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Echoing Their Client, Trump’s Lawyers Pursue an Absolutist Defense

Donald J. Trump is a thrice-married man accused of covering up a sex scandal with a porn star after the world heard him brag about grabbing women by their genitals.

But when Mr. Trump’s lawyers presented him to a jury at his criminal trial in Manhattan this week, they emphasized another dimension: “He’s a husband. He’s a father. And he’s a person, just like you and just like me.

This half-hour opening statement summarizes the former president’s influence on his lawyers and their strategy. It reflects Mr. Trump’s specific contribution, people with knowledge of the matter said, and it echoes his absolutist approach to his first criminal trial.

And although defendants often provide feedback to their attorneys, this highly involved client could paralyze them.

Others might acknowledge their personal failings so their lawyers can focus solely on the gaps in the prosecution’s evidence — on TV, it’s often a version of “My client may not be a nice guy, but He’s not a criminal.”

But this age-old tactic is not available to a defendant who is also the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, a man who despises weakness and is allergic to anything except the praise of those around him. Mr. Trump’s legal strategy therefore reflects his political arguments, with his lawyers describing the case as an unfair attack on the former president’s character.

Since being indicted in Manhattan, Mr. Trump has questioned the very idea that anything untoward had happened, deploying a mantra: “no crime.” His lead attorney, Todd Blanche, followed that pattern in his opening statement, asking jurors: “What is a crime?” and sprinkled in other Trump-esque phrases, including that the former president had “built a very large, successful business.”

People in Mr. Trump’s legal orbit have privately observed that efforts to humanize him might be difficult to convince a jury in New York, his hometown, where his presidency was wildly unpopular and his sexual dalliances were controversial. headlines.

But as the trial moves forward in the coming weeks, legal experts say, the defense team will have to walk a fine line to placate its two audiences: 12 jurors and a single defendant.

“Judging the case by your client’s vanity, rather than before the jury, is a losing game,” said J. Bruce Maffeo, a former federal prosecutor.

Despite their client’s whims and wishes, Mr. Trump’s lawyers deployed conventional tactics to pierce the prosecution’s central charge, that he falsified records to conceal a secret payment to the star. Stormy Daniels porn. And the lawyers, renowned as experienced litigators, some former prosecutors themselves, seem to have scored points.

Mr. Blanche, the lawyer who gave the opening statement, urged the jury to “use common sense,” arguing that Mr. Trump is accused of falsifying the kind of administrative documents a president would never take. worth touching. He also noted that the prosecution’s star witness is a criminal and an “admitted liar.” And Mr. Blanche’s colleague, Emil Bove, questioned the first prosecution witness on Friday, highlighting a potential inconsistency in his account.

Such traditional techniques can be effective without harming Mr. Trump’s image. Roland G. Riopelle, another former prosecutor, who spent three decades as a defense attorney, noted that “part of being a lawyer and being in a service business is about pleasing the client — and I’m sure this customer is difficult to please.”

Mr. Trump is known to be temperamental and prone to outbursts. Privately, he talked down lawyers in many of his cases, even questioning their entire strategy just minutes before they appeared in court, say people who have seen him in action.

And in the courtroom during two recent civil trials, he harassed lawyers, ordering them to object at inopportune moments, muttering grievances in their ears and twice walking away from the defense table . One day, Mr. Trump urged his lawyer, Alina Habba, to “stand up” as he backhanded her arm.

These cases ended in defeat. The judges said bluntly that the former president’s conduct in the courtroom — and his refusal to accept responsibility — had only hurt him. The judge overseeing a civil fraud case brought against Mr. Trump and his company wrote that the defendants’ “complete lack of contrition” “borders on the pathological.”

Inside the criminal courthouse, Mr. Trump was more demure and quiet, except for one episode during jury selection that drew a rebuke from the judge. Mr. Blanche also seems to resist certain interjections from his client; When Mr. Trump tapped Mr. Blanche on the shoulder at the defense table, he shook his head and brushed the former president aside.

The harassment is not surprising from a man who values ​​control and is not used to sitting still. And Mr. Trump, whose procedural streak has propelled him in and out of courtrooms for decades, knows more about legal procedures than the average defendant.

But he’s not exactly a master of procedure, and this case presents a unique test for an armchair litigator: After years of chasing and fighting, this is his first criminal trial. With three other criminal cases against him mired in delays, this may be the only one he faces before Election Day, underscoring the stakes of the procedure.

Mr. Trump, who faces up to four years in prison, is charged with 34 counts, one for each record he is accused of tampering with.

Prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office have, for now at least, the upper hand, benefiting from a salacious set of facts, an internal witness list and a pool of jurors drawn from one county mostly Democratic.

This week, they took testimony from former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, who said he and Mr. Trump orchestrated a plot to cover up sex scandals that could have derailed his 2016 presidential campaign. Mr Pecker told the jury how he bought and buried a story about a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, who claimed she had an affair with Mr Trump, and helped trigger the reward for Ms Daniels.

Under cross-examination, Mr. Bové suggested that the prosecution’s case strained credulity and suggested that the former publisher, rather than do something as grandiose as conspiring with a candidate for president, conducted business as usual: paying sources and making coverage decisions that benefited his magazines.

Mr. Blanche offered a similar “nothing to see here” defense during the opening statement. “They added something sinister to this idea, like it was a crime,” he said of the conspiracy allegation. “You will learn that is not the case.”

At its climax, Mr. Blanche’s opening statement took aim at Michael D. Cohen, the star prosecution witness who paid Ms. Daniels hush money in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign, silencing her story of sexual encounter with Mr. Trump. . Mr. Cohen is expected to testify that he acted on Mr. Trump’s instructions to avoid harming his campaign. And when Mr. Trump reimbursed him for the secret $130,000 payment, Mr. Cohen will likely say, the former president authorized his company to falsify internal records to conceal the true nature of the reimbursement.

Mr. Blanche questioned Mr. Cohen’s credibility in his opening statement, pointing out that the former fixer had previously pleaded guilty to federal crimes, including for his role in paying the hush money. He described Mr. Cohen as an “obsessed” former employee seeking revenge, arguing that he, not Mr. Trump, was responsible for the files.

Mr. Blanche also cast doubt on Ms. Daniels, calling her a paycheck-seeking opportunist. He argued that if she testified, it would be nothing more than a distraction, since she was not involved in the false records at the heart of the case.

“She knows nothing about the 34 counts in this case,” he told the jury during his opening statement. “His testimony, although salacious, is immaterial.”

But Mr Blanche went further and denied that Mr Trump had sex with Ms Daniels, echoing a claim his client has consistently made since the story first became public when he was president. Mr. Blanche also accused Ms. Daniels of trying to extort Mr. Trump, prompting an objection from prosecutors that was upheld by the judge.

“There were all sorts of salacious allegations flying around about President Trump, and it was damaging to him and his family,” he said.

This argument could be useful during the election campaign, but it could harm the credibility of the defense in court.

Whether Mr. Trump and Ms. Daniels had sexual relations is irrelevant to the underlying charges, legal experts said, pointing out that the defense’s efforts to portray Mr. Trump as a father might not resonate with the jury, which includes five women and two lawyers.

During his opening speech, Mr. Blanche somewhat awkwardly explained to the jury that Mr. Trump’s lawyers call him President Trump because “it’s a title he earned because he was our 45th president “.

“Todd Blanche is an experienced enough lawyer to know that starting with a homily about his client and describing him as a family man is not likely to resonate with a New York jury,” Mr. Maffeo said. , the former federal prosecutor.

In the hallway outside the courtroom on Friday, Mr. Trump wished his wife, Melania, a happy birthday and said he would travel to Florida to spend the evening with her.

“It would be nice to be with her, but I’m in a courthouse for a rigged trial,” he added.

He ignored several questions from reporters, including what he was doing for his wife’s birthday and whether he had cheated on her with Ms McDougal.

Kate Christobek reports contributed.

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jack colman

With a penchant for words, jack began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class. After interning at the New York Times, jack landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim. Though writing is his passion, jack also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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