Prosecutors Drive Toward Core of Trump Case, With Some Questions Still Unanswered

Former US President Donald Trump, with attorney Todd Blanche (R), speaks to the press as he arrives for his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Co... Former US President Donald Trump, with attorney Todd Blanche (R), speaks to the press as he arrives for his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 3, 2024. Trump, 77, is accused of falsifying business records to reimburse his lawyer, Michael Cohen, for a $130,000 hush money payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels just days ahead of the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Mark Peterson / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MARK PETERSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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NEW YORK — Manhattan prosecutors on Monday went deep into the business records portion of their falsifying business records case against Donald Trump.

Witnesses’ testimony reached the heart of the first prosecution of a former — and, as Judge Juan Merchan noted on Monday, potentially future — U.S. President. That dull core of the case focuses on the charge that Trump falsified 34 business records as part of a conspiracy to subvert campaign finance laws in the 2016 election.

The result was a day of testimony that was decidedly not salacious, particularly after two weeks of witnesses who brought jurors into a seamy world of tabloid catch-and-kill stories. Instead, prosecutors made a slow-moving, detailed, and utterly crucial presentation: that Trump organization employees fulfilled orders to create false business records as part of a plan to reimburse Michael Cohen for the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels.

And it’s come at the midpoint of the prosecution’s case, with the DA now focusing on detailing the core business records charge. Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said at the end of the Monday hearing that the DA anticipates a little more than two weeks of testimony before concluding.

Two longtime Trump employees testified to the scheme on Monday. The first was a former controller at the Trump organization, Jeff McConney. The second was the company’s current accounts receivable supervisor, Deborah Tarasoff.

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo walked both witnesses through the months of payments, made in $35,000 increments, to pay Cohen a total of $420,000 as a reimbursement for his work on the Daniels case. McConney spent the morning describing the invoices — which he had knowledge of as part of his responsibility as controller — while Tarasoff showed how checks cut in response were logged in the Trump Organization’s accounting software and how the checks themselves were developed and signed.

It was a literal accounting of Michael Cohen’s reimbursement. Both McConney and Tarasoff described how the payments were labeled as for “legal expenses,” pursuant to a retainer agreement which McConney testified he never saw.

Still, that leaves unanswered questions. McConney never seeing a retainer agreement doesn’t mean that one never existed — after all, he was an employee who oversaw the financial plumbing that kept the Trump Org running. And, as Trump’s attorneys suggested, the accounting department incorrectly describing the purpose of a series of payments doesn’t in itself implicate Trump.

Arguably the most compelling testimony, then, wasn’t the rundown of the entries themselves, but the context that the witnesses provided.

McConney testified to two critical points: that Trump was extremely frugal when it came to paying contractors, and how the Cohen reimbursement was calculated.

During opening statements, defense attorney Todd Blanche suggested that it would have made no sense for Trump to reimburse Cohen $420,000 when the hush money payment was only $130,000.

But prosecutors produced notes created by ex-Trump Org CFO Allen Weisselberg and by McConney himself to show the opposite: that the $420,000 included an adjustment to ensure that Cohen received the full $420,000 after taxes and to cover reimbursement for a separate $50,000 expense. One line on a notepad shown to jurors read “wire monthly from DJT.” McConney told prosecutors that it referred to personal accounts for Trump.

The payment records that prosecutors showed to jurors via dozens of exhibits all traced a flow of money which started in Trump’s personal account or a revocable trust account in his name, and went to a firm that Cohen had created to receive payment.

But even that may not have been enough. Prosecutors needed to show as well that Trump likely directed the payments, and was responsible for their accounting.

They did that in part by attempting to have the two witnesses demonstrate that Trump had a close attention to detail when it came to money leaving the Trump Organization as a whole, and his bank account in particular.

Early on in his testimony, McConney gave a memorable anecdote to that effect: he walked into Trump’s office when the future president was on the phone. Trump looked up, told McConney “you’re fired,” and then hung up.

McConney wasn’t fired, and Trump instead gave his employee a light scolding: the balance in his checking account had gone down. Trump, McConney testified, told him to “focus on my bills,” and that if someone was “asking for money,” he should “negotiate with them.”

Tarasoff made a more concrete version of the same point. She testified that per Trump Org corporate policy, until 2015 any invoice above $2,500 had to be approved by Trump himself or one of his two sons. After 2015, that limit was raised to $10,000.

Prosecutors elicited that from Tarasoff as she walked through the payments to Cohen: $35,000 each, totaling $420,000.

Much of this was shown to jurors — and journalists — in the form of checks from Trump’s personal accounts, with his signature on some of the checks.

Throughout this time period, Trump emphasized that he would relinquish control of the day-to-day operation of his businesses. At a January 2017 press conference shortly before he took office, he said that the assets would be placed in a trust controlled by his sons.

After years of scandal, from questions around foreign spending at his properties to his attempt to stay in power after the 2020 election, Trump’s evasion of conflict-of-interest laws and principles around his business empire may seem quaint. But it highlights a separate point as well: his sons never really controlled his trust. For the most important transactions, it was Donald.

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