in a hush money scheme meant to stifle embarrassing stories he feared would torpedo his campaign.

“This case, at its core, is about a conspiracy and a cover-up,” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass told jurors during summations that stretched from early afternoon into the evening.

Trump's lawyer, by contrast, branded the star prosecution witness as the “greatest liar of all time” as he proclaimed his client innocent of all charges and pressed the panel for an across-the-board acquittal.

The lawyers' dueling accounts, wildly divergent in their assessments of witness credibility, Trump's culpability and the strength of evidence, offered both sides one final chance to score points with the jury as it prepares to embark upon the momentous and historically unprecedented task of deciding whether to convict the presumptive Republican presidential nominee ahead of the November election.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, charges punishable by up to four years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty and denied wrongdoing. It’s unclear whether prosecutors would seek imprisonment in the event of a conviction, or if the judge would impose that punishment.

Jurors will have the option of convicting Trump of all counts, acquitting him of all counts, or delivering a mixed verdict in which he is found guilty of some charges and not others. If they deadlock after several days of deliberations and are unable to reach a unanimous verdict, Judge Juan M. Merchan may declare a mistrial.

The trial featured allegations that Trump and his allies conspired to stifle potentially embarrassing stories during the 2016 presidential campaign through hush money payments , including to a porn actor who alleged that she and Trump had sex a decade earlier. His lawyer Todd Blanche told jurors that neither the actor, Stormy Daniels, nor the Trump attorney who paid her, Michael Cohen, can be trusted.

“President Trump is innocent. He did not commit any crimes, and the district attorney has not met their burden of proof, period," Blanche said.

Steinglass sought to defray potential juror concerns about witness credibility. Trump, for instance, has said he and Daniels never had sex and has repeatedly attacked Cohen as a liar.

The prosecutor acknowledged that Daniels' account about the alleged 2006 encounter in a Lake Tahoe hotel suite, which Trump has denied, was at times “cringeworthy” but he said the details she offered — including about decor and what she said she saw when she snooped in Trump’s toiletry kit — were full of touchstones “that kind of ring true.”

And, he said, the story matters because it “reinforces (Trump's) incentive to buy her silence."

“Her story is messy. It makes people uncomfortable to hear. It probably makes some of you uncomfortable to hear. But that’s kind of the point,” Steinglass said. He told jurors: “In the simplest terms, Stormy Daniels is the motive.”

The payoff unfolded against the backdrop of the disclosure of a 2005 “Access Hollywood" recording in which Trump could be heard bragging about grabbing women sexually without their permission. Had the Daniels story emerged in the aftermath of the recording, it would have undermined his strategy of spinning away his words, Steinglass said.

"It’s critical to appreciate this,” Steinglass said. At the same time he was dismissing his words on the tape as “locker room talk,” Trump “was negotiating to muzzle a porn star,” the prosecutor said.

Blanche, who spoke first, sought to downplay the fallout by saying the “Access Hollywood” tape was not a “doomsday event.”

Steinglass also tried to reassure jurors that the prosecution's case did not rest solely on Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer and personal fixer who paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet. Cohen later pleaded guilty to federal charges for his role in the hush money payments, as well as to lying to Congress. He went to prison and was disbarred, but his direct involvement in the transactions made him a key witness at trial.

“It’s not about whether you like Michael Cohen. It’s not about whether you want to go into business with Michael Cohen. It’s whether he has useful, reliable information to give you about what went down in this case, and the truth is that he was in the best position to know,” Steinglass said.

Though the case featured sometimes seamy discussion of sex and tabloid industry practices, the actual charges concern something decidedly less flashy: reimbursements Trump signed for Cohen for the payments.

The reimbursements were recorded as being for legal expenses, which prosecutors say was a fraudulent label designed to conceal the purpose of the hush money transaction and to illicitly interfere in the 2016 election. Defense lawyers say Cohen actually did substantive legal work for Trump and his family.

In his own hourslong address to the jury, with sweeping denials echoing Trump's “deny everything” approach, Blanche castigated the entire foundation of the case.

He said Cohen, not Trump, created the invoices that were submitted to the Trump Organization for reimbursement and rejected the prosecution’s caricature of a details-oriented manager, suggesting instead that Trump was preoccupied by the presidency and not the checks he was signing. And he rejected the idea that the alleged hush money scheme amounted to election interference.

“Every campaign in this country is a conspiracy to promote a candidate, a group of people who are working together to help somebody win,” Blanche said.

As expected, he reserved his most animated attack for Cohen, with whom he tangled during a lengthy cross-examination.

Mimicking the term “GOAT,” used primarily in sports as an acronym for “greatest of all time,” Blanche labeled Cohen the “GLOAT" — greatest liar of all time — and also called Cohen “the human embodiment of reasonable doubt.” That language was intentional because, to convict Trump, jurors must believe that prosecutors proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

“He lied to you repeatedly. He lied many, many times before you even met him. His financial and personal well-being depend on this case. He is biased and motivated to tell you a story that is not true,” Blanche said, a reference to Cohen's relentless and often bitingly personal social media attacks on Trump and the lucrative income he has derived from books and podcasts about Trump.

The trial was previously scheduled to start May 20.

Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price in New York contributed to this report.

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