Trump trial Day 18 takeaways: Fireworks on the stand as finish line nears

Much of Thursday's court proceedings in Trump's hush money trial were consumed by the defense cross-examination of Michael Cohen, his former attorney and fixer.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the end is near in former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial in New York City.

With the defense having nearly wrapped its cross-examination of Michael Cohen — Trump’s former attorney and fixer and a pivotal witness for the prosecution — closing arguments look likely to begin early next week in Manhattan criminal court.

As Day 18 of Trump’s criminal proceedings wound down Thursday afternoon, state Judge Juan Merchan laid out the road ahead in the heavily scrutinized and historic trial.

“I’m doing everything possible to avoid big breaks,” Merchan said, with Memorial Day weekend looming.

Court isn’t in session Friday, and there will be no proceedings next Wednesday.

Hashing out the remaining schedule was just one of the big notes hit Thursday. Here’s what you missed:

Fireworks over a phone call

The most gripping moment came when Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche became animated discussing a 2016 phone call during his cross-examination of Cohen — much of which was dedicated to painting Cohen as a dishonest and untrustworthy witness who couldn’t be counted on to accurately detail his dealings with Trump nearly a decade ago.

Blanche repeatedly pressed Cohen about a phone call he said he had with Trump on Oct. 24, 2016, about the $130,000 hush money payment to adult film actor Stormy Daniels that Cohen facilitated. Daniels alleged she had an affair in 2006 with Trump — which he denies.

Cohen testified he got hold of Trump through Keith Schiller, Trump’s bodyguard, to “discuss the Stormy Daniels matter and the resolution of it.”

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Michael Cohen in courtroom sketch
Michael Cohen testifies Tuesday as a Wall Street Journal article is displayed on a screen in Manhattan criminal court in New York. Elizabeth Williams / AP

Blanche noted the short nature of the call, roughly 90 seconds, as Cohen had texted Schiller about a teenager he said had been prank calling him — which Blanche insisted was the real subject of the call.

Raising his voice, Blanche blasted Cohen’s account of talking to Trump that night, calling it “a lie!”

Cohen said he believed he was “telling the truth, based upon the records and documents” he reviewed.

“We are not asking for your belief,” Blanche snapped back. “This jury does not want to hear what you think happened.”

Blanche also grilled Cohen about the circumstances of his 2018 guilty plea on a series of federal charges related to the Daniels payoff and suggested that he sought to shift blame to others for his problems.

“Do you agree with me that when you plead guilty of a crime and you are lying, that’s not accepting responsibility, is it?” Blanche asked.

“I accepted responsibility, and I am suffering the consequences as a result,” Cohen said.

Trump’s allies fill the courtroom

After days when potential Trump running mates and even the speaker of the House came to attend the trial, Thursday appeared to be the day for much of the far-right House Freedom Caucus to come and show their support for Trump.

Among them were Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz and Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Andy Biggs of Arizona.

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Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., who previously backed former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley for president, was there, as well. So, too, were Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., and Virginia state Sen. John McGuire — Good’s primary opponent.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official who’s one of Trump’s co-defendants in the Georgia election interference case, was spotted in the overflow room, sitting near reporters. Both Clark and Trump have pleaded not guilty in that case.

Trial’s end draws near

Merchan sought clarity from both the defense and the prosecution about how much longer they might need with witness testimony before they move to closing arguments. He indicated that he wanted to avoid any extended break between closing arguments and jury deliberations, noting there are several days on the horizon when court will be out of session.

Blanche said he would most likely be done with his cross-examination of Cohen by midmorning Monday, adding that the defense would soon notify Merchan of any witness plans on its end.

Blanche earlier said he might call an expert witness if he deems it’s necessary. Court documents show that former Federal Election Commission Chair Bradley A. Smith is the defense’s expert witness on file. Smith could speak about the federal election laws that relate to the case.

“We anticipate reaching a decision, at least with respect to any other witness, very soon, today,” Blanche said, adding that any additional witnesses wouldn’t be testifying for long.

One question Blanche promised to clear up soon: whether his client will testify. Trump said before the trial that he would “absolutely” testify, but he has since changed his tune, saying he would do so only if necessary.

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“[T]hat’s another decision we need to” make, Blanche said.

With that, Merchan told attorneys on both sides to be prepared to begin their closing arguments Tuesday.

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