Trump trial live updates: I won't 'change the law,' judge tells attorneys regarding jury instructions

Former President Donald Trump is on trial in New York City, where he is facing felony charges related to a 2016 hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. It marks the first time in history that a former U.S. president has been tried on criminal charges.

MORE: 'Are you staring me down?': Fiery moment between judge, defense witness in Trump hush money trial

Trump last April pleaded not guilty to a 34-count indictment charging him with falsifying business records in connection with a hush money payment his then-attorney Michael Cohen made to Daniels in order to boost his electoral prospects in the 2016 presidential election.

Latest Developments

May 21, 5:04 PM

In final clash, lawyers spar over retainer instructions

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass, at the end of the afternoon's pre-charge conference, argued that the jury's instructions should include that retainer agreements are legally required for lawyers to begin conducting work for a client.

Prosecutors have argued that Trump falsified records because he characterized Michael Cohen's hush money reimbursement as legal expenses pursuant to a retainer agreement. Defense lawyers have argued that Cohen was paid by the company for years and never had a retainer agreement with Trump -- or needed to.

"It is in fact the law," Steinglass said about the requirement to have a retainer.

"We don't think that's right, judge," defense attorney Emil Bove responded.

Merchan said he would review the rules before making a decision.

The judge subsequently ended the conference, telling the attorneys he would aim provide them with the final jury instruction by the end of the day Thursday so they can prepare over the weekend, ahead of the jury getting the case next week.

The proceedings will resume on Tuesday morning with summations.

May 21, 4:42 PM

Judge denies defense language related to 'advice of counsel'

Judge Merchan flatly told the defense that former President Trump could not make an advice-of-counsel argument.

The judge said the defense was being "disingenuous" by raising it now when Trump was given a deadline months ago to say whether he would invoke the defense that, in his conduct, he was relying on the advice of lawyers.

"It was concerning when notice was not given initially. It was concerning when the term was changed to 'presence of counsel.' I couldn't believe when I saw in your submission, 'involvement of counsel,'" Merchan told the defense regarding their efforts to advance that argument.

PHOTO: Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom during his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 21, 2024 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom during his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 21, 2024 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

"My ruling is the jury will not hear that instruction from the bench, nor are you permitted to make that argument, period," Merchan said.

"I am not being disingenuous with Your Honor," defense attorney Emil Bove said before he attempted to argue in favor of the defense.

"You said that already, Mr. Bove," Merchan said. "This is an argument you have been advancing for many many months. ... It is denied. It is not going to happen."

Trump, at the defense table, scribbled a note and passed it to defense attorney Todd Blanche.

May 21, 4:25 PM

Judge will keep original instructions on Cohen's guilty plea

The defense returned to the question of Michael Cohen's 2018 guilty plea and AMI's non-prosecution agreement with the federal government.

Defense attorney Emil Bove called it a "critical issue" the jury could infer Trump's guilt based on his association with Cohen and AMI executive David Pecker.

Prosecutor Josh Steinglass called the curative language the defense suggested "outrageous," and Judge Merchan said he would stick to what he told the jury during the evidentiary phase of the trial: That the guilty plea of Cohen and the non-prosecution agreement of AMI could be used to judge witness credibility -- but could not be used as an inference of the defendant's guilt.

May 21, 4:18 PM

Defense seeks clarification on effect of 'Access Hollywood' tape

Defense lawyers asked Judge Merchan to include an instruction for jurors that clarifies how prominent Republicans and members of the public reacted to the release of the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape.

Witnesses like Trump aides Hope Hicks and Madeleine Westerhout testified about the effect of the video, which led prominent Republicans like John McCain withdrawing their endorsement of Trump and the Republican National Committee considering finding a new candidate.

Prosecutors pushed back on the defense request, describing it as "confusing" and "unnecessary."

"The nature of the reaction by the Republican Party by other prominent Republican senators by other members of the public -- the fact that was the reaction -- had an impact on the listener being the defendant," prosecutor Josh Steinglass argued.

Prosecutors have argued that the immense public backlash to the Access Hollywood motivated Trump to kill the Stormy Daniels story in the days before the election.

Judge Merchan said he would review the relevant portions of the transcript before making a decision, but said he was inclined to agree with the state, suggesting the proposed instruction would be denied.

May 21, 4:14 PM

Attorneys hash out additional jury instructions

Following a break, Judge Merchan told the parties that he had worked through his own notes and asked the lawyers for each side to weigh in on what he might have missed.

The defense sought an instruction about former President Trump regarding bias.

"We don't think that this is necessary, this charge," prosecutor Josh Steinglass said in response. "I don't think instructing the jury that they shouldn't hold bias against the defendant is necessary -- voir dire has satisfied this problem, I think."

The defense also sought an instruction that hush money payments are not inherently illegal. Prosecutors opposed it, arguing the request amounts to the judge making the defense argument for them.

Defense attorney Emil Bove also asked for an instruction that "hush money is not illegal."

"What the defense is asking," Colangelo responded, "is for you to make their argument for them."

The judge agreed with Colangelo, saying that including that language would be "taking it too far."

"I don't think it's necessary," Merchan said.

May 21, 4:00 PM

Defense argues Cohen's tax crime isn't relevant

Defense attorney Emil Bove argued that the jury should not consider Michael Cohen's tax crimes as one of the crimes Trump advanced by allegedly falsifying business records when he repaid Cohen for the Stormy Daniels hush payment.

Bove argued that Cohen was unaware of the alleged tax crimes when then-Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg "grossed up" his reimbursement to accommodate for taxes on the payment.

Cohen testified he did not think of the tax law at the time, telling jurors, "I just wanted to get my money back."

May 21, 3:53 PM

I won't 'change the law,' judge tells defense regarding jury charge

Defense attorney Emil Bove tried to make the argument that this particular case is unusual because Trump is not a typical defendant.

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo responded that's precisely why the standard language should be used.

"No one is above the law," he said.

Judge Merchan settled the matter and ruled against the defense.

"I understand what you mean when you say it's an important case," he said. "But what you're asking me to do is to change the law, and I'm not going to do that."

May 21, 3:44 PM

Parties argue about Trump's presence at 2015 meeting

Discussing the August 2015 meeting in Trump Tower where prosecutors say Trump, Michael Cohen and then-National Enquirer publisher David Pecker agreed to the criminal conspiracy, defense attorney Emil Bove argued Trump's "mere presence" at a 2015 meeting at Trump Tower with David Pecker and Michael Cohen where the alleged conspiracy was hatched "could very much be part of the defense here."

Bove said "there's nothing criminal about that at all," despite prosecutors arguing it's where the catch-and-kill scheme originated.

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo argued there is no way the jury could interpret the meeting as a "high minded conversation about democracy."

May 21, 3:48 PM

Merchan rules state doesn't have to prove 2 separate intents

The defense failed to convince Judge Merchan to add a layer of intent that prosecutors have to prove.

Merchan told the parties he was "concerned about" a proposed addition by defense attorneys related to Trump's intent to defraud.

The defense proposed including an instruction that the state "must establish beyond a reasonable doubt two separate intents" for Trump to commit crimes -- for both falsifying records and the other crime Trump furthered with the falsification.

PHOTO: Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom during his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 21, 2024 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom during his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 21, 2024 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

"This proposed language is just inconsistent with the text of the statute," prosecutor Matthew Colangelo argued.

Merchan said he was inclined to use the standard instruction, excluding the proposed defense addition.

"That second level of intent ... is incorporated by reference to the first," Merchan said.

May 21, 3:15 PM

Judge reserves decision on 'accomplice liability'

The debate over jury instructions turned to the definition of "accomplice liability."

Prosecutors argued that jury should be told that Trump can be convicted because he caused false leger entries to be created by Trump Organization employees Jeff McConney and Deb Tarasoff.

Prosecutors said it's a necessary instruction because the defense argued in opening statements that Trump himself did not enter accounting records.

Merchan reserved his decision about "accessorial liability" but said he was inclined to strike the proposed language related to the issue from the final charge.

As the lawyers continue their debate, Trump is flipping through a three-inch stack of papers, some of which appear to be press clippings.

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