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Cohen’s credibility, campaigning at court and other takeaways from Trump trial’s closing arguments

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NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s lawyers and Manhattan prosecutors made their final pitches Tuesday to jurors who will decide whether the Republican will be the first former U.S. president convicted of a crime, squaring off over the strength of the evidence and credibility of the prosecution’s star witness as his hush money trial drew toward a close.

After listening to more than four weeks of testimony, the panel of New Yorkers sat attentively through a marathon of closing arguments — almost three hours from the defense and roughly five from the prosecution — that stretched from morning until dinner time.

The jury could begin deliberating as early as Wednesday to decide if Trump is guilty of falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments during the 2016 presidential campaign to a porn actor who claimed she had sex with him. Trump says Stormy Daniels’ story is a lie and that he’s innocent of the charges. The judge is expected to give jurors instructions on Wednesday before they begin deliberating.

Here are some takeaways from closing arguments:

ALL ABOUT MICHAEL COHEN

Trump attorney Todd Blanche had a clear message for jurors: The prosecution’s case rests on the testimony of Trump fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen, and he can’t be believed. Cohen is a crucial witness because he made the $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels and the reimbursements to Cohen are what prosecutors say were falsely logged as legal expenses.

As the defense has done throughout the case, Blanche attacked Cohen as a liar with a personal vendetta against his former boss. While Blanche tried to chip away at Cohen’s credibility, the defense showed jurors a PowerPoint slide that read: “Case Turns on Cohen.”

Blanche repeatedly reminded jurors of Cohen’s past lies, including his 2018 guilty plea for lying to Congress. And the defense played for jurors clips of Cohen’s podcast in which the now-disbarred attorney said seeing the former president booked on criminal charges “fills me with delight.”

The case against Trump is built around testimony from “a witness that outright hates the defendant, wants him in jail, is actively making money off that hatred,” Blanche said.

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass acknowledged that Cohen is a challenging witness. But prosecutors did not choose him, Trump did, Steinglass said.

“The defendant chose Michael Cohen to be his fixer because he was willing to lie and cheat on the defendant’s behalf,” Steinglass said. Furthermore, he said, there is “a mountain” of evidence and corroborating testimony connecting Trump to the crime.

“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,” the prosecutor said.

‘A CONSPIRACY AND A COVER-UP’

The prosecutor used his closing argument to bring jurors back to what District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office alleges is the crux of the case: a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election by keeping Daniels’ story from surfacing. The case “at its core, is about a conspiracy and a cover-up,” Steinglass said.

The purpose of the effort, Steinglass argued, was “to manipulate and defraud the voters, to pull the wool over their eyes in a coordinated fashion.” It’s impossible to know whether Trump’s effort to “hoodwink voters” made a difference in the 2016 election, Steinglass said, but that’s not something prosecutors have to prove.

Steinglass pushed back against the defense’s contention that the former president was trying to protect his reputation and family — not his campaign — by shielding them from embarrassing stories about his personal life. It’s “no coincidence” that Daniel’s alleged sexual encounter with Trump happened in 2006 but she wasn’t paid for her silence until right before the 2016 election, Steinglass said.

The defense, meanwhile, told jurors that “every campaign in this country is a conspiracy to promote a candidate, a group of people who are working together to help somebody win.” Trump’s alleged efforts to suppress negative stories were no different, Blanche said.

“The government wants you to believe that President Trump did these things with his records to conceal efforts to promote his successful candidacy in 2016, the year before,” Blanche said. “Even if you find that is true, that is not enough…it doesn’t matter if there’s a conspiracy to win an election.”

CAMPAIGN COMES TO THE COURTHOUSE

Outside the courthouse, there were dueling press conferences from the Trump and Biden campaigns, which sought to capitalize on the gathering of reporters and cameras to attack their respective opponents and score political points.

While the defense was delivering its closing argument, the Biden campaign deployed outside the courthouse actor Robert De Niro and a pair of police officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. It was a sharp about-face for Biden’s team, which had largely ignored the trial since it began six weeks ago.

De Niro and the officers didn’t reference Trump’s criminal case directly, but slammed the former president as a threat to the country. De Niro told reporters that if Trump returns to the White House, Americans can “kiss these freedoms goodbye that we all take for granted.”

Trump’s campaign staffers followed with their own news conference at the same spot. Jason Miller, Trump’s senior campaign adviser, told reporters the Biden campaign’s press event shows that the trial is political.

“After months of saying politics had nothing to do with this trial, they showed up and made a campaign event out of a lower Manhattan trial day for President Trump,” Miller said. Karoline Leavitt, the campaign press secretary, said the event was “a full blown concession that this trial is a witch hunt that comes from the top.”

POLITICIZED LANGUAGE

The defense repeatedly referred to the prosecution as “the government.” The prosecution invoked the phrase “big lie.” Closing arguments on both sides were peppered with words and phrases that have become politicized.

Blanche called the prosecution “the government” — a term typically used for federal prosecutors, not the state-level team trying Trump’s case. In New York, state prosecutors are typically referred to in court as “the people,” short for “the people of the State of New York.”

Trump’s two main attorneys are former federal prosecutors who are used to arguing in federal courtrooms. But Trump has also been trying to cast the case — and the separate federal cases brought by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith — as a politically motivated effort by President Joe Biden’s administration to tank Trump’s campaign.

The hush money case was filed by local prosecutors in Manhattan who do not work for the Justice Department, and the Justice Department has said the White House has had no involvement in the two Trump cases brought by Smith.

But by referring to the prosecution as the “government,” the defense is evoking images of the “deep state” conspiracies that Trump claims are aimed at putting him behind bars and preventing him from retaking the White House.

Steinglass, in his closing argument, used the phrase “big lie” to describe the defense’s characterization of phone and text message records between Cohen and Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller. Democrats have used that phrase to describe Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election, which helped spur his supporters’ riot at the U.S. Capitol.

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Richer reported from Washington. Associated Press reporters Michelle L. Price in New York and Colleen Long and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed.

By MICHAEL R. SISAK, JENNIFER PELTZ, JILL COLVIN and ALANNA DURKIN RICHER
Associated Press

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