Trump Trial Finale: Prosecutors Outline A Conspiracy, Defense Invents One Of Its Own

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 20: Former U.S. President Donald Trump with attorney Todd Blanche speaks to the media during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 20, 202... NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 20: Former U.S. President Donald Trump with attorney Todd Blanche speaks to the media during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 20, 2024 in New York City. Trump was charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records last year, which prosecutors say was an effort to hide a potential sex scandal, both before and after the 2016 presidential election. Trump is the first former U.S. president to face trial on criminal charges. (Photo by Mark Peterson-Pool/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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NEW YORK — The first-ever criminal trial of an American president barreled to a close on Tuesday in a marathon day at Manhattan Criminal Court — the last day of testimony before the case goes to the jury, and one to which both sides brought everything they had.

I’ve been covering the trial every day since it began with jury selection in mid-April, some six weeks ago. There was no day quite like Tuesday’s proceedings: it encompassed the entire sweep of the case. Pick your favorite moment: do you want a literal, multi-hour recitation of the prosecution’s entire narrative? Today had it. A dressing down of Trump attorney Todd Blanche by Judge Juan Merchan? Check. Lofty statements about democracy and reminders that Trump is not above the rule of law? Plenty of that. Accusations that Michael Cohen is a liar, or justifications of why you should trust him anyway? Both were there.

And it’s fair that today was so all-encompassing because it was summation day. Blanche spent the morning making the defense’s final argument for why jurors should not convict Trump, while prosecutor Joshua Steinglass went from 2 p.m. ET to 8 p.m. ET to make the case for why they should convict.

But today was unique not just because it featured summaries of the case, but because each side offered the purest distillations of why they’re here.

Steinglass, at the beginning and end of his summation, articulated the case in terms of a principle: the need to maintain an open democracy.

We have the right to elect our leaders, Steinglass said, so long as the “fundamental premise that voters have access to information” remains inviolate.

“The entire purpose was to deny that access,” Steinglass said of the alleged conspiracy, “to manipulate and defraud the voters.”

Towards the end, subterfuge and “lies” permeate the case to its core — encrypted messages, fake names on hush money agreements, conversations held in code, fake financial records.

“The name of the game is concealment,” he said, drawing it back to his opening theme.

As he made his case, Steinglass sought to show the reality that had been concealed and then revealed at trial. The significance of those revelations is where Blanche sought to throw sand in the gears.

Where Steinglass suggested that the case was about principles — of democracy, of accountability, of no man being above the law — Blanche outlined a much more quotidian theory: please. This kind of thing is “done all the time.”

“It’s not uncommon for campaigns to work with the media to promote themes,” he told jurors, adding that: “Every campaign in this country is a conspiracy to promote a candidate.”

It’s a way of sneering at the charges themselves, and of asking jurors to regard the underlying facts presented across weeks of testimony as simply the ugly reality of the world in which we all live. As Blanche said at the trial’s start, “spoiler alert: there’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election.”

The core of the charges, stripped both of the loftier and baser rhetoric, alleges that Trump did not want the public to know the truth about his conduct with women before the 2016 election. So, he had Stormy Daniels’s silence bought by one of his agents, and then went to great, complex, and illegal lengths to reimburse that agent — Michael Cohen — in a manner that obscured the original hush money payment while breaking various book- and record-keeping and campaign finance laws.

When Blanche wasn’t suggesting that this is all normal and universal, he was offering alternate theories for what might have taken place. Those had a grab-bag quality to them: if you’re a juror who is skeptical of the DA, you can pick your way out.

That included a byzantine theory positing that a coterie of minor characters in the Daniels-Trump affair were, in fact, the true criminals, yet another circle seeking to run their own racket amid the rackets around them. Blanche also alleged that electronic evidence in the case — including texts and recordings — had been tampered with.

This all placed Steinglass in the uncomfortable position of having to respond — it took up nearly the entire first hour of his summation. He systematically went through the points that Blanche had made, but at times it felt like a repeat of the good faith attempts by many institutions to debunk myths about the 2020 election: it takes a few seconds to make something up, and much longer to demonstrate why it is untrue.

Much of what Blanche’s theory posited was that Trump was in his favorite pose all along: that of a victim. Daniels was extorting him, Blanche suggested, helped by her freakish band of tabloid officials and crooked attorneys.

Steinglass went in detail through the evidence, but what he said at one point was enough: “Extortion is not a defense for falsifying business records.”

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Notable Replies

  1. Avatar for grack grack says:

    And we anxiously await the decision of twelve ordinary Americans…

  2. We are at a defining moment in American history.

  3. Avatar for jrw jrw says:

    I think they’re gonna convict him. But, I also thought there was no way he could ever elected.

  4. Nice coverage, Josh. Fill us in on how it ends.

  5. It is good that at least one of Trump’s trials will go to completion before the election. If convicted, he’ll dodge a final outcome until his appeals are exhausted (or the SOB gets into office again), but the fact of this trial will stay on the record, regardless of outcome.

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