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Why Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche botched his final arguments

Yesterday there were closing arguments in the Manhattan trial of Donald Trump for falsifying company records, the first-ever criminal trial of a former president. In this latest high-stakes effort, it appeared that Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass’s summary was significantly better than that of Todd Blanche, the former president’s lead attorney. As a former prosecutor, I was surprised that Blanche’s three-hour argument failed to focus on what was necessary: ​​the part of the charged crime where prosecutors’ evidence is weakest. Instead of providing clarity on this issue, Blanche undermined his best points by making other arguments that were contradicted by overwhelming evidence or common sense.

The best example? His shaky attempt to dismiss the prosecution’s strongest evidence – Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg’s ‘smoking gun’ notes showing how the conspirators silenced Cohen’s $130,000 fee for the purchase of Stormy Daniels’ raised’ and then concealed it by adding other money to Cohen. All Blanche could think of was the startling insistence that Weisselberg’s written words – ‘gross up’ – ‘a lie!” Blanche gave no real reason why the notes were untrue; he simply claimed that the gross amount of $420,000 was for legal fees. Throughout, his winding argument failed to tell the jury a coherent story.

Steinglass, on the other hand, checked every box on the prosecution’s closing argument list, albeit an inordinately long one. He methodically connected the evidence to each element of the crime and reminded jurors how it all supported the prosecution’s theory of the case: “The suspect used his own company information as a means to conceal the refund because he did not want anyone would find out the conspiracy to corrupt the elections.”

It is puzzling why Blanche failed to plead the fact that during weeks of testimony, prosecutors never established what violation of criminal law they allege Trump committed or concealed by falsifying his records. Committing or concealing another criminal offense is the part of the crime that prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to elevate forgery crimes to felonies, as the grand jury alleged. You tear up a chain of evidence by hitting the weakest link. Blanche didn’t.

He did briefly say that there was no evidence that Trump knew he was committing a campaign law violation. But a defendant’s knowledge is almost always proven indirectly; the elaborate scheme to disguise and thereby conceal the repayment of $130,000 to Cohen demonstrated a consciousness of guilt sufficient to prove knowledge of the illegality. As Steinglass put it, the plot required “a great deal of time, thought and energy to conceal the truth.”

Indeed, the prosecutor walked through the door left open by Blanche: He provided a clear account of the election law crimes that Trump and his co-conspirators hid: “Once money starts changing hands for the benefit of a campaign , that’s federal election campaign financing. violations,” he said. In other words, Trump acted with others to falsify documents for the purpose of covering up election law violations. Why else would he have bothered to forge them?

Then Steinglass turned one of Blanche’s arguments on its head and heightened the significance of the matter for the nation: “Blanche said… ‘There’s nothing wrong with influencing elections – it’s called democracy.’ In reality, this agreement in Trump Tower was the exact opposite. It was the undermining of democracy.”

Blanche’s summons also took a long time: the court hearing lasted until late in the evening. At several points Blanche indulged in misguided arguments, probably at the urging of his demanding client, the former president. For example, Blanche apparently felt obligated to say that Trump has “unequivocally and repeatedly denied” that the sexual encounter with Stormy Daniels “ever occurred.”

There are two reasons why there was no point in offering that lame denial. First, whether or not the sexual encounter occurred had no bearing on the elements of falsifying corporate documents. Second, as a witness, Daniels proved “more than capable of rising to the occasion,” even in the face of “brutal” cross-examination, convincingly corroborating her story that the meeting had indeed taken place, as the New Yorker’s Naomi Fry put it expressed. .

Furthermore, Blanche’s repeated attacks on Cohen and his credibility pushed Blanche far into the territory of overkill, likely in another attempt to calm his client down. There’s little point in consuming jurors’ attention by harping over and over again on something they already know — that Michael Cohen is a liar and they should only believe his corroborated testimony — but Blanche did it anyway.

Steinglass had two sharp responses to Blanche’s prolonged thrusts. First, Steinglass noted that “we did not pick up (Cohen) from the witness store. The defendant chose Michael Cohen as his fixer because he was willing to lie and deceive on Trump’s behalf.” Second, “It is difficult to imagine a case with more confirmation.” Like the tape of Cohen’s conversation with Trump, in which he proposes to pay his former lover, Karen McDougal, $150,000 in “cash” to buy her story.

Blanche scored rhetorical points by characterizing Cohen as the “MVP of liars.” To his credit, Blanche also reminded jurors that no other witnesses corroborated Cohen’s testimony that Trump approved Weisselberg’s “gross-up” plan. The problem for Trump and Blanche is that there was consistent and overwhelming testimony that Trump was an obsessive, money-grubbing micromanager who would not have signed $420,000 checks marked as legal fees to Cohen without them being explained. As Steinglass put it, “If Donald Trump is auditing the invoices for his decorator, you can bet he’s auditing the invoices for Michael Cohen.”

Blanche correctly emphasized that prosecutors never called Weisselberg and others who helped run the company. Weisselberg’s absence could seem suspicious because the jury was not informed that he was imprisoned for perjury for his unrepentant loyalty to Trump, even on the witness stand in another case. Unfortunately for the defense, she undermined that point by calling attorney Robert Costello. It’s a very safe bet that it was Trump who pushed for that disastrous testimony from Costello. Jurors will consider that if the defense could have called Costello, they could also have called Weisselberg or others.

A politician-defendant like Trump who focuses his defense on the court of public opinion rather than the jury increases his legal danger. The problem for the former president is: So does a defense that fails to focus on the Achilles heel of a potential prosecution, and then distracts the jury from the prosecution’s weakest point by flooding the zone with unimportant or exaggerated arguments.

None of these errors in Blanche’s summary will necessarily hurt Trump when it comes time for sentencing. But they don’t staff.

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