Takeaways from Day 15 of the Donald Trump hush money trial

One of Donald Trump’s closest White House aides wrapped up her testimony Friday in the former president’s hush money trial, clearing the way for the prosecution’s key witness to take the stand on Monday.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer and lawyer, is expected to testify Monday, according to a person familiar with the case, where he will speak to the hush money agreement he helped negotiate in 2016 with Stormy Daniels and how Trump repaid him the following year.

Cohen’s testimony is the lynchpin to prosecutors’ charges that Trump illegally falsified business records by concealing the reimbursement of Cohen to keep the payments hidden before the 2016 election.

In anticipation of calling the former president’s onetime fixer, however, prosecutors introduced a slew of text messages and phone records into evidence for the jury, via several custodial witnesses.

Prosecutors say it’s entirely possible they could rest their case by the end of next week.

Here are the takeaways from day 15 of the Trump hush money trial:

Cohen is on deck

Cohen is expected to take the stand Monday, putting him face-to-face with his former boss.

He is expected to testify to his role in negotiating the hush money payment to Daniels on Trump’s behalf, as well as how he was reimbursed through retainer payments in 2017 that are at the heart of the charges against Trump.

With Cohen’s testimony implicating Trump, however, comes all of the baggage that accompanies the former president’s longtime fixer. Cohen himself was federally charged with campaign finance violations, tax crimes and lying to Congress in previous testimony.

He’s changed his story as he turned from loyal Trump defender to chief antagonist after pleading guilty to the federal charges in 2018.

His testimony in the fall during Trump’s civil fraud trial foreshadowed some of the challenges prosecutors can face having him on the stand, as he appeared to change his story about the direction he received from Trump about his financial statements during his testimony.

Cohen’s credibility with the jury may make-or-break Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case, so it will be high stakes for the prosecution when Cohen is sworn in next week.

Judge to Cohen: Please stop talking

Ahead of Cohen’s expected testimony, Trump attorney Todd Blanche urged Judge Juan Merchan to order Cohen to stop talking about the trial and Trump.

Trump is not allowed to talk about Cohen because of the gag order in place. But, Blanche said, Cohen is nevertheless allowed to attack him, pointing to a TikTok video Cohen posted this week wearing a T-shirt showing Trump behind bars.

“Our request that the court order the government to instruct the witness to not talk about president trump or this case until the case is over,” Blanche said.

Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass responded that prosecutors have repeatedly instructed Cohen and all of the other witnesses in the case not to speak publicly about it. “The fact of the matter is, we have no control over what they do,” he conceded.

Merchan has already said he cannot gag witnesses in the case. But he sympathized with Blanche’s position and said that he would “direct the people to communicate to Mr. Cohen that the judge is asking him to refrain from making any more statements” about this case or Trump.

Merchan told the prosecutors to send the message saying that it “comes from the bench and you’re communicating that on behalf of the bench.”

Cohen has posted on social media attacking Trump since the trial began, though he claimed at one point he was going to stop. Trump, often in response, has repeatedly been found in violation of the judge’s gag order for his comments about Cohen.

Trump is all smiles at testimony of former White House aide

Trump exchanged smiles with his former White House assistant Madeleine Westerhout, who wrapped up her testimony Friday that began one day prior. She raised her eyebrows and smiled at Trump who smiled back at her and mouthed something as she left the courtroom.

On cross-examination, Trump attorney Susan Necheles pressed Westerhout to reiterate that she knows the former president to care about his family.

Westerhout testified that she remembered Trump was upset after the Stormy Daniels story came out in 2018. Westerhout acknowledged on the stand that he didn’t specifically speak about his family in their conversation about the story, but, “My understanding was he knew it would be hurtful to his family.”

Westerhout testified that Trump signed scores of documents a day while multitasking on the phone or in meetings, and she said she’d seen him signing checks without reviewing them.

She also testified that personal mail like Trump’s checks used a back channel via an employee’s home address so he could get and handle them faster than if they were processed by the White House’s cumbersome system for processing personal mail.

Westerhout also distanced Trump from then-Trump Org. Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg once he took office.

“In fact, you really don’t recall any calls specifically between him and Allen Weisselberg?” Necheles asked.

“No, he spoke to so many people,” Westerhout said.

Trump’s former assistant said she’s “not even sure it’s true” that Trump spoke with Weisselberg about a check – something prosecutors have suggested in reference to the Cohen reimbursements.

Prosecutors introduce key text and call records into evidence

After Westerhout left the stand, prosecutors spent the rest of the day calling a series of custodial witnesses to introduce cell phone records into evidence.

It made for a dry day of testimony, but it also provided key evidence that prosecutors plan to use to try to convince the jury that Trump is guilty of falsifying business records.

Those records included a summary of the 34 charges against Trump – 11 invoices, 12 vouchers, and 11 checks. Through a Manhattan district attorney’s office paralegal, prosecutors introduced a summary explaining how the charges correlated with the documents in evidence.

In addition, prosecutors introduced a series of text messages between Stormy Daniels’ then-manager Gina Rodriguez and National Enquirer editor in chief Dylan Howard in 2016.

In the messages, the two discuss whether American Media Inc. would buy Daniels’ story – and for how much – before giving a play-by-play of the status of the negotiations and payment Cohen ultimately made to Daniels’ attorney in late October 2016.

The texts are notable because neither Howard nor Rodriguez is expected to testify in the trial. Some of the texts were introduced through David Pecker, who was Howard’s boss, but prosecutors used a paralegal to show more of them to the jury this week.

“We’re not doing the Trump deal,” Rodriguez texted Howard on October 17, 2016.

“Keith (Davidson) gave me a heads up. What happened?” Howard responded.

“They didn’t pay when they said they would and they keep trying to buy more time,” Rodriguez responded.

The texts corroborate what Daniels and Davidson have testified so far that the deal briefly fell apart in mid-October – and will also likely help bolster Cohen’s credibility when he takes the stand next week.

Prosecution may rest next week, but issue with former Trump Org. CFO looms

Steinglass said that prosecutors expect to call two more witnesses, and then rest. “And I think it’s entirely possible we will rest by the end of next week,” he added.

When the prosecution rests, it will be Trump’s turn. It’s not clear how long he will put on a case in defense – a question that is likely to rest largely on whether or not Trump himself takes the stand.

The judge also threw a potential curveball of his own on Friday when Trump’s lawyers objected to allowing the settlement agreement of Weisselberg into evidence.

Trump’s lawyers argued that the severance agreement was prejudicial to the jury, calling Weisselberg an “uncalled government witness” because he is currently in jail after pleading guilty earlier this year to perjury charges.

Prosecutors responded that the settlement agreement itself would help to explain why Weisselberg was not called and also argued that they expect Weisselberg to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

Merchan interjected by asking prosecutors whether they had actually compelled Weisselberg to testify, which they had not.

“It seems to me we want to explain why he’s not here without taking the effort of trying to explain that we tried to get him here,” Merchan said, suggesting they could bring Weisselberg in without the jury present to see what he would say.

Prosecutors did not seem thrilled by the idea – Trump’s attorneys noted he wasn’t on prosecutors’ original witness list – but it’s the kind of unexpected appearance that could extend the length of the trial.

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