Donald Trump declines to testify as ‘hush money’ trial enters end stage

Jurors to return next week to hear closing arguments after former US president’s lawyers called two witnesses in his defence

Donald Trump’s defence rested in the Manhattan “hush money” case on Tuesday without him taking the stand, sending the historic first criminal trial of a former US president into its final stages.

The decision – an apparent climbdown by Mr Trump, who had repeatedly vowed that he would testify to clear his name – came at the end of more than four weeks of evidence from prosecutors, during which they called 20 witnesses including Stormy Daniels, the porn actor allegedly paid off by Mr Trump in exchange for her silence over a claimed sexual encounter.

Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, who organised and facilitated payments totalling $130,000 to Ms Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, also testified for several days.

Mr Trump’s defence team, which had sought to undermine Mr Cohen’s credibility during cross-examination, rested its case after calling just two witnesses: a paralegal working with defence counsel, and Robert Costello, a former legal adviser to Mr Cohen and a Trump ally.

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In a short, ill-tempered turn on the stand, Mr Costello testified that Mr Cohen had repeatedly confided in him that “President Trump knew nothing about these payments [to Ms Daniels] – that he did this on his own”. The evidence threatened to undermine Manhattan prosecutors’ claim that the former fixer was acting on behalf of his boss’s 2016 election campaign.

Mr Costello further claimed Mr Cohen had told him in 2018, while under federal investigation over offences related to the Ms Daniels’s payments: “I swear to God Bob, I don’t have anything on Donald Trump.”

The former federal prosecutor was told off by Justice Juan Merchan on Monday for rolling his eyes and mocking the judge’s rulings sotto voce with exclamations such as “ridiculous” and “jeez”.

Todd Blanche, a lawyer for Mr Trump, had previously suggested that he might call one additional witness, election law expert Brad Smith, but declined to do so after the judge restricted the scope of that testimony.

Closing arguments are set to begin next Tuesday, after which the jury will begin its deliberations. Mr Trump (77) faces 34 charges of falsifying business records. He has pleaded not guilty and decried the proceedings as a politically motivated witch hunt.

During weeks of testimony Mr Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has been forced to limit his presidential campaigning and spend hours sitting at the defence table in the Manhattan criminal courthouse, which he referred to as an “icebox”. He often appeared to sleep through hours of testimony, stirring at moments of high drama.

A so-called charge conference, in which the two sides will argue over whether prosecutors have met their legal burden, will take place on Tuesday afternoon, before the trial officially adjourns.

Last November, MTrump ranted for hours as he took the stand at a non-jury trial over the alleged inflation of his real estate assets’ value in loan applications, repeatedly provoking the judge’s ire. He was found liable for more than $450mn in that case earlier this year.

Last November, Mr Trump ranted for hours as he took the stand at a non-jury trial over the alleged inflation of his property assets’ value in loan applications, repeatedly provoking the judge’s ire. He was found liable for more than $450 million in that case earlier this year.

He also took the stand for a few minutes in January, as part of a civil defamation case brought against him in Manhattan federal court by the writer E Jean Carroll, who was later awarded $83 million in damages by a jury.

Mr Trump had strongly hinted that he would repeat the pattern in the “hush money” case. On the eve of trial last month, he told reporters he would “absolutely” testify in his defence, calling the Manhattan proceedings a “scam”. He added: “I’m testifying. I tell the truth, I mean, all I can do is tell the truth. And the truth is that there is no case.”

He subsequently appeared to soften his stance, saying he “would like to” take the stand and suggesting that he would be prevented from doing so by Justice Merchan, who had instituted a gag order preventing Mr Trump from publicly talking about jurors, witnesses and court staff.

The comments prompted the judge to address the matter in court earlier this month, and reiterate that Mr Trump had a “fundamental right” to testify.

In comments to Fox News on Monday Alina Habba, a spokeswoman for Mr Trump, said her boss still wanted to testify and had “nothing to hide” but “has to listen to his attorneys”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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