Trump trial to hear closing arguments ahead of jury decision

Donald Trump is accused of falsifying business records to repay his lawyer for a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, seen here in January 2019 (Ethan Miller)
Donald Trump is accused of falsifying business records to repay his lawyer for a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, seen here in January 2019 (Ethan Miller)

Donald Trump arrived Tuesday for closing arguments in his New York hush money trial ahead of the jury deciding whether to make him the first criminally convicted former president and current White House hopeful in history.

The defense team will start off, seeking to persuade the jury that the Republican committed no crime when he paid to bury a news story on the eve of his shock 2016 election win about an alleged sexual encounter with adult film star Stormy Daniels.

Prosecutors will get the last word. They will lay out the case that Trump falsified business records to keep the hush money payment secret amid fear that the episode could sink his already rocky outsider's bid to defeat Hillary Clinton.

The 12 jurors -- whose identities have been kept secret for their protection -- will then start deliberations as early as Wednesday, with a guilty verdict potentially triggering a prison sentence.

Coming less than six months before the November presidential election, in which polls show Trump neck and neck against President Joe Biden, the verdict will mark a new moment of extreme tension in an already unprecedented contest.

Trump, 77, is already the first former or sitting president under criminal indictment, with charges ranging from the relatively minor hush money case to accusations that he took top secret documents and tried to overthrow the 2020 election in which he lost to Biden.

The New York case, which featured more than 20 witnesses over five weeks, is the only one likely to have been completed, or even come to trial, by November 5 election day.

If convicted, Trump faces up to four years in prison on each of 34 counts, but legal experts say that as a first-time offender he is unlikely to get jail time.

Trump would almost certainly appeal and a conviction would not in any case bar him from appearing on the ballot in November.

As expected, Trump chose not to testify in his defense -- a move that would have exposed him to damaging cross-examination.

Instead, he was forced to sit and listen while Daniels recounted their alleged encounter in sometimes graphic detail and his once close personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen took the stand as star prosecution witness.

However, Trump has used his daily trips to the court in lower Manhattan to stage televised tirades against "corrupt" and "tyrant" Judge Juan Merchan, and to claim that the trial is a Democratic ploy to keep him off the election campaign trail. Polls do not show the trial having any impact on his strong support from right-wing voters.

Republican Trump loyalists, including several vying to be picked as his vice president on the November ticket, have become outspoken critics of the trial and in some cases have made the trek to the courtroom to sit behind him.

- Unanimity required -

The judge has said he expects closing arguments to take up all of Tuesday. He will then give final instructions to the jury on how to interpret the law.

To return a guilty or not guilty verdict requires unanimity. Just one holdout means a hung jury and a mistrial, although prosecutors could then seek a new trial.

Aside from Daniels, the key prosecution witness was Cohen, who testified that he had arranged the $130,000 hush money payment so her story "would not affect Mr Trump's chances of becoming president of the United States."

Trump's defense team devoted most of their questioning trying to discredit Cohen, recalling that he had admitted lying to Congress and spent time in prison for tax fraud.

In addition to the New York case, Trump has been indicted in Washington and Georgia on charges of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

He also faces charges in Florida of storing huge quantities of classified national security documents after leaving the White House.