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The fate of the former President goes to the jury. Which team was more persuasive?

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Nearly two dozen witnesses and 21 days of court later, Donald Trump's hush-money trial is coming to a close. The 12 New Yorkers tasked with evaluating the evidence have listened to testimony from some of the most prominent characters in Trump's orbit, like adult film actor Stormy Daniels and Trump's former fixer, Michael Cohen. And while Trump opted not to testify, he's made sure reporters have heard what he thinks of the trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: This is really a concerted witch hunt. Very simple - everything you heard in there - this is a witch hunt. So we're locked up in a courtroom, but this guy's out there campaigning. If you go on the campaign...

But this should be an easy ruling, and it should really be - and I think it would be great for Judge Merchan to rule from the bench and to terminate this witch hunt.

SUMMERS: Now the fate of the former president goes to the jury. Today, those men and women listened to closing arguments, first from the defense and then the prosecution. They'll have to decide whether Trump falsified business records to cover up an alleged affair with Daniels ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

HARRY LITMAN: The most important thing is being able to observe the jury, and I did that really as intently as I could.

SUMMERS: Former deputy assistant attorney general, Harry Litman, has been a first-person observer over the course of Trump's trial.

LITMAN: They're a pretty fastidious bunch, kind of close to the vest. They're aware, I think, of the gravity of the case.

SUMMERS: So what does the jury think - how they might vote? Well, those are both unanswerable questions at this point. But Fordham law professor Adam Shlahet is a jury expert, and he's been following the case. He joins me now to talk about what might come next. Hi, Adam.

ADAM SHLAHET: Hello. Nice to be here. Thank you.

SUMMERS: Thanks. So Adam, we'll point out that you have not actually been inside the courtroom, but you've been paying close attention to reports of the defense's closing arguments. And you told us you were watching for two possible types of final arguments from the defense. Tell us about that.

SHLAHET: Yeah, I think there's two scenarios. One is what a white-collar criminal defense attorney would do in this case, which is a precise, strategic, very clear case theory closing argument, or the closing argument that Donald Trump wants, which is more of a scorched-earth kind of closing argument, where everyone's a liar, everyone's out to get the president. And it seems like Blanche did a little mixture of both.

SUMMERS: Say more...

SHLAHET: I think he tried...

SUMMERS: ...About that.

SHLAHET: Yeah, I think he tried to focus the case on Michael Cohen. But, unfortunately, the defense - and it's just not Blanche's fault, but the defense just didn't really have a story to tell. The closest thing they had to a story was, you know, Trump didn't know what he was signing. And if - and even if he did know what he was signing, it was perfectly legitimate legal expenses. And that's just not all that compelling. Whereas Steinglass, from the prosecution, has a very compelling story to tell.

SUMMERS: All right. I want to stay with the former president's lawyer, Todd Blanche, that you were just talking about. He said in his closing argument to the judge that he shouldn't send Donald Trump to prison over this. And Judge Merchan apparently had a pretty strong reaction to that statement. Can you explain why?

SHLAHET: Yeah, I thought that was really shocking that Blanche would say that because that is something that a first-year assistant district attorney, a first-year criminal defense attorney - they know that you are not supposed to talk about potential sentences during a closing argument or any time during the trial because the jury is not supposed to be considering what the punishment is going to be. They're not supposed to be considering what the sentence might be. They're only supposed to be considering the facts and whether or not somebody is guilty or not guilty of a crime.

So by Blanche saying that - don't send him to prison - right? - he's almost asking the jury to nullify whatever verdict they were going to give. Yes, he might be guilty, but it's not worth sending him to prison. And that's truly nullification, and that is totally improper.

SUMMERS: OK, switching gears here, I want to talk about the prosecution a bit. Broadly speaking, how would you characterize their tactics in these closing arguments?

SHLAHET: Well, it's a pretty impressive feat to try to marshal this evidence. And it's taking a long time. And the jury is going in - they're going to be staying after 5, which is unusual...

SUMMERS: Yeah.

SHLAHET: ...And they're probably a little exhausted. And I bet that Steinglass would have preferred to finish tomorrow morning. But they're soldiering on. He's going through all of the evidence. He's going through a timeline with incredible precision and detail. And he's been doing what a good prosecutor needs to do in this kind of case, which is give the jury this kind of global view - right? - a real wide-angle lens to be able to see all of the evidence and how it fits together instead of what the defense wants the jury to do, which is absolutely focus on Michael Cohen. And if you don't like Michael Cohen, you can't convict. And - yeah.

SUMMERS: I mean, Joshua Steinglass has spent a lot of time arguing that, no matter what Michael Cohen did, no matter what Stormy Daniels thinks about former President Trump, their testimonies are valid. Do you think he succeeded in making that case?

SHLAHET: Well, it's hard to know, but he certainly has given the jury enough to 100% believe that, right? I think that, first of all, Michael Cohen, I think, on the stand, did not act irrationally or unreasonably or didn't lose his temper. He was very even the entire time, very matter-of-fact. And, you know, Steinglass has a pile of evidence to support what Michael Cohen is saying. So, you know, did - is Michael Cohen lying about this and making this whole thing up and that he did this all on his own? Or are all of these people - many of whom are loyal to Trump - simply telling the truth about what happened? And that's - so that's - you know, Steinglass has a lot of evidence in his corner.

SUMMERS: You know, Adam, it's really hard for me to imagine any 12 people from Manhattan who did not know a whole lot about Donald Trump going into this trial. I mean, he is a former president. Even before that, he was a public figure, and he's currently running for the presidency. Did Judge Juan Merchan think about this jury - these 12 people - any differently because Trump was the defendant?

SHLAHET: Well, I think Merchan was kind of in an impossible situation - right? - because the idea of finding 12 people who don't have an opinion about Donald Trump, A, is just impossible. It's not going to happen, right? You could be looking for years and not find 12 people that haven't heard of Donald Trump. So Merchan decided early on that he was going to be satisfied if a juror told him that they could be fair and impartial and weigh - and just base their verdict on what happened in the courtroom. And Merchan - the 12 people in that box satisfied Judge Merchan that that was the case. But, you know, that process went really quickly. And, you know, it's hard to know what the jury thinks of this - the facts so far...

SUMMERS: Right.

SHLAHET: ...Because, you know, when everyone has this idea about Donald Trump, and everyone has a perspective, it's very difficult...

SUMMERS: Indeed.

SHLAHET: ...To look at the evidence not through that lens, right? So I wonder if they had just asked the jury - polled the jury before the evidence even started coming in...

SUMMERS: All right.

SHLAHET: ...Whether or not that would be the same verdict as that we're going to get in a couple of days.

SUMMERS: We're going to have to leave it there. That was Adam Shlahet. He's a jury expert and the director of the Brendan Moore Trial Advocacy Center at Fordham University Law School. Thank you.

SHLAHET: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9TH WONDER'S "TAO TAO LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.