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CNN Live Event/Special

Closing Arguments Continue in Trump Hush Money Trial. Aired 1- 1:30p ET

Aired May 28, 2024 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Hello. And welcome to CNN's special coverage of the closing arguments in former President Donald Trump's criminal hush money trial.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington, alongside Abby Phillip, who is outside the courthouse in New York.

A very consequential day, as we enter the homestretch of this truly historic trial. Court is out now for lunch following a morning of blistering closing arguments by Trump's defense team. Unsurprisingly, Trump attorney Todd Blanche made the case that payments made to Michael Cohen, the heart of the prosecution's charges, were not illegal -- Abby, over to you.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: That's right, Wolf.

Blanche ripped into potential pivotal testimony delivered by Trump's former fixture and personal attorney, repeatedly calling Michael Cohen a liar whose words should not be trusted. And the claims that the alleged tryst between Trump and adult film actress Stormy Daniels, he implied that it never even happened.

At one point, Blanche told jurors you cannot convict President Trump of any crime beyond a reasonable doubt on the words of Michael Cohen. So, now that the defense has finished with its summation, the prosecution, they will have their final word before jurors begin their deliberations. We're expecting that to begin in just about an hour.

So, while we wait, let's bring in chief legal affairs correspondent Paula Reid. And with us also is CNN national correspondent Kristen Holmes.

Ladies, I was just in the courtroom not that long ago listening to the vast majority of Blanche's summations. And as a good defense attorney might do, the main thing that he was trying to accomplish was just to say to the jury, you don't have to overthink this. This is really easy. You have got a liar on the stand.


PHILLIP: All of this is hinging on his word. And that's it. I mean, it struck me that there wasn't an attempt to create some kind

of smoking gun. The main thing was just to tell the jury, don't overthink it. It's right in front of your eyes. Michael Cohen is a liar.

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It took him a long time to get there, though.


REID: I mean, as we laid out in our reporting before court started today, we expected that he was going to argue that the documents here that are allegedly falsified are not false because Michael Cohen was working as an attorney. That's what he hit right off the bat.

Then, at the end, he did really start to hammer specifically Michael Cohen's credibility, calling him the MVP of liars, right, the greatest liar of all time, the GLOAT, had a lot of good lines.

But in between there, wow, he got really deep in the weeds...


REID: ... talked about a lot of things, like Karen McDougal, her catch-and-kill, the impact of "The National Enquirer" on the election, a lot of things that maybe he could have touched on to undercut the way this was charged as a felony, alleging this conspiracy to help Trump in 2016.

But he did not have to spend a third of his time on a lot of these topics. So it was meandering. But, eventually, he got there, focusing on really his thesis statement, which is that you can't believe Michael Cohen.

PHILLIP: Yes, I mean, it was -- it did seem, listening to it, as an attempt to do death by 1,000 cuts, by poking holes in all these different elements of it.

Part of the strategy of poking holes was also about this idea that there was even a conspiracy to begin with. He sort of suggested, well, if there was a conspiracy between AMI and Donald Trump and Michael Cohen, well, AMI was a terrible partner in that conspiracy because they were willing to throw Donald Trump under the bus if that story about the love child turned out to be true.

So, do -- was that, in your view, something that was effective to suggest maybe AMI really wasn't all that in on it?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think part of what they're doing right now is trying to lay out fact after fact after fact about reasonable doubt, and the reason being that I have talked to a number of Trump legal advisers who do say that there is some concern, or at least they are playing a little bit to the fact there are these two lawyers that are present on the jury.

They want this to be made -- this case to be made to them directly, essentially saying they want...

PHILLIP: Kristen, I think we're having some issues with your microphone.


PHILLIP: They will let me know when it gets resolved.

But, in the meantime, Paula, just picking up on what she's saying here, I mean, there are two lawyers in that jury box. If you try to make this a sort of open-and-shut, this is simple, you just can't trust this guy, go with your gut, does that work with those two lawyers?


REID: No, it's unlikely to work with these lawyers, because this is also a complicated case, right? And they're going to understand that a lot of the things that maybe Todd Blanche said just strain credulity, right?

The argument that these hush money payments were not made to help Trump win 2016, you don't have to be a lawyer to wonder if that's true. So it's just a little confusing as to why they spent so much time on things like the doorman, like Karen McDougal...


REID: ... certain things that came into evidence, why they spent so much time on that, when the case is really going to be won or lost by putting distance between the defendant and the documents in question and undercutting Michael Cohen's credibility.

But this was really what we saw throughout the case, right? Todd Blanche would get there. He would land the occasional punch, but he took a long and winding path...


REID: ... particularly in the Cohen -- the Cohen cross-examination.

Even Stormy Daniels' cross-examination went on for so long, when she is really -- while she's a character at the heart of the story, she is not really a material witness that is going to make or break this case for prosecutors.


HOLMES: I do want to add one thing about the Todd Blanche thing, though, because this is something that Donald Trump actually really liked.

We know that Donald Trump has a number of very contentious relationships with lawyers, but he was raving about Todd Blanche over the weekend, saying that him catching Michael Cohen in the lie, particularly about stealing the money from Trump Organization, was a pivotal moment in the case.

He is ending this case, despite the Bob Costello testimony and the back-and-forth -- and there are two camps there, that some believe that it could affect him. Others say it's not going to be a big deal. But he was actually ending this case in a very good place with Todd Blanche.

So whatever the style is, is working with their client, which, obviously, we know is a huge part of being a lawyer for Donald Trump.

PHILLIP: Yes. And, look, reasonable people can agree or disagree about how this is going for the defense, and specifically Todd Blanche, but I think you're right, Paula.

There is a sort of lack of narrative that unfolds when you listen to it, especially when you're in that courthouse. You can hear, he's hitting a bunch of different points, but I'm not sure that he's making a through line that's easy for the jury to follow.

Ladies, hold that thought for just a moment.

I want to go to Kara Scannell. She just got out of the courthouse as they're taking their lunch break here.

Kara -- Kara, what is -- what was your impression of how this defense summation went down for the jury? Were they following where he was going with all of this?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I mean, I did see a number of the jurors, their eyes pretty locked on Todd Blanche during his summation.

I mean, some had -- one person had a half-a-smile on their face. Another person's lips were pursed for most of the closing arguments. Other jurors, their eyes were wandering a bit, some looking down at the monitors on their screen where Blanche put up some of the testimony, the excerpts that he was citing to the jury, as well as some of the e-mails and the phone logs that he was using in his demonstration.

So the jurors seemed pretty attentive. You -- it's very hard to read their faces, but they were paying close attention to what Blanche was saying throughout this multihour closing argument. And Donald Trump was too.

At one point, he had turned his chair so that he was facing Blanche and the jury as Blanche was addressing them. Blanche was at the podium, which was slightly turned as well. So it appeared that Trump had a clear view of the jury as he was watching both his lawyer and the jury as they were hearing Blanche's arguments.

And a lot of this was focused on Michael Cohen, that he, as Blanche put it, was the MVP of liars, the GLOAT of liars, the greatest liar of all time, just really trying to underscore why the jury could not convict Donald Trump based on Michael Cohen's words alone and focusing the jury to other parts of the evidence that he is hoping that they view in his favor, such as David Pecker being part of this alleged conspiracy, but saying that David Pecker wanted nothing to do with the Stormy Daniels story.

David Pecker testified to that, and so saying, how could this be a conspiracy if one of the catch-and-kill deals that's at the center of it was something that David Pecker wanted nothing to do with? So, trying to raise questions in the minds of the jury, focusing in on them, saying that Michael Cohen is the human embodiment of reasonable doubt, and that is why they should not convict based on his testimony, his words, arguing that Cohen lies about things big and small.

He lies to his family. He lies mostly for his own benefit. So, a lot for the jury to digest over this quick lunch break, and then the prosecutors will have their turn to do their closing arguments. We are now expected to go later than the usual 4:30 close today. Exactly how late really depends on how long the prosecutor goes.

But the jury gave the thumbs-up that they would be willing to stay to hear this through the end today. The prosecutor said he thought his closing could go four hours, but he also said he would react to what Todd Blanche said during his closing arguments.

So we expect this will continue much later than court usually ends today, so the jury can hear arguments from both sides before they head home for the night and before the judge instructs them tomorrow -- Abby.

PHILLIP: All right, Kara Scannell, thank you very much.

Paula and Kristen, you guys will stay with me -- Wolf, over to you.


BLITZER: Bring in our panel of experts to assess what's going on, on this important day.

And, Elie Honig, you're our senior legal analyst.


BLITZER: What's your major takeaway so far from what we have heard today?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think the defense closing started solid, when he was talking about the documents and saying we can't tie them back to Donald Trump.

I think it ended strong when he was attacking Michael Cohen. And I think the middle was just a bunch of mush that he should have skipped. I think it was a tactical mistake to spend so much time, so deep in the weeds of Karen McDougal and the doorman.

Stormy Daniels, I would just given that the back of the hand. I think the way -- go back -- what I think Todd Blanche hopes the jury takes away from this is this. You cannot make this case without relying on Michael Cohen, and you cannot trust Michael Cohen. He got there, but he could have done it more powerfully, more succinctly. BLITZER: Elliot Williams is with us too.

Trump attorney Todd Blanche, as you know, he seemed to be making some contradictory statements in the course of his arguments today. What do you make of that?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Once again, it's time for our daily reminder of the fact that we are at a great disadvantage by not having cameras in the courtroom, because this is exactly the kinds of thing that jurors are assessing in real time.

Do they -- number one, how is the jury reacting to this individual that's arguing to them? But, number two, what does this person look like as they're arguing? Is he putting people to sleep and so on? Very important point that the state of New York puts the rest of America at a huge disadvantage there.

Now, a few sort of things, picking up on some of the points that Elie had made. There's a lot of time that Todd Blanche spent today on things that they ought to have let go, the affair, whether it happened. Spending any breath denying whether it happened did not benefit their case in any way.

Now, he made the argument that the prosecution merely brought in the testimony of Stormy Daniels so as to inflame the passions of the jury. But don't go down that road. It's not a relevant fact. And, quite frankly, most people probably believe that it happened, so it's almost insulting to the jury in many ways. It was an odd argument to make.

And the other thing that I was struck by is, there were a number of places where he used absolutes, using arguments -- and I tried to stay away from this whenever I was arguing a case -- there is not a shred of evidence that establishes blank.

Well, there is a shred of evidence that establishes virtually everything in the case. Now, the jury doesn't necessarily have to believe it, but you lose credibility as a practitioner when you start saying, absolutely yes or absolutely no anything, right?

It -- everything comes down to whether the jury trusts what they heard. But that doesn't mean that they heard the evidence -- that they didn't hear the evidence. And they did. It was there. It was presented by the prosecutors.

BLITZER: Interesting.

We heard Todd Blanche, the Trump attorney, David Chalian, talk about this idea of catch-and-kill, the catch-and-kill date. Let me quote from what he said.

"You have decades, decades of AMI" -- that's the company that owns "The National Enquirer" -- "doing exactly the same thing with respect to stories, working with celebrities and politicians to promote campaigns. There is zero criminal intent in that 2015 meeting."

What did you make of that argument?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I think this is part of the mush that Elie was referring to, the section of Todd Blanche's...

BLITZER: Is that a legal term?

CHALIAN: ... summation. Yes, exactly.

Because, at the end of the day, it's not really clear that the catch- and-kill scheme is, you know, part of the 34 counts here of the paperwork and, therefore, the additional crime of campaign finance violation, if that's what jurors end up assessing here.

I would say, though, that as we saw during the testimony, not just in the summation, this whole notion that the defense team has been focused on of making this Stormy Daniels scenario as just one of a normal order of business for a place like "The Enquirer," this happens with celebrities, this happens with everyone -- they brought up Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The -- all of this was to, like, try to convince the jury that there's nothing really to see here about the salacious stuff, the hush money, the catch-and-kill, the porn star, that that is not part of what is going on here.

So you see, even in the summation, Blanche is just trying to dismiss that as sort of run-of-the-mill, standard practice for a company like AMI.

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: What I appreciate about what you're saying is, it also plays into what we often hear from Trump supporters, which is that they may understand or may believe that he may be unethical in some respects or certain behaviors they don't agree with, but there's a sense that everybody does it.

In politics, everybody does this, everybody does that. And he's just getting picked on it because it's a witch-hunt. And, in that way, it actually plays into something that's sort of, like, commonly held and discussed when people have talked about this case, in particular, that, while it's unsavory, is it illegal?

And I realize there's a lot of evidence to be talked about in here, but, as an overall theme, I actually don't find it all that wild to say.

BLITZER: All right, everybody stand by. There's a lot more we need to assess. This is a dramatic, very important day.

Up next, we will ask a retired judge for their opinion on the closing arguments, at least so far, and what those presentations could mean for the case against Donald Trump.


Lots going on. Stay with us.


BLITZER: The judge overseeing Donald Trump's criminal hush money trial says he will give jurors a curative instruction about a -- quote -- "outrageous comment" in defense attorney Todd Blanche's closing argument.

The judge, Juan Merchan, not only called it highly inappropriate, but also said it was -- quote -- "hard to imagine it was made in an accidental way."

The key line from Blanche was when he said this -- and let me quote -- "You cannot send someone to prison, you cannot convict somebody based upon the words of Michael Cohen" -- close quote.


The prosecution said it was a blatant and inappropriate attempt to get sympathy for Trump.

Joining me now, former Florida Judge Jeff Swartz.

Judge, thanks so much for joining us.

What did you make of that comment? Do you think it was appropriate?

JEFF SWARTZ, FORMER FLORIDA JUDGE: I think that -- that Blanche got kind of desperate towards the end.

I think that he had to say something like that to make his client happy. But when your whole case is based upon attacking Michael Cohen and claiming that they can't convict, that's fine. You can say that.

But juries don't put people in jail. They don't put them in prison. They're not supposed to consider the penalty. They're only supposed to consider one thing, whether someone is guilty or not guilty of the charges and whether the state has proven their case. And he crossed the line beyond where he was supposed to go.

BLITZER: This is -- the judge crossed the line? Just want to be precise. Is that what you're saying?

SWARTZ: No, no, no. Blanche crossed the line when he says you can't put someone in prison.


BLITZER: But when the judge said it was highly -- the judge said it was highly inappropriate. Was it highly inappropriate?

SWARTZ: It was highly inappropriate. And it...

BLITZER: So you agree with the judge?

SWARTZ: It could deserve sanctions. It could deserve sanctions.

BLITZER: Yes. Really? All right. We will see what happens on that front.

What do you think has been the defense's strongest argument today?

SWARTZ: Their argument was basically what they said they had to do. And that was they had to attack Michael Cohen.

I think that most of the closing argument was Todd Blanche basically saying, you can't believe Michael Cohen. You can't believe anybody else in this case. Just believe me.

The problem is, he's going to get hit and closing by the state saying, Todd Blanche did not take an oath. Todd Blanche did not take the stand. Todd Blanche is not testifying. And as a result of which, you have to look to the evidence, which basically remains generally uncontradicted.

That's basically the way they're going to attack it. I believe they went with the best thing they had going for them. But I certainly did not want to be Todd Blanche today getting up there and attacking the entirety of the state's case. That usually goes nowhere with the jury.

BLITZER: Judge Swartz, what must the prosecution address in their summation after hearing the defense arguments?

SWARTZ: I think they have to do what they -- what I think they anticipate doing.

They're going to have to go through their case step by step in some detail, but not overbearing detail, and bring themselves to the point of now talking about Michael Cohen, because they have to. And they're going to have to basically say, Michael Cohen is a known liar. Michael Cohen committed some offenses.

The question isn't what he did in the past. The question is, do you believe what he said when he was on the stand? And all the corroboration we have talked about supports that. And then close with an attack on the closing argument that Todd Blanche has given and say, the evidence is clear beyond a reasonable doubt.

That's the way they have to do their closing.

BLITZER: Just very quickly, as you know, Trump is being charged, 34 state felony criminal charges for falsifying documents, falsifying business records.

That's the specific charge. Did the prosecution make the case that Trump is guilty?

SWARTZ: They have presented a case sufficient, I think overwhelmingly, that false records were created.

The only issue I think that the jury is going to have to really struggle with is, did he do it to help himself in the election or did he do it to protect his family? And, right now, we really don't have any evidence that says that the main thrust of this was to protect his family. For whatever the reasons are, no one has been able to put that really in the record, and, as a result of which, I don't know where the jury can go, other than not guilty or guilty. There's nothing in between. They're not going to be given that choice.

So the evidence clearly, to me, indicates he did it for the election. But that's up to the jury. And that's going to be up to two lawyers to make up their mind whether that really counts and whether that really is the basis of the felony.

If they agree with each other, the verdict will be guilty or not guilty, depending on where they go. The only other option is a hung jury if they split. The two jurors -- the two lawyers, I think, are the key jurors in this case.

BLITZER: We will see what happens. That will be critical indeed. To convict, you need a unanimous decision by the 12 members of the jury. To acquit, you need a unanimous decision also.

If there's one or two jurors who change -- who have a different position, then it is a hung jury, and then they have to decide what they do next.

Judge Jeff Swartz, thank you very much for your expertise.

SWARTZ: You're welcome. Thank you.


BLITZER: So, how is the jury responding to these closing arguments so far? We're going to speak to a jury consultant about that. That's coming up next.

Our special coverage of the closing arguments in this criminal hush money trial of Donald Trump is back after a quick break.



PHILLIP: You're watching CNN's special live coverage of the closing arguments in the first criminal trial of a former president. In about a half-an-hour, prosecutors are going to deliver their closing arguments.

CNN's Kristen Holmes and Paula Reid are back with me right now.

Kristen, notably, right as we are speaking, Don Jr., one of Trump's adult sons, he's at the microphone. He's speaking. They were in court today sitting behind their father.