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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Trump trial deliberations begin

Former president Donald Trump, flanked by attorneys Todd Blanche and Emil Bove, at the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York on Wednesday.  (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
By Devlin Barrett,Shayna Jacobs,Derek Hawkins </p><p>and Isaac Arnsdorf Washington Post

NEW YORK – The jury in Donald Trump’s hush money trial began deliberating Wednesday morning in the first criminal case against a former U.S. president.

“You are the judges of the facts, and you are responsible for deciding whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty,” New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan said while giving the panel their final legal instructions.

The judge emphasized to the jurors that the verdict is solely theirs to make, and they should not take anything he has said or done as suggestive of a verdict. The entire panel appeared to be paying close attention to the judge, and at least one juror was taking notes.

The panel heard lengthy closing arguments Tuesday from the prosecution and defense over the 34 charges of falsifying business records that Trump is facing. The legal instruction from Merchan, also known as the judge’s charge, is the last step before the jury gets the case.

The charge is critical because it provides the jurors, most of whom do not have legal experience, with a road map of how to apply state law to the facts in this case. After more than four and a half hours of deliberation, Merchan sent the jurors home with instructions to return Thursday.

Trump is accused of orchestrating a scheme to pay hush money to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels in 2016 – buying her silence about an alleged sexual interaction with Trump years earlier, and then reimbursing his lawyer at the time, Michael Cohen, for having paid the money to Daniels.

The charges of falsifying business records are based on the allegation that Trump wrongly classified the payments to Cohen as a legal expense, rather than a campaign expense.

“Everything Mr. Trump and his cohorts did in this case was cloaked in lies,” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said at the end of his nearly five-hour summation Tuesday. “The name of the game was concealment, and all roads lead inescapably to the man who benefited most: the defendant, former president Donald Trump.”

Steinglass said the alleged conspiracy “could very well be what got President Trump elected” in 2016.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche told jurors the prosecution’s evidence was so weak that they should return “a very quick and easy not-guilty verdict.”

While giving his instructions, Merchan reminded the panel that Trump cannot be acquitted just because Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court to a campaign finance violation related to the same hush money payment. The judge also told jurors that it was improper for them to consider any potential consequence of convicting Trump.

“If the verdict is guilty, it will be my responsibility to impose the appropriate sentence,” said the judge, who on Tuesday scolded Blanche for telling jurors that if convicted, Trump could go to jail.

Merchan addressed whether Trump may be found guilty regardless of whether he was personally responsible for making false entries in records. He could be convicted, the judge said, if it was proved that “he solicited, requested, commanded, importuned or intentionally aided [another] person to engage in that conduct.”

As the judge walked the jurors through his instructions, Trump closed his eyes on and off.

Merchan explained key terms for the panel such as reasonable doubt, redactions in documents, and implicit bias. He also spoke to them at length about how to weigh witness testimony, particularly from Cohen, who has admitted to crimes and testified against Trump.

“You may consider whether a witness has any interest in the outcome of a case,” the judge said. “You are not required to reject the testimony of an interested witness. … You may, however, consider whether an interest in the outcome will affect the truthfulness of a witness’s testimony.”

During closing arguments Tuesday, Blanche insisted that Trump was not aware of the payment to Daniels by Cohen, his onetime fixer, and that Trump’s subsequent payments to Cohen were legitimate compensation for legal work.

Blanche argued that the prosecution’s entire case is built around the word of Cohen, a convicted liar and admitted thief, adding that a popular acronym in sports, the GOAT, or “greatest of all time,” could be applied to Cohen – with one change in the wording.

Cohen is “literally the greatest liar of all time,” or GLOAT, Blanche said. “He’s the human embodiment of reasonable doubt.”