The Trial Still in Search of a Crime

News & Politics

Even after five weeks, the Trump bookkeeping case in Manhattan is a “Potemkin Village,” according to law professor Jonathan Turley. That means it has all the appearance of being real, but upon closer inspection, there’s no there there. Indeed, the indictment of former President Donald Trump on 34 counts of bookkeeping errors, statute-expired misdemeanors that have been miraculously spun into a series of felonies, is the Seinfeld of criminal cases. But a jury could still find him guilty. “It’s Trump,” Manhattan jurors could say to themselves. “Of course, Cheeto-man must be guilty of something.” 

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But after the prosecutors told Judge Juan Merchan that their case-in-chief was wrapped, though not officially rested yet, after Michael Cohen’s direct examination on Tuesday, there’s still confusion over what crimes Trump is alleged to have committed. It’s not a good look for the prosecutors and it’s disqualifying for a judge to allow this farce. If wizened legal minds can’t figure out the game prosecutors are playing, then what is the jury supposed to do with this smoke-and-mirrors monstrosity?

Alan Dershowitz has questions.

The running theory is that “election denier” District Attorney Alvin Bragg believes that Donald Trump stole the election from Hillary Clinton, and, to further that aim, paid lawyer fees to Michael Cohen who carried out the task of getting nondisclosure agreements from people telling bad stories and paying them to keep quiet. That part of the story isn’t illegal. What prosecutors allege is Trump knew that by putting these in the books as lawyer fees, he was committing a federal campaign finance violation. 

Related: The Space-Time Continuum You Must Live in to Believe NYC Trump Prosecutors

At least that’s what we think is going on. We’re left to wonder because the conspiracy they’ve told the jury they’ll reveal to prove fraudulent intent isn’t charged. Indeed, the case so far has shown that Trump had a hands-off policy on money issues, letting his CFO handle all of it. The case is a teetering Jenga-like mess with a sexy mattress actress and provable liar thrown in for background color. 

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Cohen, who finished direct examination by prosecutors on Tuesday, was left to do the heavy lifting to prove that Trump knew that paying him legal fees to cover his payoff to Stormy Daniels was a fraud. 

Even the MSNBC legal experts who likely hate Trump (or they wouldn’t have been asked to come on) say Michael Cohen’s testimony didn’t get the prosecution over the finish line. It didn’t prove Trump knew his payments to his attorney were fraudulently booked as lawyer fees when he knew they were campaign expenditures. 

But! But! But the checks Trump signed! the MSNBC host cried. 

Related: Cohen Made Huge Admission in NYC Trump Case and Now the Tumblers Begin to Fall in Place

As former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy explained:

The checks don’t say anything about why Cohen was paid, just that he was paid $35,000 per month, which is true. (The first payment was for $70,000 because it covered January and February 2017.)

As for the entries in the Trump Organization records, testimony at trial this week showed that the bookkeeping department logged payments as “legal expenses.” Not much thought went into this: The bookkeeping department was using a drop-down menu on a computer program designed in the early nineties, and routinely put payments to lawyers and related expenses in this general category. That aside, these were legal expenses. Cohen was Trump’s lawyer when he negotiated the NDA with Daniels’ lawyers and paid the $130,000 to close the deal. That’s an expense incurred in a legal transaction.

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Did Trump know the legal expenses were anything but legal expenses or something much more shady? Does it matter if he didn’t make the bookkeeping entry himself? Prosecutors hope jurors will think so. It is, after all, what getting a guilty verdict on felonies hinges on. 

“Prosecutors have tried to hoodwink the jury into believing the campaign violations are already established because Cohen pled guilty to them,“ McCarthy explainsHe claims that’s not admissible evidence, ”But Cohen’s guilty pleas — in addition to their foundational problems… are not admissible evidence against Trump.”

Prosecutors got Cohen to suggest that of course Trump knew they were expenses beyond legal bills, though there has been no proof shown that he did except the word of a man who is a convicted perjured and who has lied multiple times in court. Is that enough to get a conviction? 

In opening statements, prosecutor Matthew Colangelo promised to show that ”This case is about a conspiracy and a cover-up, an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of a presidential election,“ and ”the evidence at trial will show that this was not spin or communications strategy. This was a planned, coordinated, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election.“ Influencing an election by attempting to tamp down bad press is not against the law, especially if you’re the candidate. NDAs are not illegal. By putting up this skeletal superstructure of a conspiracy and the specter of a stolen election — which they didn’t charge — prosecutors are hoping for a lot of illogical leaps by this jury.

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Related: GOP Brings the Heat — and Shared Outrage — to Trump NYC Courtroom

When the trial resumes on Thursday, Trump’s defense attorneys will continue to plumb the depths of Cohen’s outsized ego. In testimony on Tuesday, which resumes Thursday, Cohen was pushed by defense attorney Todd Blanche to explain his ”obsession“ and deep anger with Trump, which, of course, goes to the motive for him lying — yet again — in court. Cohen was asked about wanting to see Trump behind bars. Cohen said he wanted the jury to make Trump accountable. Blanche asked if Cohen had a personal vendetta to get Trump convicted. ”Yes,“ said Cohen. 

When the prosecution officially rests, Trump’s defense counsel will move for a directed verdict of not guilty due to their inability to prove their moving target of a case. That will be denied and the farce will continue. 

After testimony on Tuesday, the politicians who visited the court that day were all invited to be guests at a fundraiser Trump held. He raised a reported $25 million.

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