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CNN Live Event/Special

Closing Arguments in Trump's Trial Today. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 28, 2024 - 09:00   ET



REP. BYRON DONALDS (R-FL): We have a campaign strategy to get a lot of voters out in support of President Trump. That's the first, second, and third job. The vice presidency, that's a decision he will make. And knowing him, he'll make that decision alone.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Congressman Byron Donalds, thank you so much for your time today.

DONALDS: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: VP race continues.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Oh, yes. Heating up to say the least.


BERMAN: All right, it is a big day here in New York. Closing arguments set to begin very shortly in the criminal case against Donald Trump. Thank you all for being with us. CNN's special live coverage of those arguments begins right now.

Oh, this camera.

BOLDUAN: Good job (ph).

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Here in New York City, to historic criminal trial of Donald J. Trump entering the final critical phase this hour with closing arguments about to begin. The former president on his way to the courthouse. His trial has been building for weeks toward this dramatic moment, when the prosecution and defense lay it all on the line.

I'm Anderson Cooper, here in New York.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jake Tapper in Washington. You're watching special CNN live coverage of Donald Trump's hush money cover- up trial. The closing arguments that play out in the hours ahead will be the last word from lawyers on both sides before jurors decide if Mr. Trump becomes the first ever former president convicted of a crime.

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass will today try to weave together weeks of testimony and evidence to make the case that Mr. Trump was involved in a criminal conspiracy and falsified business records, arguing that he sought to cover up his alleged affair with Stormy Daniels and her hush money payment in an illegal attempt to help his 2016 presidential campaign.

But first up, the defense gets to give its summation in accordance with New York state law. And we're told that Mr. Trump's lead lawyer, Todd Blanche, will zero in on the prosecution's star witness, Michael Cohen, taking aim at Cohen's credibility, as he tries to convince jurors there is sufficient reasonable doubt to acquit Donald J. Trump.

CNN's team of reporters and producers inside the courthouse are going to bring you constant updates on these closing arguments, capturing all the drama as it unfolds.

And, Anderson, this is the opening bell at the start of a very big week.

COOPER: Yes. And this is going to be a very big day indeed.

I'm here with CNN's Kaitlan Collins and Paula Reid.

What have you been hearing, Kaitlan, about what the defense plan is?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, obviously, you know, they really want to drive their argument home to basically undermine everything that the prosecution is going to say. They're telling the same story, just different versions of it. And Donald Trump's culpability and closeness and proximity to all of it. And so that's really what they're bracing for today.

They are a little bit concerned, and as I believe the prosecution is as well, that the jury's just had a week off and they need to be reminded of a lot of what they heard over those six weeks of evidence and witnesses that were coming before them.

One thing I will say about how all of this is going to go down and what I've heard about the order of this is Donald Trump is frustrated and he learned in recent days that the last word that the jury hears will be from the prosecution, not from the defense team, because unlike the opening statements where the prosecution went first, laid out its case, and then Trump's attorneys made their argument to the jury. Instead, the defense will go so first once they get inside that room today.

COOPER: Right. And he's not happy about that.

COLLINS: Because he essentially wants his team to be the final word. And because the burden of proof is on the prosecution, they will go last.

So, Todd Blanche will get up there for a little bit this morning, will make his closing argument to this jury as they are hoping that they can convince them. But I do think there's a little concern from they've forgotten key pieces of this. So, they're going to be trying to remind them of the most dramatic moments. Michael Cohen getting caught when he was talking about the 14-year-old prank caller. Small moments like that. Big moments at the time, but making sure that that is all weaved into the story that they're telling to this jury before they start these deliberations.

COOPER: And also for, Paula, part of the story that the defense wants to tell the jury is about the witnesses who were not called. People who - like Allen Weisselberg, who are not here.

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yes. What I'm hearing, obviously Todd Blanche goes first, much to the former president's chagrin, but he's going to take about two-and-a-half, three hours. And that is because that's about as long as they think jurors want to hear from lawyers in closing.

But there's also a strategy here because the prosecutors will then get up and they don't want the prosecutors to do their closing this afternoon and then have another crack at the jury tomorrow because there's no time limit for how long they can actually talk. So, they're going to try to finish early enough to make it uncomfortable for Joshua Steinglass to continue this into tomorrow and to get that second crack at the jury so close to when they begin deliberations.

Now, throughout this closing we expect that they're going to go through a lot of the arguments that, yes, they made in court. I'm told that they will once again argue these documents weren't falsified. Michael Cohen was serving as Trump's lawyer at this time. $420,000, the amount he was paid. That's approximately what he received in 2016. They're going to reintroduce some of the evidence that they presented throughout this trial, remind the jury of that, and, of course, they're going to take aim at Michael Cohen.


That's part of why they're also going to point out people who weren't called, like Keith Schiller, Trump's body man. Kaitlan and I have said this numerous times on air, why wasn't Keith Schiller called? Allen Weisselberg, why wasn't he called when he was the only other person besides Michael Cohen who could testify to these key moments.

But I'm also told that the Trump team is going to sort of put a different framing on Michael Cohen's credibility. Of course they're going to go through the misstatements, the lies, the fact that he admitted to stealing, but they're also going to try to personalize it for the jury and be like, would you want your freedom or the freedom of one of your loved ones depending on the word of this man? So, that's going to be a big theme today.

COOPER: The reason Allen Weisselberg wasn't called - I mean the defense is going to raise all sorts of questions about, well, why wasn't he called? The prosecution essentially does not trust that Allen Weisselberg would tell the truth. He is in jail currently for perjury.

REID: Yes, or that he wouldn't invoke the Fifth Amendment. But the judge has said, well, perhaps you should have at least tried. And this could raise some questions for the jury. Well, why didn't you try? Why didn't you bring him in? See what happens. Why did you just completely leave that critical piece of the puzzle out there, you know, sitting in Rikers. And same with Keith Schiller too. COOPER: We should also point out, the defense chose not to bring him on as a witness as well.

REID: Yes.

COLLINS: Right, no one chose to call him. The only person who raised the idea of bringing him in from Rikers where he is serving time right now was Judge Juan Merchan himself.

REID: Yes.

COLLINS: And he raised that idea - that question. But they moved on and it was basically never brought up in court again.

And he is someone who could potentially shed light on it, but they have no reason to believe that he would be honest or that he would tell the truth. I mean he is - right now he has just pleaded guilty to perjury. That is why he is in Rikers right now. And they've seen where he has gotten on the stand before. He's been questioned by past prosecutors in the DA's office when they were investigating Michael Cohen on this, and he said he couldn't remember Trump's involvement - or he didn't recall Trump's involvement in this at all.

Obviously, you know, regardless of how the defense or the prosecution paints it, it's clear Trump was involved to a degree. The question is, how much and if this jury sees it in that manner.


COLLINS: But that's certainly been a big point of contention here is that he wasn't called and he was a critical voice on this. And that is another question of Trump's team going first is, how do they address that, if at all, because they don't know what the prosecution is going to say about it when they present last.

COOPER: Right.

Let's go to CNN's Elie Honig at the magic wall.

So, give us a preview, if you can, Elie, of what we think we're going to hear from the defense team this morning.

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, Anderson, well, here we go. This is the biggest moment of the trial. This is when the parties get to stand up and make their closing arguments directly to the jury.

Now, the defense will close first. That is the way it works under New York law, like it or not. And so we will here first - the jury will hear - from Todd Blanche, Donald Trump's lead defense lawyer. Blanche is a longtime former federal prosecutor. He's given high-stakes prosecution closings before. But, of course, nothing quite like this one.

Look for Blanche, when he gives his closing today, to stress the theme of the burden of proof. Like many defendants, he will argue, this is not about who has a better story. This is about whether the prosecution has carried its burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the highest standard in our legal system.

Now, another theme to watch for, as Kaitlan and Paula were just saying, is Michael Cohen. The defense is going to want the focus on this guy and not on this guy. They're going to argue, you cannot trust him. You cannot find proof beyond a reasonable doubt based on Michael Cohen specifically.

The defense will remind the jury that Michael Cohen came out in trial, has a long history of lying. He has lied to Congress, to the Justice Department, to the Federal Election Commission, to the IRS, to various banks, to a federal judge, and to the media.

Also, look for the defense to argue that Michael Cohen has lied on the stand in this trial. For example, the incident when Michael Cohen testified about an important phone call he had 8:02 p.m. on October 24, 2016, with Keith Schiller and Donald Trump. That's what Cohen said on his direct testimony. On cross-examination, it came out that the texts before and after this call were about something different. They were about a 14-year-old who had been sending harassing texts messages to Michael Cohen.

Watch also for the defense to remind the jury, Michael Cohen is extraordinarily biased. He hates Donald Trump. Michael Cohen's own words, I truly hope this man ends up in prison. The insults, Cheeto- dusted cartoon villain and similar sentiments from Michael Cohen. The argument will be, how can you trust someone who's dead set on sending the defendant to prison.

And look for the defense to remind the jury, Michael Cohen has a financial motive here. He's made millions, the testimony showed, from his books, "Disloyal" and "Revenge," from his podcast, his TikTok, and from his merchandise.

Now, look for the defense to focus on the specific elements of the crime. There's really two big ones. The first one is falsifying business records. And the argument that I think the jury's going to hear is that there is evidenced that Michael Cohen and Allen Weisselberg were in on this plan to reimburse Michael Cohen $420,000 for the Stormy Daniels payments. But the defense is going to argue, you can't link Donald Trump to that plan unless you go through Michael Cohen. There's no direct link between Donald Trump and the business documents and the handwritten notes.


And, therefore, the defense will argue, you can only get there if you trust Michael Cohen.

Also, of course, the defense will remind the jury, Michael Cohen stole from Donald Trump. He admitted it on cross-examination. He stole $60,000 in the course of that $420,000 payment. On director the exam, Michael Cohen tried to say it was, quote, self-help, and he was merely rebalancing the books. But he admitted on cross that he did steal. The defense will argue, that shows Donald Trump did not know what was going on in this transaction. He was getting stolen from. And then the second element that the prosecution has to prove after

falsifying business records is that Donald Trump acted with a campaign motive. Look for the defense to remind the jury of certain pieces of testimony, like the one we heard from Hope Hicks, that Trump was concerned about the story. He was concerned about how it would be viewed by his wife. And he wanted me, Hope Hicks, to make sure the newspapers were not delivered to the residence that morning. Unfortunately for the defense, Hope Hicks also said there was a campaign motive, as did many other witnesses.

And finally, as Anderson and Paula and Kaitlan were just discussing, look for Todd Blanche to remind the jury there are crucial witnesses here. Allen Weisselberg, the CFO of the Trump Org, Keith Schiller, who was part of crucial phone calls, Karen McDougal, who received a prior hush money payment, the defense will say, where were those witnesses? The prosecution could have called them but did not. They carry the burden of proof.

So, look for those key themes, Jake, as we get ready to hear this closing. It should kick off in about 20 minutes. The stakes really don't get much higher than this.

TAPPER: They sure don't.

My panel's here, including Karen Friedman Agnifilo. She's the former chief assistant district attorney in the Manhattan DA's office. Karen is of council for a firm that represents Michael Cohen, but she doesn't have any contact with Cohen. She doesn't work on his case. There are no restrictions on what she can say about this case.

Dana Bash, give us the 30,000-foot view here of this trial because we've been covering this now. Obviously, it's a hugely important moment in history no matter what the verdict is. And here we are, on the cusp of its end.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And everything that Elie just laid out, all of the details, which are absolutely crucial when we get this verdict, that is going to be - that's what everybody's paying attention to. And because of the historic nature of this, but also because of where we are in the campaign.

And I have talked to Democrats, I have talked to Republicans, who genuinely don't know - they can make arguments either way about how an acquittal will play politically, how a hung jury will play politically, how any form of a guilty will play politically.

There is such fresh, unknown territory here, never mind on the law, which you guys are talking about and is obviously incredibly important, but on the politics of this and how voters are going to consume this, because as into the details as we all are, and as important as they all are, voters, most of them are not. They're living their lives.

TAPPER: So, I have a question and it's one raised earlier today, or last night, I should say, by Donald J. Trump, the defendant himself, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. This is not how I would phrase it, but the question is, why is the corrupt government allowed to make the final argument in the case against me. Why can't the defense go last? Big advantage. Very unfair. Witch hunt. DJT.

Now, removing corrupt and all the adjectives and such, again, with the understanding that my knowledge of the law is limited to the few trials I've covered and watching everything Dick Wolf has ever produced, what is the reason? I thought that the defense goes last. I thought that's how it's always gone, no?

LAURA COATES, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: In New York, no. But also the prosecution has the burden of proof. Essentially, you brought me here. You're the one who's accused me of having committed a crime. You want them all to know something about me. You've had the burden of proof all along. Well, you're here. This is your opportunity.

The defense goes first to try to front the issues in New York to say like, listen, these are the reasons why you should not believe anything they have to say. But it is an advantage to the prosecution. I'll tell you why, primacy and recency. The first thing you heard and the last thing you heard is exactly what jurors remember. And you want to bury what's not going to be helpful to you in between.

So, if you're a defendant thinking about, well, I want the last word, I want the last chance to chop it down -

TAPPER: Right.

COATES: That's my right. But the burden of proof belongs to the prosecution. It is where a rebuttal, they had that chance all throughout trial, remember. They had the direct, then there was the cross to the defense. They had one more bite at the apple. So, back- and-forth like a ping pong. Not the first time.

So, I'm confused to why he's just now hearing about this.

TAPPER: Well, he's never been a -

COATES: It's had this -

TAPPER: A criminal defendant before.

COATES: He has - well, he's been in this trial this whole time where the defense and the prosecution have volleyed.

TAPPER: He's got a lot going on. He's focused on lots of things. And now it's the closing arguments.

COATES: Sure. Sure.

TAPPER: But I thought that our system of jurisprudence bends over backwards to give the defendant every benefit of the legal system.


TAPPER: And therefore, the defense gets to go last. You're - and you're saying, Laura and Elie, that that's just not how they do it in New York.

HONIG: Yes, you're right, we do always try to build in the benefit of the doubt for the defendants, but this is just how it is.


This is Donald Trump shaking his fist at the clouds. I mean this is the rule. In New York state, and most other states, New Jersey -

TAPPER: Oh, really?

HONIG: Yes, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, it goes defense closing first, then prosecution causing. And by the way, Donald Trump would not like the alternative any better. In the federal system, it's even more loaded against the defendant because in the federal system, when you get to closing, prosecution closes, defense closes, and then, we prosecutors, we get a rebuttal. So, the prosecutors get to actually close first and last in the federal system, and some states as well.

So, this is - it's not great for defendants. Laura's right, it's a fair complaint that all defendants, not just Donald Trump, have. I should get to go last. I'm the one with my liberty at stake. But it's just not the way it is in the majority of states, and it could be worse for him.

TAPPER: Did it used to be different? Why am I surprised by this is -

KAREN FRIEDMAN AGNIFILO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No, this has been in the New York civil procedure law.

TAPPER: IT's because of Hollywood, I guess.

AGNIFILO: It's statutory -

TAPPER: Hollywood - is that - I mean is that what it is, that Hollywood always presents it that the defense gets to go last?

AGNIFILO: Perhaps.


AGNIFILO: I'm not sure. But this has always been the case in New York that I am aware of.

TAPPER: All right. Very interesting.

So, Jamie, let's talk about the fact that the closing arguments are about to begin. What are you looking for?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm really curious about, is it enough, on the prosecutor's side, to say, use your common sense of what we've laid out here. Does Michael Cohen - we didn't have cameras in the courtroom. May I say over and over again, this is a big problem. But we believe that Michael Cohen kept his cool and was pretty even throughout. How does the jury read that? I think it's important to look at Allen Weisselberg and Keith Schiller

from both sides. Neither side called him. The defense didn't just rest, they did put a witness on. You know, does the jury say to itself, well, if these two guys were going to contradict Michael Cohen, Trump's side could have called them. But at the end of the day, every lawyer and judge I've spoken to this week says the same thing, we don't have a clue what the jury is thinking and what they've focused on.

TAPPER: And that's something for us to remember, Kasie, because the political junkies and news junkies and legal junkies who have been watching our coverage, who have been on this journey with us for the last four weeks -


TAPPER: They are a jury that is not getting the same presentation that the jury actually inside the courtroom does. We are jumping on tidbits and murder boarding them and analyzing them and looking at them. And that's not necessarily how the jury is receiving any of this information. We are also tending to drown out all the boring stuff because that's not interesting to us (ph).

BASH: Because we can.

TAPPER: Because we can.

HUNT: Television.

TAPPER: And they don't get - right. And they don't get - and they don't - they don't have that benefit in the - in the courtroom.

HUNT: They do not. No.


HUNT: Yes, look, I think the dynamics of the jury are a fascinating piece of this. There's some reporting out this morning about, is the Trump team looking at one specific juror or another to feel like perhaps there will be someone who is sympathetic to them or not. But even the end of that story is a blind quote that basically says, yes, he could be making eye contact with us and we think it's great, but also he could screw us over once we get back there in that room. And they used much less polite language to describe that.

And, you know, I'll be honest, for the lawyers at the table, one of the thing that - things that fascinates me the most about this is the idea of peer pressure in a jury and what it takes to actually get to a hung jury, which I think especially the Trump team, certainly when I talked to his allies, they talk about that as something that could, you know, could happen to him, potentially could save him from this.

But I was talking to another source who basically said, it takes a lot of guts - again, a less polite word used - to be the one juror that, like, in a room with your peers objects to it all. So, I'm really curious about that dynamic. BASH: And it probably - and it probably takes a while too -

HUNT: Well, there's -

BASH: Because you have to be able to deliberate for a while to get to the point where you realize you can't do it?

HONIG: Oh, yes.

COATES: Absolutely. And one thing that might take away some peer pressure, but we've been talking a lot about, what is this so-called predicate crime that made it from a misdemeanor to a felony. The other crime that he was trying to either hide or intended to commit. The jury - the judge as recently said, the jurors don't need to agree on what that underlying crime actually was.

TAPPER: Just that there - just that there was one.

COATES: It could - just that there was a crime.


COATES: And so there would be more pressure if they had to say, is this a tax issue, a campaign finance issue? What are we talking about here? Imagine if that were the case. This takes a little bit of that pressure off to say, well, whatever reason you think the crime was, we can agree.

BASH: Yes.

TAPPER: All right, Donald Trump's lead defense attorney, Todd Blanche, is going to kick off his closing arguments any minute. Stay right here for constant updates and analysis. Much more coming after this quick break.



CCOOPER: Barricades are being set up outside the Manhattan criminal courthouse of this high-stakes moment in Donald Trump's hush money coverup trial. We are standing by for the crucial closing arguments that could sway jurors one way or another. The defense will go first. It all begins just minutes from now.

Welcome back to our continuing coverage.

I want to turn to criminal defense attorney Ron Kuby.

Ron, appreciate you joining us this morning.

How important, in your experience, are closing arguments? I mean, do they really make or break a case?

RON KUBY, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: They're incredibly important to the lawyers. This is the opportunity that we have to speak to the jury without worrying about any bad answers coming from witnesses. We can move ourselves to tears sometimes with the poignancy of our very own oratory.


And we know from popular culture, you know, from "To Kill a Mockingbird" to "Law and Order," they're important.

But for the jury, not so much. Certainly the prosecution has some tasks that they have to perform in terms of showing how the facts apply to the law, as Judge Merchan is going to tell them. The defense certainly needs to make some points that they may or may not make, depending on what Blanche says.

But, you know, it's the evidence that almost always determines the outcome. I've never had a juror come up to me in any case afterwards and say it was the summation that pushed them one way or the other.

But again, we like it. That's why we go on for two hours, three hours, even though everybody who does spoken word knows, whether you're a university professor or a priest giving a sermon, 40 minutes to an hour is about the maximum attention span.

COOPER: I just want to point out, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is in the courtroom sitting in the second row on the prosecution's side.

If you're the defense attorney, Ron, how much do you think of the closing argument for them is going to revolve around Michael Cohen's credibility and also the witnesses who were not called, Allen Weisselberg, Keith Schiller?

KUBY: Certainly Todd Blanche now has a chance to do what Donald Trump is - has no longer been permitted to do, which is to attack the witnesses. During summation, Todd Blanche, who will be appealing, not to an audience of 12 plus alternatives, but to an audience of one, can call Michael Cohen a liar and a crook and a grifter and a cheat, a boot-licking lackey, whatever he wants. And so he's going to spend a lot of time doing that because that's really what his client wants. And that can be effective.

Unfortunately, there were very few holes made in the actual story that Michael Cohen was telling. It was corroborated. It was uncontracted. And it sounds plausible.

You know, Keith Schiller and Weisselberg, the jury can hear from both the defense and prosecution. And both of them say the same thing, if they were going to be good for x, x would have called them. If Keith Schiller was going to support Trump, Trump would have called him. And the defense, likewise. I don't think they'll be a factor. The jury doesn't know who these people are. They don't know that they're - whether they're in jail or they've had a stroke or anything like that. So, I don't think what the defense says about them will be an issue.

Certainly the jury is going to wonder, I think, that given the fact that Keith Schiller was in the room, Donald Trump didn't testify. Michael Cohen gave one version, whereas Keith Schiller, and they may wonder about Weisselberg as well. But again, you have his notes and memos and other things.

COOPER: And I just want to point out, Donald Trump has entered the courtroom, along with his Secret Service protection. The former president scanned the rows to his left as he walked down the center aisle. He comes from the back of the courtroom, walking down the center aisle, pursing his lips, according to one of our correspondents in the room.

You have said, Ron, that the prosecution, you believe, has proven their case so far. If that's the case, and if the defense is particularly concerned that - or may agree with you that they have done a good job proving their case, how does that change what Todd Blanche wants to do in the closing argument? I mean how do you introduce enough reasonable doubt?

KUBY: One of the things that you can do and probably should do under these circumstances is to look for all the various discrepancies and call each one of those a reasonable doubt, ranging from the contents of the Michael phone - Michael Cohen October 24th phone call, all the way to smaller discrepancies. It's sort of like the puzzles we had when we were children. We would look for the hidden words or the rabbits in the picture and sort of circle all of those and show the jury that there are so many separate, reasonable doubts here they cannot find Donald Trump guilty.

COOPER: Ron Kuby, I appreciate it. Thanks so much.

Tiffany Trump, Eric Trump, and Donald Trump Junior are seated in a row behind their father. And that's - this is actually interesting, and I'm here with Kaitlan and Paula Reid. I think this is the first time, correct me if I'm wrong, that Tiffany Trump has been in the courtroom and that all three of them are there I think at the same time.

COLLINS: Yes, it is the first time we've seen them. Tiffany Trump's husband is also there. And I should note, we can see other people who are here. At the bottom left, that's Tiffany Trump's husband. The others are people that are familiar faces to this courtroom. Steve Witkoff, Will Scharf, who is Trump's attorney and representative him at the Supreme Court for the immunity arguments.

And it is notable though because this is the biggest contingency of Trump's family that we have seen present with him at court.


Still two people who never made appearances at this trial, Ivanka Trump, and more importantly Melania Trump.