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Defense rests without Trump taking witness stand in New York trial

Updated May 21, 2024 - 1:23 pm

NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s lawyers rested their defense Tuesday without the former president taking the witness stand in his New York hush money criminal trial, moving the case closer to the moment when the jury will begin deciding his fate.

“Your honor, the defense rests,” Trump lawyer Todd Blanche told the judge. Trump’s team concluded with testimony from a former federal prosecutor who had been called to attack the credibility of the prosecution’s key witness, one of two people summoned to the stand by the defense. The Manhattan district attorney’s office called 20 witnesses over 15 days of testimony before resting its case Monday.

The jury was sent home for a week, until May 28, when closing arguments are expected, but the attorneys returned to the courtroom to discuss how the judge will instruct jurors on deliberations, a sort of road map meant to help them apply the law to the evidence and testimony. The two sides haggled over word choices, legal phrases and descriptions of campaign-related issues.

Trump, the first former American president to be tried criminally, did not answer questions about why he did not testify.

Trump had previously said he wanted to take the witness stand in his own defense, but there was no requirement or even expectation that he do so. Defendants routinely decline to testify. His attorneys, instead of mounting an effort to demonstrate Trump’s innocence to jurors, focused on attacking the credibility of the prosecution witnesses. That’s a routine defense strategy; the burden of proof in a criminal case lies with the prosecution. The defense doesn’t have to prove a thing.

Yet even as Trump denounces the trial as a politically motivated travesty of justice, he has been working to turn the proceedings into an offshoot of his presidential campaign. He’s capitalized on the trial as a fundraising pitch, used his time in front of the cameras to criticize President Joe Biden and showcased a parade of his own political supporters.

First to go to trial

Prosecutors have accused the presumptive Republican presidential nominee of a scheme to scoop up and bury negative stories in an illegal effort to influence the 2016 presidential election. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing. It’s the first of Trump’s four criminal cases to go to trial, and quite possibly the only one before the 2024 presidential election.

“They have no case,” Trump said Tuesday morning before court adjourned. “There’s no crime.”

Jurors have been given a lesson on the underbelly of the tabloid business world, where Trump allies at the National Enquirer launched a plan to keep seamy, sometimes outrageous stories about Trump out of the public eye by paying tens of thousands of dollars to “catch and kill” them. They watched as a porn actress, Stormy Daniels, recounted in discomfiting detail an alleged sexual encounter with Trump in a hotel room. Trump says nothing sexual happened between them.

And they sat intently in the jury box as Trump’s former-lawyer-turned-foe Michel Cohen placed Trump in the middle of the scheme to buy Daniels’ story to keep it from going public in the waning weeks before the 2016 presidential election. During that time, Republicans were wringing their hands in distress over the potential political fallout from the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.

But the crux of the prosecution’s case centers not on the spectacle but on business transactions, including internal Trump Organization records in which payments to Cohen were falsely labeled legal expenses. Prosecutors argued that those payments were really reimbursements to Cohen doled out in chunks, for a $130,000 payment he made on Trump’s behalf to keep Daniels quiet. Trump has been charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records. The offense is in the lowest tier of felony charges in New York state, and it is punishable by up to four years in prison, though there is no guarantee that a conviction would result in prison time.

Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. defended his father’s decision not to testify.

“There’d be absolutely no reason, no justification to do that whatsoever. Everyone sees it for the sham that it is,” the younger Trump said as he left a news conference Tuesday with supporters of the former president outside the courthouse.

The judge has yet to rule on a defense request to throw out the charges before jurors even begin deliberating based on the argument that prosecutors have failed to prove their case. Such long-shot requests are often made in criminal cases but are rarely granted.

Defense rests

The final witness was Robert Costello, a former federal prosecutor, who was first called Monday afternoon and who angered the judge by rolling his eyes and talking under his breath. The judge cleared the courtroom and threatened to remove Costello if he didn’t show more respect.

Tuesday’s testimony was absent the same kind of drama as Trump’s lawyers sought to use Costello to undermine Cohen’s credibility. The two had a professional relationship that splintered in spectacular fashion. Costello had offered to represent Cohen soon after the lawyer’s hotel room, office and home were raided and as Cohen faced a decision about whether to remain defiant in the face of a criminal investigation or to cooperate with authorities in hopes of securing more lenient treatment.

Costello bristled as he insisted to prosecutors that he did not feel animosity toward Cohen and did not try to intimidate him. “Ridiculous. No,” he said to the latter.

But Costello has repeatedly maligned Cohen’s credibility and was even a witness before last year’s grand jury that indicted Trump, offering testimony designed to undermine Cohen’s account. In a Fox News Channel interview last week, Costello accused Cohen of lying to the jury and using the case to “monetize” himself.

Prosecutors sought to show that Costello was part of a pressure campaign to manipulate and arm-twist Cohen in order to keep him in Trump’s corner once he came under federal investigation. Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger asked Costello about a 2018 email in which he assured Cohen that he was “loved” by Trump’s camp, “they are in our corner” and “you have friends in high places.”

Asked who those “friends in high places” were, Costello said he was talking about Trump, then the president.

Trump lawyer Emil Bove tried to undo that portrayal.

“Did you ever pressure Michael Cohen to do anything?” Bove asked.

“No,” Costello replied.

After the defense rested, Judge Merchan dismissed the jurors and looked ahead to closing arguments — the last time the jury will hear from either side. Deliberations could begin as early as next Wednesday, giving the panel their first chance to talk about the case. Until then, they’re barred from discussing it.

“I’ll see you in a week,” Merchan told the jury.

Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Michelle Price in New York; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C.; and Eric Tucker and Alanna Durkin Richer in Washington contributed to this report.

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