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Testimony By Michael Cohen's Banker Caps Second Week Of Trump Trial; Trump's Longtime Assistant, Apprentice Cast Member Testifies; Pecker Testifies He Killed Stories To Help A Presidential Candidate; At Least 42 Tornadoes Reported In U.S. So Far Today; Melania Trump Marks 54th Birthday While Husband On Trial. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired April 26, 2024 - 18:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Sunday on State of the Union, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Virginia's Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. It's a packed Sunday. That's Sunday morning at 9:00 Eastern and again at noon here on CNN.

You can follow the show on X @theleadcnn. If you ever miss an episode of The Lead, you can listen to the show whence you get your podcasts.

Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll see you soon.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news tonight, the Trump trial follows the money trail. After two full weeks in the courtroom, the hush money case against Donald Trump begins to zero in on the payoff to adult film star Stormy Daniels with testimony from Michael Cohen's banker.

Also on the stand, Trump's longtime assistant, Rhona Graff, known for her appearances on The Apprentice. Why her testimony left her former boss smiling.

All of this after tabloid executive David Pecker wrapped up his pivotal testimony for the next hour. We'll take you inside the courtroom from gavel to gavel. Our reporters and experts are all standing by to break down all of today's most important developments and to look ahead to what's next.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer with a special report in THE SITUATION ROOM, the Trump Trial Today.

And let's get right to the breaking news. The Trump trial gets closer to the heart of the criminal charges against the former president, Michael Cohen's bankers starting to testify on the arrangements for the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels.

CNN's Kara Scannell is outside the courthouse in New York for us. Kara, court wrapped up for the week just a little while ago. Give us the latest.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. David Pecker, the tabloid king, has testified for ten hours this week. He is off the stand, but he helped narrate the jury through the catch and kill scheme that prosecutors say Donald Trump was involved in to help his campaign. Then they took the jury inside the inside Trump Tower and give them an insight through the eyes of Trump's former longtime assistant.


SCANNELL (voice over): A new witness, former President Donald Trump's assistant of 34 years, took the stand on Friday, shedding light on the inner workings of the Trump Organization in Trump's hush money trial.

DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT, 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Rhona, let me have the cost list.

SCANNELL: Rhona Graff, whose office was next door to Trump's on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, said she was in control of his calendar and maintaining his contact list at the organization. Graff confirmed two contacts she maintained were for former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult film star Stormy Daniels, two women who alleged affairs with Trump, both of which he denies.

McDougal's contact entry included a phone number, email, and two addresses. Daniel's contact listed her cell phone. She testified, as far as she can remember, Trump never used email to communicate. Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger asked Graff if she had seen Daniels at Trump Tower. Graff responded that she vaguely recalled once seeing Daniels in reception on the 26th floor.

Then it was Trump's attorney's turn to cross-examine Graff. Susan Necheles asked Graff about Trump's interest in casting stars in Celebrity Apprentice, suggesting that was the reason Daniels was spotted at Trump Tower. Graff responded, that's what she assumed, testifying, I vaguely recall hearing him say that she was one of the people that may be an interesting contestant on the show.

TRUMP: Thank you. Good job.

SCANNELL: As Trump's assistant, Graff often appeared on The Apprentice.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, this is Rhona from Trump's office. He asked me to call you and tell you to meet him tomorrow morning at the New York Stock Exchange.

SCANNELL: Graff said in her testimony that she felt The Apprentice elevated Trump to rock star status.

Necheles also focused on demonstrating Trump and Graff had a good working relationship. She asked if Trump was a good boss. Graff responded, I think that he was fair and respectful boss to me. She added, sometimes he would peek his head in and say, go home to your family, which I thought was very thoughtful of him. As Graff testified, Trump sat with a closed lip smile, tilting his head to get a better view of his former assistant. Trump's team made clear Graff was testifying under subpoena, with Necheles asking, you don't want to be here, do you? Correct, Graff replied.

Earlier, Trump's attorneys worked hard to undermine a foundational witness for the prosecution, ex-tabloid executive David Pecker, who is back on the stand for his fourth day of testimony. During Trump's attorney Emil Bove's questioning of the former National Enquirer publisher, he attempted to discredit one of the prosecution's key witnesses, Trump's ex-personal attorney Michael Cohen. He asked Pecker if he felt Cohen was prone to exaggeration. Pecker agreed he was.


After court, Trump weighed in on the trial.

TRUMP: This is eight days that we've all been sitting in this courthouse.

I just want to thank everybody for being here. I know you have to suffer through this like everybody else.


SCANNELL (on camera): Michael Cohen's banker then took the witness stand in the afternoon, and he was describing how he helped Michael Cohen set up the bank account that he ultimately used for the shell company that transferred that $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels. There's no court on Monday, but this banker will be back on the stand Tuesday for more questioning by prosecutors before Trump's lawyers will get a turn at him. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Kara Scannell outside the courthouse in New York, thanks very much.

I want to bring in our legal experts right now. CNN's Katelyn Polantz and Norm Eisen are here, and former Trump attorney Tim Parlatore is here as well.

Katelyn, let me start with you. I want to read an interesting line from Michael Cohen's banker, Gary Farro. This is what Gary Farro testified. Every time Michael Cohen spoke to me, he gave a sense of urgency and this was one of those times. Break down the significance of the banker's testimony today that is set to continue, we're told, next week.

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes. When Michael Cohen says that to Gary Farro as he's testifying, it's a moment where Michael Cohen wants to set up an account with this private bank in 2016, where Gary Farro works. This is the bank through which the payment ultimately is going to be set up to be paid to Stormy Daniels from Michael Cohen, $130, 000 to keep her story quiet.

And what he's doing is piecing in new parts of the puzzle. The prosecutors want to be able to show the jury every step of the money and the effort toward paying off Stormy Daniels from Donald Trump's sphere. Gary Farro is one of the people that can do that, both with his testimony and with his evidence. He can help them show the documents, the emails, the exchanges, and a crucial document from him that we ended the day with is him testifying that when Michael Cohen was setting up this account through this bank, there's a box to check that says, if this is related to political funds, check it. Michael Cohen did not check it, according to his testimony.

BLITZER: Interesting. So, what did you make -- you were there, Norm, in the court courtroom all day today. What do you make of how the prosecution has weaved together their first three witnesses?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, I think it's been very effective. David Pecker, a surprise first witness, turned out to be a star witness. And he moved us through the entire narrative that prosecutors are trying to tell here. Not a hush money case, but a case of campaign finance and election violations, corporate and personal contributions over the limit, being used to influence the 2016 election.

And Pecker took us through that narrative, starting with the August 2015 meeting at Trump Tower, where prosecutors say, and now they have evidence to back it up, Trump's intent to influence the election was formed. And then he took us all the way to the brink of the Stormy Daniels story, said he wanted no part of it, setting up witnesses like Gary Farro, the banker, for that fifth and final act of the drama.

I thought it was very effective, and I thought the cross-examination didn't really rough him up. There were some mistakes in the defense cross-examination.

BLITZER: Interesting. You know, Tim, I want to read some moments, some comments from Rhona Graff's cross-examination. She was the long time executive assistant to Trump at the Trump Organization. The defense played up her admiration for Donald Trump.

Listen to this. This is a quote. This is her. It was a very stimulating, exciting, fascinating place to be. Then she said, sometimes Trump would peek his head in and say, go home to your family, which I thought was very thoughtful of him. I thought that was a nice extra touch that he would take time to do that. Trump's lawyer, Susan Necheles asked her, quote, You don't want to be here, do you? And Rhona Graff said, correct. What's your analysis of that?

TIM PARLATORE, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: I mean, the point there is that she's under subpoena. She's not voluntarily coming in to try to, you know, help out the prosecution. And I think that that's something that's consistent, you know, across these witnesses, is that the only one who really is dying to get in there is probably Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen. You know, the others are being brought in just to tell their stories.

BLITZER: Because Rhona Graff is a prosecution witness, the prosecution called her. But did she do a lot to humanize Trump before the jury? PARLATORE: I mean, I think that she probably did. I mean, it sounds like she certainly did. I mean, you got to remember, before he decided to run for office, a lot of people loved him. You know, all of his employees loved him, a lot of New Yorkers loved him, although a lot of them have changed now. And so I think that, you know, it does kind of bring people back to, and particularly in a New York jury, you know, longtime New Yorkers that remember him from when he was a real estate executive, brings them back to The Apprentice days.

BLITZER: As far as he's concerned, the good old days.



BLITZER: What did prosecutors gain, Katelyn, from Rhona Graff's testimony?

POLANTZ: Yes. Well, even if Rhona Graff is an unwilling witness, someone paid, still to have -- or she's not paid, but her lawyers are being paid by the Trump team, the prosecutors --

BLITZER: The Trump Organization.

POALNTZ: Yes. She's still being used as a witness who can connect the dots.

In this case, we heard from David Pecker earlier this week that he was there witnessing Donald Trump signing a check and reviewing an invoice that Rhona Graf presented to him. And so in her testimony, she's one of the people who can build out the idea of how these payments were made and how closely Donald Trump had control over, not just the payments, but also that the Trump Organization was in contact with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, another point that she testified to.

BLITZER: Yes, an important point. You were there, Norm, inside the courtroom during the entire testimony today. Give us a sense of Trump's energy today compared to yesterday and earlier in the week.

EISEN: Wolf, trials are long. And the former president has nodded off on a number of the trial days.

BLITZER: When you say nodded off, fell asleep?

EISEN: Fall asleep. Not fast asleep. He's not laying his head down on the table. He closes his eyes. He slumps. And it's understandable, but that did happen again today.

His energy has varied. When he has worse days, one day this week, I observed he was kind of hunched over as he left the court, as if there were a heavy weight on him. I thought his energy was better today. And, in fact, he spotted me on the aisle and made eye contact a couple times, pointed his finger at me.

BLITZER: He knew who you were? EISEN: Yes, I've had prior engagements with the former president, including the first impeachment. So, he certainly was alert and aware of his courtroom surroundings and, I think, more engaged today, particularly doing portions of the cross-examination by his lawyer of Pecker because that's so important, and, of course, when his longtime assistant, Rhona Graff, was on the stand, quite animated.

BLITZER: Tim, you know, Trump, well you were his lawyer. You understand where he's coming from. Give us a little bit of a sense of how he's processing this week, this past week of testimony and what he's thinking and doing to prepare for next week.

PARLATORE: Well, and I think just to Norm's point, when you have a long direct examination of a witness, it can get boring. And so when the cross-examination starts, that is going to be when he's going to wake up. And certainly it's something we saw when he walked out of the courtroom yesterday, where he said that was really, you know, great what happened, and, you know, today he seemed to be much more upbeat because there was a lot more cross-examination.

And so I think that, you know, that certainly affects his mood, his being able to see his own side up there fighting back, as opposed to just sitting back and listening to a long, drawn out serve (ph) from the prosecution.

BLITZER: I assume in the coming days, we'll see a lot more of that.

PARLATORE: Absolutely. And that's, that's what happens in trial. It's up and down. And the more that the prosecution can bore them and the defense can dazzle them, the better things turn out for them.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, a closer look at some of the key evidence presented in court this week and why it's likely to be seen throughout the trial.

But, first, parts of the official transcript from today's court proceedings just coming out right now and our team has the biggest takeaway.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: We're back with more breaking news on the Trump criminal trial, digging deeper right now into the newly released transcript of what happened today.

Katelyn Polantz is back with us. She's been going through the testimony. So, Katelyn, what stood out to you?

POLANTZ: Well, Wolf, Defense Attorney Emil Bove questioning David Pecker on the cross examination about the negative articles National Enquirer was printing about Donald Trump's rivals, so the Clintons. Here's some of that transcript from the testimony in court.

The defense attorney, let's talk a little bit about what was said during the August 2015 meeting. You said on your direct that there was discussion about Bill and Hillary Clinton, correct? Yes. And at the time of this meeting, August 2015, the National Enquirer was already running stories about Bill and Hillary Clinton, correct? Yes. That was going on before the meeting, right? That's correct. And that was because you had made a business decision that it was good for the National Enquirer to run those stories, correct? I did.

Bove then goes on to ask him, so, before the August 2015 meeting, you made a decision that it made sense for AMI to run articles about Bill and Hillary Clinton, right? Yes. And those articles were negative, right? Yes. So, it was easy for you to say during the August 2015 meeting that you would continue to do that, right? Yes. That was no issue for you? No.

So, that's that piece of testimony. There's another piece of testimony that also stood out similarly about these negative articles National Enquirer was running related to GOP rivals of Donald Trump. So, Emil Bove asking more questions of David Pecker on the cross.

Now, you testified on Tuesday that during this August 2015 meeting, there was also a discussion about running negative articles about President Trump's opponents, right? That's correct. And you testified that there was discussion of that topic during the August 2015 meeting. Do you remember that? Yes. And three specific opponents, preliminary opponents, came up, right? Yes. Ben Carson, correct? Yes. Marco Rubio, right? Right. And Ted Cruz, correct? Yes. And you were shown some exhibits by the government that related to stories the National Enquirer ran about those three men, correct?


That's correct. There wasn't much new content in those stories, was there? I would have to re-read the stories to answer that question.

Emil Bove then continues down this line of questioning, asking David Pecker, the witness, it was standard operating procedure for the National Enquirer to sort of recycle content from other publications and frame it slightly differently, correct? Correct. That's cost effective? Correct. Information from the public domain goes into the National Enquirer. It's quick and easy, correct? Yes. Good for business? Yes.

Bove then asks, there was already negative information in the public domain about Ben Carson and so you ran it in the National Enquirer, right? Yes. And because that was quick and efficient and cost effective, you would have done that whether or not you had discussed it with President Trump, correct? Yes. Wolf?

BLITZER: Very interesting testimony indeed. Thanks for bringing that to our attention. I'm glad you're going through that whole transcript now, very important indeed.

Let's get some analysis on what's going on. The former lead counsel for special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Donald Trump, Andrew Weissmann, is joining us. He's now co authored a brand new book entitled The Trump Indictments, The Historic Charging Documents with Commentary. Andrew, thank you so much for joining us once again.

That transcript that we just heard some excerpts from gave us a window in how the defense was trying to undercut David Pecker's testimony. Do you think they were effective?

ANDREW WEISSMANN, CO-AUTHOR, THE TRUMP INDICTMENTS, THE HISTORIC CHARGING DOCUMENTS WITH COMMENTARY: Well, you know, I think that I don't fault the defense lawyer for pursuing that line of questioning to say, you know, what you say was this agreement was kind of snow in winter because you would do it.

The problem with that theory is that there, in fact, was new content with respect to, let's just take Ted Cruz. You know, they famously ran stories that David Pecker had already talked about regarding an alleged affair, which they said was, you know, false. They ran a story which they said was false about his father and his relationship to the JFK assassination. And you also don't see any negative stories about Donald Trump.

So, this is, I think, sort of taking pot shots, which, you know, is a fair thing to do. But one of the things that I think jurors look for at the end of the day is whose narrative. And I think that these are sort of disparate points that the defense has made, but when you think about it logically, I think it doesn't really hold up. But obviously it'll be a call for the jury.

BLITZER: And we will find out how they decide. You spent years, Andrew, investigating Trump, and you closely annotated this Manhattan hush money case in your excellent brand new book. What did you learn during this week of testimony that actually surprised you?

WEISSMANN: Well, I think the details from David Pecker were quite fascinating. First of all, he was presented as a real principal. So that -- I had been sort of thinking about Michael Cohen as sort of a main player, but in many ways, he is a staffer. The main players here, the principals, are, according to the D.A.'s case, David Pecker and the defendant, Donald Trump, with Michael Cohen, having an important role, but as somebody who is carrying out, that's the scheme that they put together.

I think the other thing is that David Pecker really explained the insides of the scheme. In other words, he explains that, why it is that the National Enquirer was paying money for the doorman scheme. He was paying money for the Karen McDougal scheme. But at some point, they said, you know what? We're done being the bank. We are no longer sort of your bank for paying off these people in the catch and kill.

And that explains why it is that Michael Cohen had to take out this home equity loan that we were hearing about just as the testimony was ending today and explains that difference. Now there's why it is that the National Enquirer wasn't paying for this third and final scheme with respect to Stormy Daniels, but it had to be paid for by Michael Cohen. So, I think that is a very important new detail that we heard that helped flesh out the scheme that we -- the basics of which we knew about.

BLITZER: Your book breaks down the very colorful cast of characters in this specific case, but not necessarily Trump's assistant, Rhona Graff, and Michael Cohen's banker, Gary Farro. These lower profile voices set up the recordkeeping and the accounting that are clearly crucial to this overall case. But how do prosecutors make those rather dry details that we were hearing very compelling for the jury?

WEISSMANN: You know, not every witness in a trial is sort of, you know, media friendly.


When you're a prosecutor, that's not sort of what you're aiming for. There're certain witnesses, like a David Pecker, who have lots and lots of detailed information, and we're all fascinated by it. And he is a colorful character and he gives us insight into the scheme.

But the way you stitch or as you mentioned, Wolf, weave together a case is with all sorts of people that are like David Peckers and Michael Cohens and Hope Hicks, but then you use pieces that are definitely drier that are telephone records, emails, texts, bank records to help put together corroborating details it also helps you with a timeline so that the jury knows exactly when things happen, when were payments made. You can sort of put together, and I'm sure you will see a timeline of that the state uses in its summation, and it's a combination of those things.

Many people say, you know, it's like building a wall, and you have many, many different bricks. Some are very colorful, some are dry. So, you know, certainly Gary Farro, who is the banker, is one of the drier witnesses. But, you know, some of that dry stuff can be very compelling because it shows sometimes some very damaging evidence. For instance, Rhona Graff had in her contacts for Donald Trump information about Karen McDougal and about Stormy Daniels.

BLITZER: Yes, she certainly did.

Andrew Weissmann, thanks, as usual, for joining us. I appreciate it very much. And Andrew's new book is entitled The Trump Indictments. There's the book cover right there.

Coming up, President Biden today making his most direct comments to- date on whether he'll actually be ready to debate Donald Trump ahead of Election Day. And now Trump is responding.

Plus, there's other breaking news we're following this time on a tornado emergency unfolding in the heartland right now.


[18:30:00] BLITZER: We'll get back to our special coverage of Donald Trump's criminal trial. We'll get back to it in just a moment. But we're also following some other important breaking news. A very dangerous, severe weather emergency unfolding right now in the heartland, including a huge and violent tornado sighted in Nebraska.

Tornado emergency, the highest level of tornado warning, has just been issued for Eastern Nebraska, in the cities of Bennington, Elkhorn, west of Omaha. Breaking Right now, the Omaha Airport is closed because of the storms, and the FAA is warning flyers to expect major airline delays from Douglas County Emergency Management.

Officials there say they are working to compile a report of the storm damage and are asking residents to report damage to their homes.

We're monitoring this breaking situation. We'll get back with more.

And I want to bring in our meteorologist, Chad Myers, right now. He's tracking the storm over at the CNN Weather Center. Chad, give us the very latest and update.

I think we've lost our connection with Chad. We'll check back with him later, but it's obviously a very, very dangerous situation unfolding there in Nebraska. Stand by for more on that.

In the meantime, the other breaking news we're following this hour, as Donald Trump exited the courthouse just a little while ago, he responded to President Biden saying earlier in the day he'd be, quote, happy to debate Trump before the 2024 election.

CNN's Kristen Holmes and M.J. Lee are covering the campaign for us. Kristen, first to you, what exactly is Trump saying?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, we heard from Donald Trump again challenging Biden to a debate anytime, anywhere, while also still acknowledging that there are serious schedule restrictions, given the fact that Trump himself is sitting through a criminal trial right now in New York.

Here's what he said when leaving that trial today.


TRUMP: I've invited Biden to debate. He can do it anytime he wants, including tonight. I'm ready. Here we are. I invited him to the courthouse that he has us tied up in.

We're willing to do it Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night, or Friday night on national television. We're ready. Just tell me where. We'll do it at the White House. That would be very comfortable, actually.


HOLMES: Now, obviously, this was Trump being very Trump. But we have seen a full court press from the Trump campaign as well as from Republicans trying to get these debates to happen and to happen quickly.

The Trump campaign actually sending a letter earlier this month to the Commission of Presidential Debates asking them to hold them before the scheduled September debates that they were going to have, saying that it was early voting before that and they thought that two candidates should be on the stage before early voting started, the other part of this being that Donald Trump's team thinks that he will be very successful on the debate stage, so they want him there as soon as possible.

But, Wolf, the other thing to note here is just where Donald Trump said these remarks. He said them leaving the courthouse. He has been using that courthouse podium usually to air his grievances. But we've seen lately, and this is after conversations with senior advisers, he's really turning that into a campaign stop, actually campaigning, talking about the economy, electric vehicles as well as these presidential debates. Wolf?

BLITZER: Good point. M.J. Lee is over at the White House for us. M.J., first of all, tell us more about President Biden's remarks earlier in the day about potentially being willing to debate Trump and Biden was speaking in a very rare live interview.

M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. This was the first time that we've heard the president give a definitive answer on the question of whether he is willing to debate Donald Trump. This was the unequivocal answer that he gave when Howard Stern brought up the possibility of a Trump versus Biden debate.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know if you're going to debate your opponent.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: I am, somewhere. I don't know when. I'm happy to debate him.


LEE: That sound bite, of course, was the newsiest political headline to come out of this interview. But, Wolf, this interview spanned more than an hour, was incredibly wide-ranging, the president talking about a lot of personal issues, including his childhood, his stutter, his parents. And when he talked about the loss of his first wife and baby daughter, he said that he had briefly contemplated suicide. He said, just a brief moment. I thought maybe I just go to the Delaware Memorial Bridge and jump, but I had two kids.

I think it's worth noting, Wolf, that Howard Stern, of course, is known for being a really skilled interviewer. He is good at getting people to sometimes even overshare and really share their personal stories. And himself, of course, is known for making sort of vulgar and direct comments. So, I think it's noteworthy that the Biden team decided that the president was going to spend this kind of time for this kind of interview at a moment when they're trying to find non- traditional ways to really reach voters out there.

BLITZER: Interesting. M.J. Lee, thank you very much.

I want to go back to our meteorologist, Chad Myers. He's monitoring the very severe weather situation right in the heart of the country.

So, Chad, give us the latest.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST (voice over): Yes, Wolf. This storm, this tornado you're seeing right here, now this was just to the east of the city of Lincoln and between Lincoln and Waverly, Nebraska. This tornado went directly over the interstate, I-80 even knocking over a semi, but it remained very, very violent.

This at times was well over a half of a mile wide as it moved on the ground for what appears to be at least a 50 miles. Think about how much square footage that is, if you move a violent tornado like this for a 50-mile long swath.

It has now moved just to the north of Eppley Airport. Eppley was actually hit by a separate storm and it's closed that port. This is the airport in Omaha. But the storm that you see here is still going. Even though it's lost some rotation, it's moved into Iowa at this point, but we had crews rolling to the scenes right now looking at this damage. This was a violent, at least EF-3 and possibly the first EF-4 we've seen in a very long time, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a very dangerous situation. All right, Chad, we'll stay in close touch with you. Thank, thank you very, very much. And we'll have more news right after this.



BLITZER: Reporters inside the Manhattan criminal courthouse are paying very close attention to Donald Trump's body language during the hush money trial testimony.

I want to go back to CNN's Kara Scanell. Kara, you were inside that room. Give us a sense, how has Trump been reacting to the ups and downs of this testimony?

SCANNELL: Well, Wolf, in the morning, when David Pecker was on the stand, that's Trump's former or longtime friend, but also the publisher who's been the narrator for the prosecution's case, Trump was sitting back in his chair with his head slightly cocked in the direction of Pecker, who was on the witness stand, but he was in that same position for hours today, just watching as his lawyers tried to find some inconsistencies in Pecker's testimony. It was relatively tedious kinds of questioning back and forth, and Trump appeared to be somewhat disinterested but also looking and watching Pecker.

But when his assistant, Rhona Graff, who had been Trump's assistant for 34 years up until 2021, when she was on the stand, she was testifying more favorably about the former president. She was brought on as a prosecution witness to get some records in, but she was also asked by Trump's lawyer what it was like working for him, and she said, every day was different. She said it was fascinating and interesting.

And at that point Trump was smiling, and he had shifted his body in his chair to actually -- so he could get a better view of her as he was watching her testify about him. She said that she found him respectful toward her and that she thought that he was very thoughtful. He would sometimes peek his head into her office and tell her that she should go home to her family. So, he seemed to be enjoying and appreciating that favorable testimony that he was hearing.

And when she was leaving the witness stand it was just at the end of a break and Trump had stood up. It was unclear if they had had any communications or contact but he did seem to be pleased to see her in the courtroom and hear her testimonies today.

BLITZER: Yes, very interesting indeed. Kara Scannell, thank you very much.

I want to take a closer look now at critical evidence that potentially could shape the trial going forward. CNN's Katelyn Polantz is back with us once again.

Katelyn, take us through some of the key exhibits that jurors saw during the course of this week and how they fit into this case.

POLANTZ: There are two ways that the prosecutors can get evidence in before the jury, and they need to, to prove their case, if they want to prove it. They can get testimony and they can get exhibits. And they're using both of those tools to try and show exactly how this alleged business falsification records happen.

So, one of the witnesses we saw today, that was Rhona Graff. She is one of the people that was working at the Trump Organization with Donald Trump. And the things she's testifying to are going to become building blocks that other witnesses will probably share similar information about or underline what she had witnessed and is telling the jury about that Trump was signing checks often. And that it wasn't unusual for Donald Trump to sign checks when he was on the phone or had people in this office. So, she is the person that is putting Trump there looking at the paperwork that we're going to see as evidence in this case as well.

Then on top of that, we're starting to see the things that really need to be shown to the jury to establish that this catch and kill scheme happened, that there were agreements with these people that were coming to sell stories, either to the National Enquirer or stories that Donald Trump and Michael Cohen wanted to have buried.


One of those things is this American Media Incorporated, "National Enquirer" agreement with Karen McDougal. Here's her signature. That's quite important. The fact that she's signing this, the fact that it spells out the $150,000 that the "National Enquirer" did pay to her and expected that the Trump Organization might pay them back, although they ultimately didn't.

And then we also see the prosecutors finding ways over and over again to tie this all to Donald Trump's campaign that, that being the key motivation. Here's an example of that. You're going to hear that from witnesses on the stand, but you're also going to see emails potentially text messages, other communications in this Michael Cohen, the personal attorney to Donald Trump, who Trump's team is going to want a pin a lot on and the distance Trump from and say, he was just my attorney -- Michael Cohen here talking specifically about the campaign. There's a lot of people coming through the line who's going to corroborate some of these things? Michael Cohen, Keith Davidson, Hope Hicks from the campaign to underline that point.

And then finally, Wolf, the folks themselves who were presenting these stories and trying to have their story told catch and kill. They will be testifying very likely as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah, a lot going on indeed, Katelyn Polantz. Thank you very much.

I want to get more on Donald Trump's response today, the president Biden saying he'd be happy to debate Trump before the 2024 election? Trump daring Biden to debate them outside the courthouse that day.

Let's get some analysis. Joining us now, CNN political commentators, S.E. Cupp and Jamal Simmons.

And, S.E., who do you think would have board gain from a debate? Would it be Trump or Biden?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Definitely Donald Trump, and he knows that. I think he's banking on the fact that he will look more robust, more energetic and he is not held to standards by his own voters like standards like telling the truth, knowing stuff, having policies that he's going to explain, they don't care about any of that.

So he'll win with his crowd no matter what. And he knows, Biden's voters have very high standards. They want to ask questions about policy, Gaza, what he would do in XYZ situation.

So I think Trump is probably right that it benefits him. That's why he's been pushing this for a very long time.

And actually I think he's outplayed Biden a bit. He's going to say, okay, great, I'm ready to go tonight Monday, Tuesday -- you heard him say that. When Biden says, no, we'll probably do it as scheduled after the conventions, Trump's going to say, look, he's scared, he's unprepared, I'm ready to go now.

I think Trump has the upper hand here.

BLITZER: We let Jamal weigh in.

Do you think the Biden campaign actually wants the president to debate Trump?

JAMAL SIMMONS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think they probably think like I do, which is, ill believe it when I see it, right?

Donald Trump says he wants to debate, just like Donald Trump said he would testify. I'll believe it when he takes the stand. I'll believe it when he shows up at the theater.

There is no evidence that Donald Trump will actually follow through on any of the things that he says. And one of the things I've seen in some of these debate negotiations way back in the '90s when I was a kid, I worked for a guy named Mickey Kantor who was the chief debate negotiator for President Bill Clinton during the reelect. And one of the things you knows, there's a lot of kabuki dance that's going on around debate negotiations, and nothing is final until everything is final, we will see when they debate and if they debate.

BLITZER: How do you think Trump, S.E.. is balancing? All the stuff going on in the criminal trial, the courtroom, as opposed to what he wants to do. He says campaign.

CUPP: I don't believe that he wants to campaign, and I know that Republicans are actually relieved that he's here in the courtroom now because they don't have to talk about anti-abortion bills, which was really dragging the party down. So, Trump is using these court trials as a campaign stop.

The question is, this race is baked in so many ways. The question is, will independence? Look at this and say, my God, this guy is always in court they must really be out to get him, or will they say my God, this guy is always in court look at how much he has done wrong and how could anyone in this much legal jeopardy be president? That's the question. How those people are going to see all of this.

BLITZER: S.E. Cupp, Jamal Simmons, guys, thank you very, very much.

And coming up, more news right after this.



BLITZER: Back to our coverage of Donald Trump's criminal trial in just a moment, but we're also following the very severe weather emergency in the heartland right now, three people were injured after a tornado in Lancaster County, Nebraska, struck a business with 70 people inside.

Our meteorologist Chad Myers is back with us right now.

Chad, update our viewers. What's the latest?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: This was a very large and dangerous, violent tornado, EF3 or EF4. We'll have to figure that out. The weather service has to go out there and look at the damage. But I've seen homes that don't exist. All you see are the foundation, so that are still left.

So this was an extremely dangerous to tornado that started near Lincoln, Nebraska. And moved all the way up just to the west of Omaha, Nebraska now. I've driven that Omaha I-80 corridor because I went to school in Lincoln and I know how long that is. That was a 50-mile track of a tornado that was on the ground and it was a violent tornado all along. Tornado watches are still posted, more tornadoes will happen tonight.

Now the tornadoes that were in Nebraska have moved into Iowa, so you need to watch this also, more storms into Kansas, even tornado warnings still going on here in the southeastern portion of Kansas. And we have wind damage likely also large hail likely into parts of Texas, a violent de and a violet night.

And you need to pay attention and know where you're going to go, know your safe spot and listen your NOAA weather radio or even your iPhone. It will alert you if can turn that on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Chad Myers, thank you very, very much. Chad Myers reporting.


Before I let you go, one quick follow-up, the severe weather threat, where is it heading next? In addition to the places you mentioned, how worried should folks in the heartland be?

MYERS: I think we have tornadoes on the ground likely for the next three to four hours in places. But then it cools down. When it cools down, we start to lose the effect and the lift of that warm air. And so you lose the twist, you lose the violence of the tornadoes itself and of the thunderstorms.

But tomorrow, guess what? The suns going to come back out again and were going to get storms back again in the parts of western Kansas, all the way into Nebraska, down through Oklahoma and into Texas.

These are the days that we know are coming. We don't want them to come, but when we have a trough of low pressure, a trough, it looks like a trough getting food to a cattle. There you go to the trough of low pressure when it's over, the Rocky Mountains, we get this and that's exactly the setup that we have now. There were so many tornado chasers on the storms today. We knew where they were going to be. We just need people to get out of the way when they are there.

There were so many people in the way today, and there'll be more people in the way tomorrow, millions, millions of people in the way of tornadoes, I think tomorrow. Just hope it doesn't hit your area. You know, we're talking only half a mile wide compared to a county which has maybe 40 miles wide. So not everybody, but certainly, people will be affected.

BLITZER: Yeah, very worrisome. We'll stay in close touch with you, Chad. Thank you very much for that update.

Right now, I want to get back to our top story tonight. Donald Trump's hush money trial, and the testimony about Stormy Daniels is likely to revive some painful memories for Melania Trump, just as she's marking her 54th birthday today.

Brian Todd is joining us right now.

Brian, it's no secret that the Stormy Daniels saga is a sore subject for the former first lady.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No question about it, Wolf. You know, Melania Trump has not come to the trial at all so far, but her former chief of staff said this week she believes the former first lady is watching a lot of the coverage. If she is, analysts say, much of this has likely been uncomfortable, if not outright painful for her.


TODD (voice-over): The former president didn't want to let the moment go by without acknowledging his wife on her 54th birthday.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT & 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I want to start by wishing my wife Melania a very happy birthday. It'd be nice to be with her, but I'm in a courthouse.

TAMMY VIGIL, AUTHOR, "MELANIA & MICHELLE: FIRST LADIES IN A NEW ERA": Considering the facts of the case in front of him and accusations that have been made, it is a little bit jarring, tone deaf, and he was not particularly elegant in the way that he did it.

TODD: For more than ten hours, over four days this week, former "National Enquirer" publisher David Pecker testified about hush money payments to cover up alleged affairs Donald Trump had with Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels.

Trump has denied the affairs. How might Melania Trump have viewed what's been said in court this week.

VIGIL: To have it happened so publicly, so openly and very much in her face has to be very upsetting.

TOPDD: Pecker testified that before he ran for president, whenever a negative story was coming out about him, quote, Donald Trump was always concerned about Melania, but that after the 2016 campaign began, quote, it was basically what would be the impact to the campaign or election.

"The New York Times" reported Melania Trump was furious when reports of a payoff emerged in 2018, but now, "The Times" reports Melania shares her husband's opinion that this hush money trial is unfair, citing people familiar with her thinking. Quote, in private, she has called the proceedings a disgrace, tantamount to election interference.

Still, Melania Trump has not shown up for one minute at the trial.

VIGIL: I think it would just be more embarrassing for her. I think it would cause more of a meter media storm around her. All it does is make her look sad and week.

KATE BENNETT, AUTHOR, "FREE MELANIA": We don't see her in his public times of woes, standing by his side, like most political spouses do, that sort of iconic image of the wife holding hands after some humiliating experience.

TODD: The former first lady has also not shown up much on the campaign trail either, after giving a cryptic hint last month.

REPORTER: Are you going to return to the campaign trail with your husband?


TODD: The only campaign events she's done is an appearance with Log Cabin Republicans at Mar-a-Lago last Saturday.

Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model, whose name has come up several times in the trial this week, once told CNN's Anderson Cooper she was in love with Donald Trump and --

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Did Donald Trump ever say to you that he loved you all the time?

KAREN MCDOUGAL, ALLEGES AFFAIR WITH DONALD TRUMP: All the time. He always told me he loved me, yeah. Of course.

TODD: Melania biographer Kate Bennett believes that was more painful for the former first lady that Donald Trump's alleged encounter with Stormy Daniels.

BENNETT: It is far more challenging emotionally for her to have someone who's saying that they were then emotional relationship with her husband.


TODD (on camera): We reached out to representatives for Melania Trump into the Trump campaign, to get her response to David Pecker's testimony in court this week, and to ask why she has not attended the trial with her husband, we have not heard back -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. If you hear anything, let us know. Brian Todd reporting.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll see you Monday, 11:00 a.m. Eastern for "CNN NEWSROOM." Until then, thanks very much once again for watching. Have a nice weekend.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.