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Prosecution's Burden And Closing Arguments; Key Witness Testimonies; The Judge Issues Firm Instructions In Hush Money Trial; Hush Money Trial Is An Historic One. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 28, 2024 - 14:00   ET




ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: And welcome back to our special live coverage. I'm Abby Phillip outside of the courthouse in New York City, alongside Wolf Blitzer in Washington. And in just moments, prosecutors will begin their closing arguments in the first criminal trial of a former president, Donald Trump. Before the lunch break, jurors heard from Trump's attorney making their final case. The defense insisting that Trump was not part of a scheme to cover up a 2016 hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. And that was according to the prosecutors, to influence a 2016 election, something the defense has denied. They also claim that efforts to suppress unflattering media stories were, quote, standard procedure for someone running for office. Now, attorney Todd Blanche said, quote, this is a campaign. This is an election. This is not a crime. Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: The defense also tried to once again bulldoze the credibility of the prosecution's star witness, Trump's former fixer and attorney, Michael Cohen. Saying Trump is a victim of Cohen's extortion. And I'm quoting now, you cannot convict President Trump of any crime beyond a reasonable doubt on the words of Michael Cohen. Close quote. CNN senior legal analyst Ellie Honig is over at the magic wall for us. Ellie, what do you expect to hear from the government's case?

ELLIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, the prosecution is about to have the last word in this case. This is the way it works under New York law. The prosecution bears the burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. They get to go last. We expect that the prosecution's jury address will be given by Josh Steinglass, a veteran ADA. Alvin Bragg, the DA, has been in the courtroom today. He will not be speaking directly to the jury. Now, the prosecution's task is to tell a coherent, compelling story. And they're going to start with the indictment. They're going to remind the jury this case is about falsifying business records. There are 34 counts in this case, one for each ledger entry, invoice, and check. And what they're going to do here is try to make it simple. As many legal elements. As there are here, the prosecution's going to say it all boils down to two things. One, did Donald Trump falsify business records? And two, did he have a campaign motive? So let's start with the first part of that, falsifying the business records. Now, the prosecution is going to try to tell as neat and linear a story as they can. And really, the starting point here is this August 2015 meeting in Trump Tower involving Donald Trump, Michael Cohen, the star witness, David Pecker from the National Enquirer, and Hope Hicks. And the prosecution's going to argue what happened there is they decided, let's do our best to try to promote Donald Trump's candidacy through the National Enquirer. And what followed from there was a series of what we've called catch and kill schemes. Starting in 2015, when AMI, the National Enquirer, paid off a doorman $30,000. August 2016, there was a payment to Karen McDougal, who allegedly had an affair with Donald Trump, leading up to the Access Hollywood tape, which dropped just about a month before the election. October 2016, we heard testimony that this caused panic in the Trump campaign. And then shortly thereafter, Stormy Daniels emerges. She gets paid $130,000 just a week or so before the election. So the timing is going to be really important here as it relates to the prosecution.

Now, the prosecution is going to lay out the actual payoff to Stormy Daniels. Remember, first, Michael Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 of his own money. He took a loan out on his mortgage. And then later, and this is where the crime comes in, Michael Cohen was reimbursed $420,000 from Donald Trump and Trump's organizations. Now, a key piece of testimony I expect the prosecution to feature. Michael Cohen, here's Michael Cohen tying Donald Trump to the crime. Cohen testified, he, meaning Trump, he expressed to me, just do it. Go meet up with Allen Weisselberg, the CFO, and figure the whole thing out. Now, an important point. The prosecution is going to address the attacks on Michael Cohen. Watch for this. They're going to say, you don't have to take Michael Cohen's word because he's backed up by documents. Just a couple of those key documents.


Count on the prosecution featuring these handwritten notes, which show how Michael Cohen and Allen Weisselberg came up with the $420,000 figure. And count on the prosecution featuring the actual invoices, which say retainer. That's the gist of the crime. The prosecution argues it was not a legal retainer. And the checks, some of which, nine of the 11 of which, were signed by Donald Trump himself. And then finally, Wolf, to the last element, the campaign motive. Look for the prosecution to feature testimony like this piece from Hope Hicks, who was a friendly witness to Donald Trump. Hope Hicks testified, I think there was consensus among all of us that the tape was damaging and that this was a crisis. I think Mr. Trump's opinion is it would be better to be dealing with it now. And it could have been bad to have that story, the Stormy Daniels story, come out before the election. So that's how the prosecution is going to try to simplify this case. It's all about the business records and the campaign motive. Wolf, the stakes could not possibly be higher any minute now. It looks like the prosecution is about to make its closing address to the jury.

BLITZER: And we'll be listening and watching and see what happens on this front. Ellie, thank you very much. Abby, back to you.

PHILLIP: Thanks, Wolf. And I want to catch everyone up on what's been going on in the courthouse. They've just resumed proceedings there. The judge dealing with some real issues in terms of housekeeping where they left off, they have really gotten into a dispute with the defense attorney about the use of a particular word that the judge objected to strongly. Paula and Kristen are with us back here. But, Paula, this idea that Trump could go to prison was mentioned by Todd Blanche. The judge didn't buy that it was an accident. He thought it was completely out of bounds. They have now dealt with it. Here's what he said. You cannot send someone to prison. You cannot convict someone based upon the words of Michael Cohen. Struck from the record. But now the judge has said he's going to give some curative instructions, some jury instructions about how the jury is going to deal with those comments.

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: The reason this is so third rail is because the jury is not going to sentence the defendant if he is convicted. And the judge suggested that this was part of an effort to elicit sympathy potentially for the defendant. So that's why this is such an issue. They should not be bringing this up because this is not the jury's job right now to decide whether or not someone goes to prison. Their job is to look at the facts and the law and decide whether this is an acquittal or if this is a conviction. That's their task. It has nothing to do with sentencing. And that's why prosecutors objected. And the judge agreed. He's going to give a curative instruction.

PHILLIP: Yeah, and the jury is now entering the courthouse once again. The prosecution is going to have an opportunity to give their closing arguments. But I want to revisit one thing, Kristen, because we heard Ellie Honig talking about it there. This idea of the retainer was also something that Judge Mershon was. He was asking both parties how he should deal with. He ultimately decided that he was not going to give the jury instructions about what the law is regarding how an attorney can be retained by a client. But but the reason this matter is putting aside the legalities of it is that Trump's team wants to argue that Michael Cohen was acting as a lawyer, that he was providing legal services and that he did have a verbal retainer. How significant is that?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's incredibly significant because that's what they've been trying to do since the beginning. Essentially saying that none of these were fraudulent payments, that none of this is to cover anything up, that Michael Cohen was actually doing work for Donald Trump. Now, Michael Cohen testified himself that he wasn't really working, doing any legal work for Donald Trump. But what you saw the defense do is point out a couple of instances that he was actually doing some work, not just for former president, but also for his family. At one point, you saw them point out the fact that he had helped negotiate Melania Trump's contract with Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. At another point, he had Michael Cohen list out all of the members of the family that he had done some work for. And again, in passing a note or showing a note to Allen Weisselberg, Michael Cohen writing in it, call me about the Trump organization issue that I want to talk to you about. So what they've tried to do is say that this was essentially a, quote, unquote, retainer, even though there was no actual retainer in writing to say that these payments were legitimate. And, of course, if they're legitimate, there is no crime.

PHILLIP: I mean, Paula, what do you make of that argument? Because, I mean, ultimately, this is about falsifying. Business records and the Trump team is saying there were no false business records at all. How is the jury going to take into consideration these diametrically opposed theories of the case about what happened here?

REID: So if Michael Cohen is the one submitting these falsified invoices. Right. And we know that part of the money that he's receiving is money that he stole from the Trump organization. The Trump team is arguing, look, there's no direct connection to the defendant creating or forcing these to be falsified. Now, prosecutors will argue that Trump put this all in motion.


He might not have specifically said, look, Jeff McConaughey, choose this from the drop-down menu, but he was the one who set this whole plan, this whole alleged conspiracy in motion. Now, right now, the judge is saying, in your deliberations, you may not discuss, consider, or even speculate matters related to punishment. So that is the curative instruction that he is giving them for the comment that the defense attorneys made before about sending potentially Trump to prison, because, again, that's not the job of the jury.

PHILLIP: And one of the concerns of Judge Mershon, and probably the prosecution as well, is that they're trying to raise the bar for the jury to think about, oh, would you really send someone to prison over this? Clever, but out of bounds, according to this judge.

HOLMES: Well, and one of the things we know, this is something we have heard from lawyers time and time again, it is impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube, right? He already said the words prison. Now, the judge said that he finds it hard to believe that was an accident. Seems unlikely. Todd Blanche has been doing this for a long time. But, of course, who knows? We're not in the courtroom. We're not in his brain. But, as we have heard, even if you strike it from the record, that is now in their head, and that is exactly what they want. They want the jury looking at this in terms of the most severe punishment, saying, would you want to send this former president to jail or to prison over this issue?

REID: And there's a new way they were also trying to frame a credibility attack on Michael Cohen, asking jurors, right, would you want to be the one who went to prison or was punished, based on the the word of this man. It was a new way that they were trying to attack Michael Cohen's credibility by, instead of listing his previous lies, framing it for the jury for them. Like, put yourself in the defendant's shoes. Would you want your fate relying on the word of this guy?

PHILLIP: Yeah, the top task for the prosecution in these next several hours, and it could be up to four hours here, is going to be to rehabilitate their core witness. We're going to take a quick break here, but there's a lot going on. The prosecution is now giving their closing summations. This is their final word in this case. It's expected to last four hours. We're just getting into it. Stay with us. CNN special live coverage of Trump's hush money trial will continue after a short break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


BLITZER: Welcome back to our special live coverage of closing arguments in the Trump hush money criminal trial. The prosecution has just begun making its final case. Let's discuss with our panel of legal and political experts. And Laura Coates, you're our chief legal correspondent, our CNN anchor. As you know, Judge Merchan, and he's very well, highly respected, admonished the Trump defense attorney, Todd Blanche, just a little while ago as he was wrapping up, saying a comment about Trump being sent to prison was outrageous, direct quote, and highly inappropriate. What's your reaction to that? It is, in fact, both of those things.

LAURA COATES, CNN ANCHOR & CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Remember, the job of the jurors are as, quote unquote, fact finders. Their job is to determine acquittal or a conviction. It is the job of the jurors to determine acquittal or a conviction. Judge to actually sentence someone. Imagine, if you will, this was not a felony case that resulted in a maximum 20 year penalty or one and a half to four years per charge. This is a death penalty case. If you have a juror going back thinking to themselves, gosh, do I want to be responsible for this person's life to end or this person to have this particular penalty? It could cloud their judgment, no longer having to meet the burden of proof for the prosecution, but instead one's feelings and emotional emotions towards the person. You can't have that happen. And as a former prosecutor, Todd Blanche knows this quite well. He would have been on his feet had this actually been a defense counsel having a similar argument. I would also note that David Pecker's testimony has been called utterly damning by the prosecutor in this case, who was going first per New York law. Now, they're going to go through methodically all the different aspects of this case, Wolf, because they have to prove their burden of proof. They have to just not go and undermine the defense, but actually summarize for the jury all that happened over the past four weeks. And one thing they cannot have the jury thinking about is a sentence.

Yeah, Joshua Steinglass, the district attorney, is making the case for the prosecution right now in the closing arguments. We're watching this very, very closely. Ellie, what was your main takeaway from Todd Blanche, the Trump lawyer, from his closing argument?

HONIG: Well, I have my stylistic criticisms. I think he should have shortened it. I think the middle was meandering. But ultimately, his argument came down to, you cannot trust Michael Cohen. You cannot convict beyond a reasonable doubt based on Michael Cohen. And we have, as expected, the ADA just a couple moments ago said, quote, you don't need Michael Cohen to prove that, to prove the case one bit. So predictably, the DA, and I would make this argument too if I was them, would say, you don't have to take Michael Cohen's word. Look at the documents. Look at the phone call records. Look at all the other evidence that corroborates him. And ultimately, that's, to me, the key battleground here.

BLITZER: You know, Elliot, I'm curious to get your thoughts. Four hours they're expecting the closing arguments from the prosecution. Four hours?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Four hours would be a long time. Now, again, they have, a lot of information to present. As Audie had said in the last hour, it all depends on how compelling of a speaker the speaker is, how well he structures his arguments, and so on. Now, what I imagine prosecutors will do is stick to the law, where the defense and their job is to muddy the waters a little bit. The prosecution has a very simple burden. And quite frankly, Joshua Steinglass started out today by saying in a very pithy way, this is about a conspiracy and a cover-up. It's a simple, pithy, four- or five-word encapsulation of the case and then walking through it.


You know, we talked about this in the Situation Room last week, Wolf, where Cicero, let's go back to the classics, had a very simple way that many prosecutors even today structure their arguments. You lay out your argument, you rebut the opponent's argument, you return to your argument and then close and get out of there. Now, that may take four hours. Maybe it could be shorter. Maybe it could be longer. But if it's organized well and he sticks to what the jury is there to do, he could be quite successful.

BLITZER: You know, David Chalian, a lot of us noticed that several members of Trump's family were in the courtroom today watching all of this unfold. What's the strategy here?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Some members were not in the courtroom. Also, we noticed that. I mean, the strategy here is you've seen throughout the weeks of this trial, Donald Trump has had political supporters show up. At times, he's had family members show up. His campaign management team has shown up, for all for support. But I think in this, in these hours now, as the case is about to be handed over to the jury and everybody's going to wait through this deliberation for this historic verdict of a first time ever former president being on a being charged here with a crime, you see more in force from his family. So there is the more sort of like human emotional support for the man at the defendants table. Even though we have not seen his wife, Melania Trump, in court or Jared or Ivanka in court. But we do see today Tiffany Trump and Don Jr. and Eric Trump in court of his adult children. One could imagine why his wife may not want to be showing up to this.

BLITZER: Interesting. Laura, the prosecutor, Joshua Steinglass, making the arguments, the closing arguments for the prosecution, acknowledges that Stormy Daniels is one of those witnesses who want to see Trump convicted.

COATES: We're seeing a theme here through the prosecution's now case. We've also heard him say Mr. Pecker has absolutely no reason to lie here. He still considers Mr. Trump a friend and mentor, and yet his testimony was utterly devastating. He says that Pecker's testimony, quote, eliminates the whole notion that this was politics as usual and that you don't need Cohen to testify to actually proving this. And then he also acknowledges, to your point, Wolf, to be sure, he says, some witnesses want to see Trump convicted. They've attacked him. They've been attacked by him on social media and beyond. But they're trying to essentially do what they did throughout the trial. Remember, Michael Cohen was the last witness for the prosecution. They had all these people who were testifying to pre-corroborate to suggest, whether it was Hope Hicks or David Pecker or Rona Graff, who is the assistant of Donald Trump and others, to suggest they all can't be a part of the murder on the Orient Express. They can't all be guilty here. They can't all be corrupt or in some way biased. They all talk about, to be sure, there were parts of her testimony that were, in fact, cringeworthy. Well, that's an understatement, given you had to visualize a sexual encounter with the former president and her as well. But this is all them trying to suggest and summarize to the jury, listen, Michael Cohen, yes, does he have some sort of a credibility issue, a big one? Absolutely. Does that mean that the documents don't speak for themselves or that everyone was essentially in on it? That can't be the case. BLITZER: That's the argument they're making.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. And it's interesting, going back to Todd Blanche's argument where he said, you can't convict a defendant on the basis of Michael Cohen. I'd agree with that. I think most people would. What you can convict a defendant on is the basis of Michael Cohen's testimony and checks and ledgers and notes and so on. You know, it's the idea that everything rises and falls on one witness divorced from all other evidence is just not accurate.

COATES: And a good point here, just to go back to what they're saying in the courtroom right now--


BLITZER: Joshua Steinglass.

COATES: Steinglass says, look, they're talking about Stormy Daniels. Her story is messy. It makes people uncomfortable to hear. It probably makes some of you uncomfortable. But that's kind of the point. That's what the defendant did not want the American people to see. So rather than talk about this as a factual predicate, he's essentially saying the story, whether true or not, although they say it's true, true or not, is what you would try to avoid having come after Access Hollywood, days before the election, the political straw that might break the camel's back.

BLITZER: And Steinglass says some of the details of Stormy Daniels' story ring true, like what Trump's suite looked like. And the contents of his toiletry bag.

HONIG: So they're trying to explain here, the prosecution, why they went into such detail with the Stormy Daniels testimony, with Stormy Daniels' testimony about the sexual encounter, about what happened in the hotel room, even the detail, as they're noting now, that she looked inside the toiletry bag. They're arguing, the prosecutors, that's not just to be prurient. That's not just to shame the president. That's because they're arguing that detail shows you that she's telling the truth. And she's here in the simplest terms. Stormy Daniels is the motive. So this is an important part of the narrative that they're trying to craft. They're trying to argue. This story was so devastating and embarrassing that Trump had every reason to try to quiet her up and cover it up.


WILLIAMS: The powerful thing about going last as the prosecution is that you can throw out a statement like she looked in his cosmetic bag and saw that he had, what was it, Brut and Old Spice or whatever else. Because the defense would certainly rebut that, saying, well, you know, some of her memories were shaky. She doesn't quite remember the things she saw in there. The defense doesn't have an opportunity to do that. And that's a very good argument for prosecution just to put out there.

BLITZER: Prosecution, they're making the case now that Michael Cohen is understandably angry, that to date, that he's the one who paid the price for his role in this conspiracy, Joshua Steinglass--


COATES: And, of course, excuse me Wolf--

BLITZER: At that point. Yeah go ahead.

CAOTES: And off course you don't want to have, I mean, there is a moment when you could get a little bit problematic if you're the prosecution in this case. If this were, say, a federal case where you've got the prosecution going first, the defense going next, and then being able to rebut, or if the reverse was ever to be the case, which is not, and the defense having a second bite at the apple, you'd be curious and cautious about opening a particular door. Here you just had the prosecution say essentially that the, not only talking about the motive, but Trump wouldn't pay $130,000 twice that after it was grossed out for taxes just because he took a photo with someone on a golf course. Now, remember, they don't have to prove that there was ever a sexual encounter. All they need to suggest is that there was an incentive by a candidate for office who did not want a story to come out. And you go on to say, then they moved on. Within 20 minutes, they've moved on to now Michael Cohen. Think about how different that was from the defense case, where the bulk of two and a half hours of their statement was all about this.

And instead, they're talking about how Michael Cohen is understandably angry, that to date, he's the one who's paid the price for his role in this conspiracy, and anyone in Cohen chooses to want the defendant to be held accountable. That is different than what the defense has had to say in this case, which suggests instead, no, no, he doesn't want to be the only one, even though he's the only one who's involved. He wants Trump to go down because he also is guilty.

BLITZER: He went to jail as a result of all of this for perjury, for lying under oath. That was his decision.

WILLIAMS: And I think this is another one of those powerful arguments that prosecution can make that's not going to be rebutted. A big argument that the defense had hung their hat on, is that Michael Cohen is so prejudiced against the defendant based on the fact that he's gone to jail and he's, you know, he's lied on behalf of the defendant and so on. Here they provide an explanation for it, which is that, ladies and gentlemen, anyone would have wanted to see the defendant go to jail on the basis of this here.

CHALIAN: Well, as you saw there when it said Cohen did Trump's bidding for years and when it went bad, the defendant cut him loose. You see what what the prosecutors are doing here. They're trying to take a conversation about Michael Cohen's character that the defense team would want. And move it on to Trump's character in this in this case, even though, again, that his character is not at the core of the charges here. But you see in the summation what they what they're trying to do to deflect away from that very strong finish, I would say, in terms of how the defense was just leaving in the jury's mind, Michael Cohen is not to be trusted here. Clearly right out of the gate, moved quickly, as Laura noted from Stormy Daniels on here to start rehabilitating the value of Michael Cohen in the minds of the jurors as a part of this.

BLITZER: What the prosecution is trying to do.

WILLIAMS: A very minor point that just came up a moment ago, that the prosecution is only referring to the former president as the defendant. That's an important tactic in trials. You know the defense will often speak about the defendant in terms of his first name here, his first name or Mr. President. Prosecution will only refer often to the defendant as the defendant. You want to plant a seed in the jurors eyes that either he's this bad person who's on trial or he's a human being who's being persecuted by the state.

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's this meta context around it, which is that, of course, he's the former president and that this is actually an unprecedented proceeding. If you want to level that playing field. It's probably helpful to refer him, refer to him as defendant and not the former president, et cetera.

BLITZER: And Audie, it's clear that so many of these allegations involving Trump were taking place just before the 2016 presidential election. So there was a political motive that the prosecution claims was it was going on.

CORNISH: Yeah. And it was very interesting to see or to hear the reporting that they spent some time talking about Stormy Daniels, the story itself, saying it may be messy. That's kind of the point, that he would not want the American people to hear this kind of story, even if they vaguely knew about the story, to hear it in this kind of detail just before the election. And I think that's hard to remember in an era when we feel like there's no scandal anymore, like nothing can really take a candidate down, that we used to have something called the October surprise. When something happened that was such a big scandal, it would throw everything off. And you had access Hollywood. We thought that might be it. And at the time, you-there was this sense of, like, could there be something else? Could there be other allegations? So it's asking the jurors to go back in time and remember what that atmosphere was like.

BLITZER: Those of us who thought that access Hollywood video--


CORNISH: Yeah, would be disqualifying.

BLITZER: So it didn't.