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Prosecutors rest their case against Trump in the hush money case. Now it's his turn

Former President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before entering the courtroom with his attorney Todd Blanche (R) at Manhattan criminal court in New York City, on Monday.
Dave Sanders
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Former President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before entering the courtroom with his attorney Todd Blanche (R) at Manhattan criminal court in New York City, on Monday.

Updated May 20, 2024 at 16:56 PM ET

NEW YORK — Michael Cohen, a former Trump loyalist, finished testifying in a Manhattan criminal trial on Monday, his fourth day on the stand. Prosecutors have been aiming to rehabilitate Cohen as a trustworthy witness in the eyes of the jury.

The culmination of his testimony has meant the end of the prosecutors' case, and it is now time for Donald Trump's defense.

The duration of Trump's own defense is not known, though they have already begun calling witnesses. Their first witness on the stand is paralegal Danny Sitko from Blanche Law, a firm founded by Trump lawyer's in the case, Todd Blanche. Sitko testified to phone call records for one of Cohen's phones. The second witness is Robert Costello, an attorney for Trump ally and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Cohen testified last week that Costello reached out to him following a 2019 FBI raid on his home and office. But Cohen said he didn't trust him, noting that he didn't believe he could confide in him about the deal to silence adult film star Stormy Daniels about an alleged affair with Trump ahead of the 2016 election without it getting back to Giuliani or Trump.

Costello previously testified before the grand jury that first indicted Trump last year. Costello testified on Monday to speaking with Cohen after the FBI raid, and said that Cohen told him he made payments to Daniels "on his own." Cohen has testified those payments came at Trump's direction, a premise central to the prosecution's case.

But Costello's testimony didn't get far before tensions in the courtroom got high: He rolled his eyes at several sustained objections in favor of prosecutors and said "jeez" audibly in the mic. Judge Juan Merchan asked the jury to step out while he reminded Costello: "You don't say jeez. You don't give me any side eye."

After a brief conversation out of sight of the press, Costello's testimony continued. Blanche questioned whether or not he pressured Cohen to do anything. Costello said no.

When questioned by prosecutors, Costello testified that he believed "Cohen was putting on quite a show." Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger questioned Costello over whether or not he would have personally benefited from taking Cohen on as a client in 2019. Costello denied feeling that way. His testimony is expected to continue on Tuesday.

Trump could still testify in his defense, as he originally vowed to, though he didn't answer reporters' questions Monday morning over whether that was still his plan.

Prosecutors for the Manhattan district attorney allege Trump committed 34 felony counts of falsified business records — and Cohen is central to proving it.

A photo nearly pauses the trial

Prosecutors on Monday afternoon said they had a photo that showed Trump was with his bodyguard Keith Schiller one key night in October 2016. That photo was taken close to the time that Cohen said he spoke with Trump on Schiller's phone for just over a minute specifically about a deal to be made with adult film star Stormy Daniels. This phone call was alsoat the center of the defense's questioning of Cohen's memory and credibility. Last week Blanche brought into evidence text messages that showed Cohen and Schiller texting about a 14-year-old who Cohen said had been harassing him.

Trump's lawyers objected to the photo being introduced as evidence, arguing that a former witness who works for C-SPAN was questioned on the witness stand about the authenticity of other videos and audio, but not this one. Merchan supported their argument, which led prosecutors to scramble to reach C-SPAN for immediate travel plans. Merchan told the court that he would be willing to stop proceedings and resume questioning on Tuesday morning.

After a short deliberation, Trump's legal team opted to allow the photo into evidence and to proceed — without needing to call the witness back.

The C-SPAN witness in question was Robert Browning, executive director for archives for C-SPAN, who first briefly testified within the first week of the trial. He verified two 2016 Trump campaign clips and one 2017 press conference clip where Trump called Cohen a talent lawyer.

Michael Cohen continues his testimony into a second week

Monday's court session began with Trump lawyer Blanche picking up his cross-examination of Cohen from last week. He questioned whether Cohen would have had a legal retainer to perform legal work for Trump, his family and his organization. Trump argues that the payments to Cohen were simply him paying his own lawyer.

Cohen testified that he has not had retainers with Trump. Blanche questioned Cohen about his features in multiple media outlets, and a farewell email to the Trump Organization, announcing his incoming role as "personal attorney to the President of the United States." They also discussed legal work that Cohen did for Trump, including legal filings, and for then-first lady Melania Trump.

"Did you view this as part of your job?" Blanche asked.

"Yes, sir," Cohen said, agreeing it was his job to be President Trump's lawyer.

On Thursday, Blanche also walked through Cohen's history of perjury, including lying to Congress and federal investigators. On Tuesday last week, Blanche questioned Cohen's motivations against Trump and about his recent profiting off of merchandise promoting Trump being put in jail.

Last week Blanche questioned Cohen aboutpast testimonies related to that case before Congress in 2019, while under oath at the Southern District Court of New York and during Trump's civil fraud trial in the fall. In those examples, Blanche was highlighting shifting statements from Cohen.

"I accepted responsibility and I suffered the consequences," Cohen said last week, while also recalling that he testified in October that he falsely plead guilty to the tax evasion charges.

Prosecutors then questioned Cohen about his campaign finance violation

In 2018 Cohen pleaded guilty to various crimes, including violating federal campaign finance laws by issuing the payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels. When given the chance to question Cohen for a second time once the cross-examination was over, prosecutor Hoffinger asked Cohen about that plea. This followed Blanche's questioning during which Cohen admitted to lying on the stand in that trial.

She asked Cohen if this instance of testifying under oath varied from in 2018, aimed at addressing why Cohen may have lied then and may not be now.

"The other one, my life was on the line. I was the defendant in that case," Cohen said.

And when asked about 11 invoices Cohen submitted in 2017, he said it was false that they were for legal services rendered as they had been submitted. He also testified that it was false that the payments were for any legal work done during the months they were issued.

Hoffinger also asked Cohen if the circumstances around the nondisclosure agreement with Daniels was, as Blanche phrased it last week, "perfectly legal" — Cohen said it wasn't. Blanche's questioning last week focused on how these agreements are legal.

Prosecutors have spent weeks setting up Cohen's corroboration of Trump's knowledge of the 34 allegedly falsified documents. But they also set him up as someone bullish, unlikeable and self-interested. At the same time, the defense and Trump himself have long attacked Cohen's credibility.

The jury has so far listened to four weeks of testimony, including from Daniels herself last week. Jurors have also heard from former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, who first testified to the details of the deals made to flag potentially damaging stories to Cohen and Trump. And jurors heard from Keith Davidson, the lawyer who negotiated the nondisclosure agreements and settlement payments for Daniels and former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal. McDougal is not expected to be called to testify.

Trump keeps campaigning

Trump has pleaded not guilty, and he has denied allegations of extramarital affairs, though he has acknowledged the payments were made.

While the criminal trial nears an end, the presumptive GOP nominee also continues balancing court appearances with campaign events. On Thursday, following an expected day in court, Trump will be hosting a rally in the South Bronx.

Former President Donald Trump appears in court during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan criminal court on Monday.
Dave Sanders / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump appears in court during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan criminal court on Monday.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.