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Now: Prosecution Making Closing Argument. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired May 28, 2024 - 15:00   ET



KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh yes, of course, he did this to protect me. That is not who Melania Trump is and that is not the relationship she has with her husband as I have been told.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Former - you almost said ...

HOLMES: I was supposed to say former president over former husband. Okay, a little bit - so that's what I've been told by a number of sources close to them. Yes, that is one part of this. The other part of this is Jared and Ivanka's. I think that's a little bit more surprising. These are the kids. We're seeing all the other kids all the other kids and their spouses other than Donald Trump Jr.'s fiance, Kimberly Guilfoyle she has not been in court.

But they have made a line in the stand they've put down their foot and said we are not going to be part of any of this kind of public campaigning. And I am told by people close to Ivanka Trump that she is focusing on her kids. The part of the issue is that her kids are now of an age where they understand what's going on, that they maybe didn't understand what was going on when she was in the White House that what she got as vitriolic response to her time in the White House was much worse than she and Jared ever imagined, including ...


HOLMES: ... impact on their social life. Remember, they had to leave New York and move down to Florida kind of got a fresh start after she left the White House.

BURNETT: All right. Well, we're here in the middle of the closing arguments and obviously the prosecution right now, attorney Joshua Steinglass who has been in that room and done much of the examining and cross-examining is given the closing statements right now and we've been allotted four hours for this from the prosecution after the defense took about two and a half hours.

And then, of course, this is going to be remanded over start to give the instructions over to the jury. So these are these crucial moments, Wolf. Whether these are the final moments here or not that's the main question, Wolf. Right? Are we going to be getting a verdict tomorrow? Is it going to take days? We just don't know.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We will find out. Erin, thank you very much. Right now I want to read something the prosecutor Joshua Steinglass

said just moments ago and I'm quoting him now: "The value of this corrupt bargain cannot be overstated. It turned out to be one of the most valuable contributions anyone has ever made to the Trump campaign. And this scheme cooked up by these men at this time could very well be what got President Trump elected."

Once AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer purchased stories on the candidates' behalf those purchases became unlawful campaign contributions. Let's bring back our panel of legal and political experts.

And Laura, what do you make of that?

LAURA COATES, CNN ANCHOR: It's a very important point because one of the things that they're trying to suggest in the defense's closing arguments was that Trump did not freak out was the term he used when they're talking about the allegations of a sexual encounter with Stormy Daniels or the Access Hollywood tape much of which had been brought out through testimony from Hope Hicks and others to suggest that Trump was concerned about the political fallout.

Remember, Hope Hicks testified and talked about that Trump was often concerned about how something might play in the public. This clearly was something that could play in the public and so now he's trying to undermine that and say, no, no, this was of enough concern as to incentivize the payment of funds to Stormy Daniels that were then later reimbursed and then falsified business records to cover up the campaign contribution. Again, bringing it back to what he's actually charged with.

BLITZER: Because the substance of the actual allegations, the criminal allegations 34 state felony criminal charges of falsifying documents.


BLITZER: That's the substance of the crime that has been alleged.

COATES: That is the crime, 34 accounts and you have to prove the following, that you had the intent to do so to falsify business records which means they had to, one, be business records not personal documents, they had to indeed be false that you have the intent to defraud or cover up another crime that was committed. That's what elevates from a misdemeanor to a felony.

BLITZER: Why it's important to focus on the idea of them being false and business records, not only because that's what you have to prove the elements. But number one that they're going to suggest after he was the president United States is when everything was made, that it became a personal record. It was not fully kept in the ordinary course of business maintained by a custodian of the actual organization, but instead personal in nature.

And number two that he had every incentive and the motivation was for - to cover up to get an eye towards the campaign, but it had to be false. This is where it comes in about that - remember that compartmentalized categories, three or four categories were mentioned. One was legal services.

Was it indeed for legal services more generally? Was that something that was done in a false sense? Or was it simply a matter of how you categorize expenses?

They've got to make this argument hit home for this jury to have 34 counts to have a chance of conviction.

BLITZER: And the prosecution has made the point repeatedly these are felony charges not misdemeanors which carries a much smaller penalty, but felony charges.

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And to pick up where Laura left off, again the prosecutors have to establish the sort of commission or concealment of another crime. Now that crime right out of New York law is promoting one of the crimes, is promoting or preventing the election - someone's election in public office by unlawful means.

Now, what they noted here if you if you notice just a few moments ago, they kept using the term thing of value, helping the campaign was a thing of value.


These contributions even if it wasn't writing a check to a campaign that provided a benefit to the campaign. And that's, I believe, where the prosecution is going is trying to hit that by unlawful means point out of the statute.

BLITZER: Because, Elie, the timing is very significant coming with just a few weeks before the presidential election.

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, October of 2016. What the DA is doing right now is answering for the jury the question of, well, what's the crime. Because they've heard - the jury's heard quite a bit about what's not a crime, right, having sex with a porn star, not a crime; paying hush money, not a crime; paying hush money even relating to a campaign, not a crime.

The crime is they made these payments in order to impact the election. They therefore became political expenditures, campaign expenditures or campaign contributions way beyond the limit and then falsified them and there's the crime. Rather than calling them - I don't know exactly what they should have called them. I mean, you're not going to call them hush money payments.

But the prosecution's theory is that by labeling them as attorneys fees, as retainers, that's the falsification and that's the actual crime charged here. And what the DA is doing now is they're taking us through - they're taking the jury through the chronology. They have this August 2015 meeting with David Pecker, Michael Cohen, Donald Trump, hey, guys we're going to watch out for damaging stories. We're going to try to have Donald Trump's back here.

Now, they're going through this series of catch-and-kill schemes. It's going to go the doorman, which they were just talking about. Then, they're going to get to McDougal, then they're going to get to Stormy Daniels and that's the crime, only the Stormy Daniels' one is charged here.

WILLIAMS: This is where common sense has to come in and they have to keep pushing this point, which is that ladies and gentlemen of the jury this was in the weeks or months leading up to a presidential election where there was other materials out there in the form of the Access Hollywood tape and so on that had clearly caused concern among the campaign. You and I as human beings cannot doubt that a presidential candidate would have been mindful that this might have had an impact on the campaign.

And, you know, the defense muddied that a little bit. But again just as a matter of common - this is how I would argue and I'm sure many other attorneys would - as a matter of common sense, just what you think, how's it (INAUDIBLE) ...

BLITZER: David, you're a political director. There are laws as far as campaign election interference here in the United States.


BLITZER: What's legal and what's illegal?

CHALIAN: Exactly, what Elie was saying what the prosecution is trying to do there, at that - what I think the prosecution would call the original sin meeting in August of 2015 in Trump Tower. Once it was discussed that money would change hands here to help protect the campaign that becomes a campaign expenditure and then falls under campaign finance law.

But I do want to say because we were talking when the defense was finishing up, we were talking about - to Elliot's point about sort of muddying the waters as it relates to the catch-and-kill scheme here that's at the center of all of this. And we were talking about that the defense team is trying to make that standard operating procedure, nothing to see here, this is what everyone does. This wasn't specific to the Trump campaign or even about a campaign. It's what celebrities do and what have you.

They are rebutting that or Steinglass is in his summation here as much as he possibly can, including talking about that original sin meeting. He said, "Mr. Blanche said there's nothing wrong with trying to influence an election, it's called democracy." Steinglass then tells the jury: "In reality, this agreement at Trump Tower was the exact opposite. It was the subversion of democracy." So ...



CORNISH: I was like (INAUDIBLE) this point, one of the things he also said was Pecker and AMI stopped engaging in legitimate press activities the moment they agreed to be a covert arm of the defendant's campaign. Really trying to delineate for people what is a legitimate press activity and what is not.

CHALIAN: Exactly.

CORNISH: It's something that also has been debated among the legal parties as well in terms of the instructions that the judge will give the jury.

COATES: And powerfully here ...

BLITZER: And to think that, Laura, this comes across the alleged illegality to the jurors because a lot of this gets sort of confusing and it may be seen as not necessarily all that convincing.

COATES: This is the beauty of having the final word, right? Primacy, recency, repetition as well, all effective tools in a speech, very effective tools in the closing argument to say here is what you need to know, because you're going to have jury instructions that are coming later. Those are going to give you the actual law and how to follow it.

I would suspect that Steinglass as the prosecutor is following pretty closely the notes he needs to say to have the jurors in that aha moment in the deliberation room say this is - this corresponds to this, this is this point, this is this point for all things you have to actually prove.

And usually enough, we for the - one of the first times, we have full clarity now as to what their predicate crime is. The predicate crime, meaning, what was the other crime that was commissioned aided or trying to be done when it elevated from a misdemeanor of a falsified business record to a felony.

Here we're learning it about as a campaign violation. Now, they could also talk about a different one. They could say tax law as well as an issue. The judge has already said that the jurors while they have to be unanimous in their actual verdict they need not be unanimous in what they think the underlying crime of - the second crime was.


They could - some could say, well, this is about the campaign, fine. They could say, sounds like a tax issue to me. That's not required in this case. The defense tried that to be the case to say I got to have one solid thing the judge did not agree.

WILLIAMS: And such a critical point, Laura. And this idea and the defense sort of tried chumming the water a little bit by suggesting that not only did the prosecution have to establish it but also prove beyond a reasonable doubt that that crime was committed or consummated, and that's just not simply the case. That simply has to be a crime out there, you just sort of have to establish what it is, but don't really need to go too deep (INAUDIBLE) ...

BLITZER: And it becomes a felony if there are two crimes and they're sort of connected. WILLIAMS: The second crime - yes, and pardon me, I was referring to

the second crime, the sort of what the falsifying of records was done to conceal. That second crime. You really don't have to go that far into proving beyond a reasonable doubt what the crime was or that it was even completed that it even happened that it was more than attempted or anything like that.

COATES: That was the Fed issue, right?


COATES: That was one reason why the Feds were reluctant to probably take the case.

HONIG: Right. And let's keep in mind the Feds, the Southern District of New York did pass on. This case writ large there are differences in federal and state law, but just so people can follow along at home, because the crime here is not easy to explain and understand. We're working on a visual for tomorrow. But it's basically a three-step here for the prosecution, which is not great but they can still do it.

First of all, falsifying a business record under New York State law, that in itself is a misdemeanor. If it's done to commit some other crime, it jumps up to a felony. These some other crime here is New York state election law which says you cannot try to influence an election by unlawful means.

Now, you're thinking, well, what are those unlawful means. That takes us to step three where the prosecution has offered up three unlawful means as Laura and Elliot were just saying, that would be a federal campaign finance law, stay with me. A tax fraud which I don't understand. I'm interested to see where - how they explain the tax crime and then get this, falsification of business records. So that one also is tough for me to understand.

Falsifying business records in order to falsify business records ...

WILLIAMS: It's very meta, right? You know, like ...

HONIG: Yes. It's like it feeds on itself, but the main point that they're driving at here is basically the federal campaign violation.

BLITZER: Steinglass is saying this was overt election fraud, telling the jury it was an act in furtherance of the conspiracy to interfere with the election.

HONIG: Perfect timing, perfect illustration.


CORNISH: One of the things we heard this morning was that the idea that jurors kind of have made up their mind in a way and that the closing arguments are a way for the attorneys to say this is the conversation you need to have when you go to deliberations.

For those of us here who - by us, I mean you - who have done closing arguments, how do you think about jury reactions? Like, is that the kind of thing that helps you form the information you'll put in the arguments.

COATES: I did not agree with the assessment that jurors do not pay attention to closing arguments. I think they absolutely pay attention to closing argument. I think they are trying and relying in many times on the summation to say what do I need to focus on here.

Remember, this has been weeks and weeks for people who did not choose to be jurors. They were summoned. They don't necessarily want to be here but they're performing their duty.

I mean, Todd Blanche began by thanking them for their service for that very reason.

I think that you have - you can't predict what a juror is thinking by body language alone but you can you - can look at them to figure out how long they are attentive.


COATES: What are the moments that you might be losing them. Are they starting to - like a high school student, are they looking around the room, are they twirling their hair, are they leaning back, are they looking away from you, are they studying the defendant that's all important.

Remember, unlike the entirety of this trial, they - the attorneys are now focusing with a podium looking at the jurors. This may be the first time they've made full eye contact with each juror. At one point in time throughout the trial today, the defendant Donald Trump has been turning his body to now face the jurors so they might be looking the first time contact with a former president of the United States, who's now the defendant in this action.

Everything has come down to the moment of figuring out what are you persuaded by, what can I say, where do I lean in more and what do I lean out.

BLITZER: And I would just say from my personal experience as a juror in Montgomery County, Maryland years ago outside of Washington, D.C., the closing arguments by the prosecution and the defense were so, so critically important not just to me but to all the members, all the other jurors as well. So this is really an important moment we're all watching right now. Everybody stand by.

Up next, we'll speak with a retired judge for her take on the closing arguments we're following right now. Our special live coverage of this historic trial is back in a moment.



BURNETT: And welcome back to our special coverage of closing arguments in the Trump hush money trial going on as we speak. And for more, we want to bring in the former U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin.

And Judge, I really appreciate your time today. And you've got a perspective on this that matters so much in these final hours that we are in before the jury takes this up and makes a decision. And the judge admonished the defense attorney Todd Blanche issuing a statement for the jury. He said, in the defense summation, Mr. Blanche asked in substance that you do not send the defendant to prison. That comment was improper and you must disregard it.

And he was referring, Judge, to - in the closing statements, Blanche telling the jury, you know, are you going to send Trump to prison basically on the word of Michael Cohen. Obviously, the jury does not sentence, the judge does. But what do you think of the - Judge Merchan's reaction here? Was it the right thing to do?

SHIRA SCHEINDLIN, FORMER U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE: We'll he had to correct the misstatement, that's clear to me.


But admonishing a defense lawyer at the end of the summation, it doesn't look so good to the jury. So I'm a little sorry it had to happen, but hey he walked into it. He knew he wasn't supposed to say. That the judge does the sentencing, not the jury and it wasn't inappropriate statement.

BURNETT: And Judge, I guess on this front, this is something I've always wondered, but in this case it's a specific example of this question which is you tell the jury you can't pay attention to that, don't think about it and - but it's easier said than done, right? You might tell somebody not to think about something, but it's there. Once it's been said it can't be unsaid. Can the jury easily disregard something like that?

SCHEINDLIN: You know, you're asking a question that should be answered by a psychologist more than a judge. I don't think you can unring a bell. They know what they heard. They know what they heard and they know that their verdict could result in a prison sentence. I don't think you can wipe that out of their minds.

BURNETT: Yes, I guess that's the reality of it. As you said, it's psychology, right? It's the system. There's all kinds of these ...


BURNETT: ... objections sustained ...


BURNETT: ... or what does the jury actually take away from it. But I'm curious ...


SCHEINDLIN: ... as to your view of Judge Merchan. And I've been in the courtroom several days, Judge. And he's always had what I would describe as a very pleasant demeanor. You know, sort of his lips are turned up instead of down. And even when he admonishes, he does not do so in a nasty voice or a nasty tone or with a nasty demeanor.

How would you say from what you've seen as the objection sustained, the issues he's taken, how he's handled things, how would you say he's done so far?

SCHEINDLIN: I think he gets an A minus, meaning he's almost been perfect. But no one is perfect. So the only times that maybe I thought he was - lost his temper a little bit was at the - in the Costello testimony, that he was very hard on Costello in front of the jury which again makes the jury not like the defense case.

He was probably a little harsh today maybe when he obviously was upset with Todd Blanche on the statement about prison. So it's very hard for a judge to be perfect and never lose their temper in front of a jury. But I would say, I mean he's got a 95 percent success rate. He really did a good job in this trial.

BURNETT: You've elevated him from an A minus to an A, you know, as ...

SCHEINDLIN: No, (INAUDIBLE) it's all on your grading.

BURNETT: ... my kid asked me the other day what's the difference between an A minus and a B plus. Yes, that's right.

SCHEINDLIN: There you go.

BURNETT: I said, mathematically nothing but psychologically everything, right? As you say, so much of this ...


BURNETT: ... is about the psychology of it. But I am curious about, you know, your view of how things are going now, because you had weeks of a case and then you have a week off and now you are here in these closing arguments which are crucial. I understand they're not going to be able to get the jury that is transcripts of everything else that happened before.

So do you think that there is even more weight on today, this closing statements, after this week break than there might ordinarily be in a case like this?

Yes, I actually do think that. Because having had a week off, you tend to forget the details certainly on the various documents that prove the case. And so this is the last thing they hear before the charge. And the point of doing it is to make them focus on what you think is the most important thing.

Now both sides have spent a lot of time talking about Michael Cohen obviously defense summation went on and on about, you know, how can you convict somebody on the word of a liar, and that's what they had to do. But the people in turn in their summation are saying, yes, he lied because he lied for Trump. And Trump liked him as a lawyer because he lied and so you need to connect the two, and they're also going to stress every document that makes this case.

Almost regardless of Cohen there are so many incriminating documents here. And so, they're going to point out to the jury which documents really are the key documents and they should look at them and they should think about them.

BURNETT: Right. And they are obviously able to get those documents as individual email exchanges or text or information like that. Judge I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

SCHEINDLIN: All right. Thank you.

BURNETT: And our coverage of the closing arguments in the criminal hush money trial of Donald Trump is back after this quick break. Wolf and I will see you.



The historic first criminal trial of a former president of the United States is nearing its end. The jury will soon decide if Donald Trump is guilty of 34 counts of falsifying records. He allegedly tried to hide a hush money payment from voters during the 2016 campaign.

Right now the prosecution is making its last appeal to jurors. Earlier, the assistant DA Josh Steinglass admitted the testimony from star witness Michael Cohen was imperfect, but Steinglass told jurors and I'm quoting him now: "It's difficult to conceive of a case with more corroboration than this one."

Our panel of experts is back with us right now.

Laura Coates, what do you make of that argument for prosecutors that there's overwhelming corroboration of the allegations?

COATES: Well, it tells you two things one that they feel that they have met their burden of proof in advance of Michael Cohen's testimony and two they knew that Michael Cohen actually needed to have that pre corroboration. Him alone would not have been enough given his credibility issues.

It's important as well they're trying to unpack the different people who've been named here, Karen McDougal and others, and speak about their motivations, the motivation of Michael Cohen, of Karen McDougal, of David Pecker and beyond.


But they're focusing - correct me to say that their motivation is not important. McDougal's is not important.