Cohen back on stand in Trump trial, with closing arguments expected May 28

Prosecution set to rest its case in former US president’s hush money trial after more than four weeks, as his former fixer returns for further cross-examination

Former US President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before entering the courtroom with his attorney Todd Blanche at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 20, 2024 in New York. (Michael M. Santiago/Pool Photo via AP)
Former US President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before entering the courtroom with his attorney Todd Blanche at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 20, 2024 in New York. (Michael M. Santiago/Pool Photo via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s hush money trial is heading into the final stretch, with prosecutors’ last and star witness back on the stand Monday for more grilling before the former US president’s lawyers get their chance to put on a case.

The landmark trial will kick back off in Manhattan with more defense cross-examination of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, whose pivotal testimony last week directly tied Trump to the alleged hush money scheme. He’s the last prosecution witness and it’s not yet clear whether Trump’s attorneys will call any witnesses, let alone the presumptive US Republican presidential nominee himself.

Defense lawyers already have questioned Cohen for hours about his criminal history and past lies to paint him as a serial fabulist who is on a revenge campaign aimed at taking down Trump.

After more than four weeks of testimony about sex, money, tabloid machinations and the details of Trump’s company record keeping, jurors could begin deliberating as soon as next week to decide whether Trump is guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first criminal trial of a former US president.

The charges stem from internal Trump Organization records where payments to Cohen were marked as legal expenses, when prosecutors say they were really reimbursements for a $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels.

Trump has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers say there was nothing criminal about the Daniels deal or the way Cohen was paid.

“There’s no crime,” Trump told reporters after arriving at the courthouse Monday. “We paid a legal expense. You know what it’s marked down as? A legal expense.”

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office is expected to rest its case once Cohen is off the stand, but prosecutors would have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses if Trump’s lawyers put on witnesses of their own. Judge Juan M. Merchan, citing scheduling issues, says he expects closing arguments to happen May 28, the Tuesday after Memorial Day in the US.

Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building on his way to Manhattan criminal court in New York, May 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Defense lawyers said they have not decided whether Trump will testify. And Trump did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about whether his lawyers have advised him not to take the stand.

Defense attorneys generally are reluctant to put their clients on the witness stand and open them up to intense questioning by prosecutors, as it often does more harm than good.

Cohen is prosecutors’ most important witness, but he is also vulnerable to attack.

The now-disbarred attorney has admitted on the witness stand to previously lying under oath and other falsehoods, many of which he claims were meant to protect Trump. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison in December 2018 after pleading guilty to various federal charges, including lying to Congress and a bank and engaging in campaign finance violations related to the hush money scheme. He spent 13 ½ months in prison, and a year and a half in home confinement. His sentence was further reduced for good behavior.

Cohen has made millions of dollars off critical books about the former president, whom he regularly slams on social media in often profane terms.

Cohen told jurors that Trump was intimately involved in the scheme to pay off Daniels to prevent her from going public late in his 2016 presidential campaign with claims of a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump. Trump says nothing sexual happened between them.

Cohen told jurors about meetings and conversations with Trump, including one in 2017 in which Cohen says he, Trump and then-Trump Organization finance chief Allen Weisselberg discussed how Cohen would recoup his outlay for the Daniels payment and how the reimbursement would be billed as “legal services.”

This combination of file photo shows, from left, former US president Donald Trump, attorney Michael Cohen and adult film actress Stormy Daniels. (AP Photo/File)

Known for his hot temper, Cohen has remained mostly calm on the witness stand despite sometimes heated interrogation by the defense about his own misdeeds and the allegations in the case.

A key moment came Thursday, when defense attorney Todd Blanche accused Cohen of lying about the purpose of a phone call to Trump’s bodyguard days before Cohen wired Daniels’ lawyer $130,000.

Cohen told jurors he talked to Trump on that call about the hush money payment. Blanche confronted Cohen with text messages to argue that Cohen had actually been talking to Trump’s bodyguard about harassing calls from a teenage prankster.

“That was a lie. You did not talk to President Trump on that night… You can admit it?” Blanche asked.

“No, sir, I can’t,” Cohen replied, saying he believed he also spoke to Trump about the Daniels deal.

Trump’s lawyers have said they may call Bradley A. Smith, a Republican law professor who was appointed by former US President Bill Clinton to the Federal Election Commission, to refute the prosecution’s contention that the hush money payments amounted to campaign finance violations.

The judge has limited what Smith can address, however, and the defense could decide not to call him, after all.

There are often guardrails around expert testimony on legal matters, on the basis that it’s up to a judge — not an expert hired by one side or the other — to instruct jurors on applicable laws in a case.

Merchan has ruled that Smith can give general background on the FEC, the laws it enforces and the definitions of such terms as “campaign contribution.” But he can’t interpret how federal campaign finance laws apply to the facts of Trump’s case or opine on whether the former president’s alleged actions violate those laws.

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