Trump prosecutors wrap up, having laid out ‘proof beyond reasonable doubt’
Former president Donald Trump appears in Manhattan criminal court, April 16, 2024, in New York. The testimony in Donald Trump's hush money trial is all wrapped up after more than four weeks and nearly two dozen witnesses, meaning the case heads into the pivotal final stretch of closing arguments, jury deliberations, and possibly a verdict. | Curtis Means/ via AP

NEW YORK—Prosecutors in ex-president Donald Trump’s hush-money payoff trial emphasized Trump signed the payoff checks, knew what he was doing, and kept a tight rein on his finances, as they closed their case in the six-week-long drama in State Supreme Court in Manhattan.

On the matter of defense attempts to paint one of their witnesses, Trump’s lawyer Cohen as a liar, they noted that Cohen was Trump’s man, not their man, and that he committed crimes, including lying, for Trump. “We did not pick him out from a store selling good witnesses,” the prosecutor said. “He came to us from Trump who hired him.”

And to seemingly put the final nail in the coffin, chief prosecutor Joshua Steinglass read from a new source about tightwad Trump: One of Trump’s own—ghost-written in 2007—books, Think Like A Billionaire. In it, Trump says he kept tight grips on his checks.

The outcome of the trial, before Justice Juan Merchan, could determine Republican presidential nominee Trump’s political future, and thus his impact on workers and the country. With its dozen jurors likely to start deliberating on May 30, this verdict will be the only one voters may have to consider before November’s election.

Trump, a misogynist, serial liar, white nativist and already convicted in a civil case of defrauding New York State of millions of dollars in taxes via his company, faces incumbent and labor-backed Democratic President Joe Biden in a rerun from 2020.

Scathing summaries of Trump, outside the courthouse, came from noted actor Robert DeNiro and from Jack Smith, the Justice Department’s Special Counsel whose office is handling the two now-stalled Trump federal trials, in D.C. and Florida.

DeNiro warned that if Trump wins in November, he’ll stay in office forever. He got into an argument with Trumpites over the ex-president’s “sacrifices,” or lack of them, for the nation.

Smith criticized and characterized Trump in an internet posting.

“Good morning. This week, for the first time in our history, a jury of citizens will deliberate the criminal actions of a former president, a mobster with scant regard for our norms and traditions, and unbridled disdain for the majority of Americans,” Smith wrote.

“He’s sitting in the courtroom right now, seething at the prosecution as they prepare to lay bare his schemes and cover-ups. His anger stems not from guilt, but from utter conviction that his power and privilege should render him above the law. It’s time to prove him and his acolytes wrong.”

Would smash unions

If Trump wins, he intends to—among other things—smash federal worker unions, refuse to raise the federal minimum wage, trash the U.S. Constitution, push a national right-to-work law, dismantle federal regulations of everyone and everything from big oil to worker safety and health, and institute a dictatorship, but only, he says, on day one.

Many of his ideas, including the dictatorship, make the corporate class backers of Trump very happy.

Nobody, including devoted Trumpites in and out of political office, believes he’d stop after day one.

Indeed, opinion polls show a large share of Republicans, if not a majority, don’t want him to stop. Trump agreed they believe that way, during a speech in Milwaukee. So does Biden.

“Eight years ago, you could have written it off”—the dictator comment—“as just Trump talk. But no longer. Not after January 6,” Biden told the recent White House Correspondents Association dinner.

With the other Trump cases stalled, that leaves this case, involving a payoff to former stripper Stormy Daniels to shut up about her prior affair with Trump during the developer’s first presidential campaign eight years ago. Trump also engineered another such payoff, both through his then lawyer-fixer Michael Cohen, to former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal at the same time and for the same reason.

“There’s literally a mountain of evidence of corroborating testimony that tends to connect the defendant to this crime,” including testimony from “the defendant’s own employees,” said Steinglass, the lead assistant DA handling the case. “This scheme, cooked up by these men, at this time, could very well be what got President Trump elected” in 2016.

Steinglass cited the evidence of the checks themselves and admitted Cohen was not the perfect witness. But the evidence is there in black—Trump’s black magic marker signature on the checks—and white, in false entries for “legal fees” in the Trump company’s books, which were then disguised, too, as campaign contributions.

It’s also there in a taped telephone call between Trump and Cohen where Trump asks Cohen, “How much do you need?” to pay off McDougal, Steinglass reminded the jurors. “150?” meaning $150,000. The payoff to Daniels was $130,000. That transaction was captured on a video the jurors saw.

The multitude of checks from Cohen to the women, repayment checks from Trump to Cohen, and corporate ledger entries and cooking the corporate books to hide the campaign contributions produced 34 felony counts against Trump in his scheme to break campaign finance laws, the indictment says.

Steinglass said the jurors had far more to go on than just the words of lawyer-fixer-go between-bagman Cohen.

“We didn’t choose Michael Cohen to be our witness. We didn’t pick him up at the witness store,” Steinglass added. “The defendant chose Michael Cohen as his fixer because he was willing to lie and cheat on his behalf.”

“He didn’t really pay a lawyer,” Steinglass said of Trump’s checks to Cohen which repaid Cohen for the checks he wrote to Daniels and McDougal. “He paid a porn star”—Daniels—“by funneling money through a lawyer.”

The checks to McDougal, via the National Enquirer, were part of the evidence of the hush money, complete with Trump’s black magic marker signature, but took second place to the checks to Daniels.

Trump attorney Todd Blanche tried to counter the evidence of the checks—and the two tapes of the payoffs—in his closing argument. He claimed Trump didn’t really know what he was doing, that Cohen masterminded the scheme and Trump just forked over the checks.

Prosecutor Steinglass shot that down by both reminding the jurors they saw the photostats of the checks, with Trump’s signature, and heard Trump’s voice on the tapes of the payoff conversations. And then Steinglass read from Trump’s book.

“Always look at the numbers yourself. If things turn grim you’re the one left holding the check book. For me, there’s nothing worse than a computer signing checks,” Steinglass read from Think Like A Billionaire.

Kept tight rein on checks

“It’s this combination of frugality and attention to detail that led Mr. Trump to keep tight reins on his checks in particular,” Steinglass said of Trump. “He’s frugal. He’s immersed in the details, and he insists on signing his own checks. That’s his philosophy.”

Trump also faces three other court cases, one each in Florida, Georgia and D.C. Maneuvers by Trump attorneys in Atlanta delayed the state’s case there against Trump and a dozen others for racketeering and conspiracy to steal swing state Georgia’s electoral votes four years ago.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Republican-named majority—including three Trump-named justices—stalled his D.C. trial, the one directly concerned with Trump’s tries to steal the election nationwide. The justices won’t rule until the end of June on Trump’s claim that his four years as president give him absolute immunity from federal criminal prosecution, forever.

That trial will be on his attempt to steal voters’ rights to a fair and free election by ordering and directing the Jan. 6, 2021, invasion, insurrection, and coup d’état try by Trumpites. If Trump wins, and the D.C. and Florida federal trials had started, he could order his Justice Department toadies to drop the cases.

Trump-named U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon in West Palm Beach, Fla., has slow-walked the federal case against Trump for stealing secret papers from the White House, transporting them to his Mar-a-Lago estate and showing them to unauthorized people. Viewers included an Australian billionaire who later blabbed about the secrets, such as a Pentagon plan to invade Iran.

Judge Cannon has also threatened to throw the whole secret papers case out, citing prosecutorial “mishandling” of evidence.

In his closing argument, lead Trump attorney Todd Blanche tried his best to trash Cohen. He reminded jurors the lawyer-fixer—now “singing” in court—had personal motives for turning state’s evidence.

He also told the jury Cohen’s been convicted of lying to Congress and other crimes and served jail time, as well. Cohen was the go-between bag man between Trump and the women, in the case of McDougal involving the publisher and editor of the tabloid National Enquirer, too.

Justice Merchan is expected to give the jury his instructions on May 30, with deliberations starting after that.

If Trump is convicted, the crimes, 34 Class E felonies, carry sentences ranging from fines to one and a half to four years in jail per count.  Justice Merchan will impose the overall sentence. He had to bring Blanche up short when the lawyer made a sentencing suggestion in open court during his summation. The judge previously fined Trump $10,000 for contempt of court for violating gag orders.

What is up to the judge is whether sentences would be concurrent, consecutive, include fines or a mix of those elements. But an internet lookup yielded an interpretation in favor of concurrent sentences from the office of appellate attorney Stephen Preziosi in Manhattan.

“Under Penal Law section 70.25, ‘Sentences imposed for two or more offenses may not run consecutively: 1) where a single act constitutes two offenses or 2) where a single act constitutes one of the offenses and a material element of the other,’” he wrote, citing a 1996 appellate ruling. “In determining whether consecutive sentences are authorized, ‘a court must first look to the statutory definitions of the crimes at issue to discern whether the elements overlap.’”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.