Defense rests without ex-President Trump taking the witness stand in his New York hush money trial

Published 10:51 am Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Donald Trump’s lawyers rested their defense Tuesday without the former president taking the witness stand in his New York hush money criminal trial, moving the case closer to the moment the jury will begin deciding his fate.

“Your honor, the defense rests,” Trump lawyer Todd Blanche told the judge following testimony from a former federal prosecutor who had been called to attack the credibility of the prosecution’s key witness.

The jury was sent home for a week, until May 28, when closing arguments are expected, but the attorneys planned to return later Tuesday to discuss how the judge will instruct jurors on deliberations. Trump, the first former American president to be tried criminally, did not stop to speak as he left the courthouse and ignored a question about why he did not testify. He previously said he wanted to take the witness stand to defend himself against what he claims are politically motivated charges.

Email newsletter signup

As he left a news conference with supporters of the former president outside the courthouse, Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. defended his father’s decision not to testify.

“There’d be absolutely no reason, no justification to do that whatsoever. Everyone sees it for the sham that it is,” the younger Trump said.

After more than four weeks of testimony, jurors could begin deliberating as soon as next week to decide whether the former president is guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

After the defense rested, Judge Juan M. Merchan told jurors the court session could run late next Tuesday to accommodate both prosecution and defense closing arguments — the last time the jury will hear from either side. Merchan told jurors he expects his instructions on deliberations will take about an hour, after which they can begin discussing the case, possibly as early as next Wednesday, May 29. Until now, they have been told not to discuss the case with anyone outside court or among themselves.

Merchan noted that closing arguments would normally follow immediately after the defense rested, but he expects them in this case to take at least a day and, given the impending Memorial Day holiday, “there’s no way to do all that’s needed” before then.

“I’ll see you in a week,” Merchan said.

Prosecutors have accused Trump of a scheme to bury negative stories to fend off damage to his 2016 presidential campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton and then falsifying internal business records to cover it up. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing in the case.

The charges stem from internal Trump Organization records in which payments to Cohen were marked as legal expenses. Prosecutors say they were really reimbursements for a $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels to keep her from going public before the 2016 election with claims of a sexual encounter with Trump. Trump says nothing sexual happened between them.

“They have no case,” Trump said Tuesday morning before court adjourned. “There’s no crime.”

The final witness was Robert Costello, called in an effort to undermine the credibility of Trump fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen, who has placed Trump at the center of the effort to bury potentially damaging stories.

Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger showed Costello an August 2018 email in which Cohen told him and one of his partners to stop contacting him because “you do not and never have represented me” and another lawyer did. Asked whether he was upset that Cohen hadn’t paid him, Costello said he was — and volunteered that he had replied to the message in an email that prosecutors didn’t show.

Prosecutors have said that they want to show that Costello was part of a pressure campaign to keep Cohen in Trump’s corner once the then-attorney came under federal investigation. On that theme, Hoffinger asked Costello about a 2018 email in which he assured Cohen that he was “loved” by Trump’s camp, “they are in our corner” and “you have friends in high places.”

Asked who those “friends in high places” were, Costello said he was talking about Trump, then the president.

Costello bristled as he insisted he did not feel animosity toward Cohen and did not try to intimidate him. “Ridiculous. No,” he said to the latter.

Trump’s attorneys had hoped he would cast doubt on Cohen’s testimony. The two had a professional relationship that splintered in spectacular fashion. Costello had offered to represent Cohen soon after the lawyer’s hotel room, office and home were raided and as Cohen faced a decision about whether to remain defiant in the face of a criminal investigation or to cooperate with authorities in hopes of securing more lenient treatment.

Costello has repeatedly maligned Cohen’s credibility and was even a witness before last year’s grand jury that indicted Trump, offering testimony designed to undermine Cohen’s account. In a Fox News Channel interview last week, Costello accused Cohen of lying to the jury and using the case to “monetize” himself.

Costello contradicted Cohen’s testimony describing Trump as intimately involved in all aspects of the hush money scheme. Costello told jurors Monday that Cohen told him Trump “knew nothing” about the hush money payment to Daniels.

“Michael Cohen said numerous times that President Trump knew nothing about those payments, that he did this on his own, and he repeated that numerous times,” Costello testified.

Cohen, however, testified earlier Monday that he had “no doubt” that Trump gave him a final sign-off to make the payments to Daniels. In total, he said he spoke with Trump more than 20 times about the matter in October 2016.

After jurors left for the day Monday, defense attorneys pressed the judge to throw out the charges before jurors even begin deliberating, arguing prosecutors have failed to prove their case. The defense has suggested that Trump was trying to protect his family, not his campaign, by squelching what he says were false, scurrilous claims.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche argued that there was nothing illegal about soliciting a tabloid’s help to run positive stories about Trump, run negative stories about his opponents and identify potentially damaging stories before they were published. No one involved “had any criminal intent,” Blanche said.

“How is keeping a false story from the voters criminal?” Blanche asked.

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo shot back that “the trial evidence overwhelmingly supports each element” of the alleged offenses and said the case should proceed to the jury.

The judge did not immediately rule on the defense’s request. Such long-shot requests are often made in criminal cases but are rarely granted.