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  /  Editor's Pick   /  From Trump Tower lobby, a gusher of falsehoods about the trial

From Trump Tower lobby, a gusher of falsehoods about the trial

Here’s a quick review of statements made Friday by former president Donald Trump at Trump Tower, in order. Some of these claims we have examined before. We’ll keep the focus on his hush money case, not his other falsehoods.

Trump was convicted on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, related to a $130,000 payment that then-Trump attorney Michael Cohen made to adult-film star Stormy Daniels days before the 2016 election. Daniels has claimed she had a sexual encounter with Trump — which he denies — and she and Cohen testified that the money was intended to keep her silent. Cohen also arranged for a $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to keep her from revealing a year-long affair with Trump — also denied by Trump. During the trial, prosecutors played an audio recording in which Cohen and Trump can be heard discussing paying McDougal.

“We just went through one of many experiences where we had a conflicted judge, highly conflicted.” — Trump, speaking to reporters at Trump Tower, May 31

Trump exaggerates. New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, who was randomly assigned the case, has an adult daughter who was active in left-leaning campaigns, including doing some work for Vice President Harris’s nascent presidential campaign, according to her LinkedIn profile, which was deleted after right-leaning websites drew attention to her work. In 2020, the judge made $35 in political contributions to Democrats, including $15 to Biden’s campaign.

In 2023, Merchan requested that the New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics decide whether these facts constituted a conflict. “A judge’s impartiality cannot reasonably be questioned based on (a) de minimis political contributions made more than two years ago or (b) the business and/or political activities of the judge’s first-degree relative, where the relative has no direct or indirect involvement in the proceeding and no interests that could be substantially affected by the proceeding,” the committee said. Accordingly, Merchan denied Trump’s request that he recuse himself.

New York’s Appellate Division last week upheld Merchan’s decision not to recuse himself, saying Trump failed to prove he overstepped his authority. “Petitioner has failed to establish that the court acted in excess of its jurisdiction by denying his motion,” the order said. “Petitioner also has not established that he has a clear right to recusal.”

“I’m under a gag order, which nobody’s ever been under.”

Trump, like anyone in the United States, has strong constitutional free speech rights. But unlike many defendants, he has repeatedly tested the limits with broad attacks on the judge, the judicial system and witnesses in the cases against him. Merchan initially imposed a narrowly tailored gag order — aimed at protecting witnesses in the case, court personnel and jurors — but then expanded it April 1 after Trump appeared to cross a line again.

A gag order has also been imposed in the federal criminal case alleging that Trump sought to overturn the 2020 election. That order, which applied to all trial participants, was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

“Just so you understand, this is all done by Biden and his people.”

False. There is no evidence that President Biden has anything to do with this case, which was brought by Alvin Bragg, a local Democratic prosecutor. Bragg inherited the file from a previous prosecutor, Cyrus Vance Jr. The tenuous connection cited by Trump supporters is that Matthew Colangelo, one of the prosecutors working for Bragg, served as acting associate attorney general, the third-ranking position at the Justice Department, before joining Bragg’s office in late 2022. But prosecutors change jobs all the time.

“We weren’t allowed to use our election expert under any circumstances.”

This is misleading. Merchan did not bar the expert, former Federal Election Commission chair Bradley A. Smith, from testifying, but he limited what Smith could say about federal campaign finance laws. He said that if he allowed Smith to speak expansively in the realm of legal opinion, then the prosecutor would be permitted to bring in its own expert. “There is no question this would result in a battle of the experts, which will only serve to confuse, and not assist, the jury,” Merchan said.

After the ruling, Trump’s defense team chose not to call Smith.

Later in his rambling remarks Friday, Trump seemed to acknowledge this tactical decision: “He actually said you can’t testify for anything having to do with the trial. You can say what the federal elections is. Well, that doesn’t help.”

“We had a D.A. who is a failed D.A. Crime is rampant in New York. Violent crime.”

This is incorrect. “New York City saw continued reductions in overall crime through the first quarter of 2024, both above ground, on streets throughout the five boroughs, and below ground, within the nation’s largest subway system,” the New York Police Department said in April. Year over year, there were sharp decreases in murder and burglary, modest declines in rape and grand larceny and modest increases in robbery and felony assault.

The crimes are “falsifying business records. That sounds so bad to me. … It means that legal expense I paid a lawyer. Totally legal. I paid a lawyer, a legal expense, and a bookkeeper without any knowledge from me correctly marked it down in the books … if I wrote down and paid a lawyer, and by the way, this was a highly qualified lawyer.”

Trump’s point is confusing but he seems to be suggesting that he relied on the advice of lawyers and thus could not be held liable. Earlier Friday, in a Truth Social post, Trump made this explicit: “I wasn’t allowed by the judge to use, in any form, the standard RELIANCE ON COUNSEL DEFENSE (ADVICE OF COUNSEL!).”

But that’s misleading. Trump’s lawyers decided not to offer this as a defense because it would have required Trump to waive attorney-client privilege. Trump did not want to do that — it would have allowed Cohen to speak about his legal advice. In a March filing, Trump’s lawyers said they wanted to keep Cohen’s advice confidential and sought an alternative, known as “presence of counsel” defense — that Trump “lacked the requisite intent to commit the conduct charged in the Indictment because of his awareness that various lawyers were involved in the underlying conduct giving rise to the charges.”

Merchan rejected that, saying Trump wanted to have his cake and eat it, too. “To allow said defense in this matter would effectively permit Defendant to invoke the very defense he has declared he will not rely upon, without the concomitant obligations that come with it,” he wrote in a March 18 ruling. “The result would undoubtedly be to confuse and mislead the jury. This Court cannot endorse such a tactic.”

“This case was dead. It was dropped by every agency, every governmental board. It was dropped by the highly respected Southern District.”

This is misleading. The federal case was dropped because of political pressure. When Trump was president, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges brought by the federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, including two — “causing an unlawful corporate contribution” and “making an excessive campaign contribution” — that directly relate to the hush money case litigated in Manhattan Criminal Court.

Geoffrey Berman, at the time the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, revealed in 2022 that senior Justice Department officials tried to remove all references to Trump. In a compromise, the language was watered down, specifically to remove references to the idea that Trump acted “in concert with” and “coordinated with” Cohen to make illegal campaign contributions.

In his memoir, “Holding the Line,” Berman says a case against Trump ended under pressure from Attorney General William P. Barr. The office, with Cohen’s cooperation in hand, began to investigate whether others should be charged in the hush money case.

Specifically, Barr asked the Office of Legal Counsel to review whether there was a legal basis for the campaign finance charges. That froze any further investigation: “Not a single investigative step could be taken, not a single document in our possession could be reviewed until the issue was resolved,” Berman wrote, saying Barr’s intervention so long after a guilty plea was “highly unusual, if not unprecedented.”

Separately, the FEC staff, in a December 2020 report by the general counsel, said it had found “reason to believe” violations of campaign finance law were made “knowingly and willfully” by the Trump campaign. But in 2021, the FEC on a party-line vote of 2-2 dropped the case. Still, the FEC fined the National Enquirer’s parent company $187,500 for “knowingly and willfully” violating election law by making a payment in 2016 to McDougal.

“They took the state and the city, and they went into a federal election. They’re not allowed.”

In shorthand, Trump is saying that the Manhattan district attorney should not have brought a case turning on federal election law. (Bragg cited a violation of state election laws.) After he was indicted, Trump sought to move the case to federal court, claiming the events took place during his presidency. That was denied by U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein last July.

“The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the matter was a purely a personal item of the President — a coverup of an embarrassing event,” Hellerstein wrote in a 25-page ruling. “Hush money paid to an adult-film star is not related to a President’s official acts. It does not reflect in any way the color of the President’s official duties.”

“When Bragg came in, he said, this is the most ridiculous case I’ve ever seen.”

Trump exaggerates. Bragg indicated skepticism of the case built by his predecessor, Vance, which focused on Trump’s exaggerations of his net worth on financial statements submitted to banks. A lengthy account in the New York Times said that Bragg believed “there was no evidence tying Trump directly to a financial fraud” and Cohen lacked enough knowledge of Trump Organization finances to be an effective witness.

But the article also says that Bragg kept working on the case, even after two of Vance’s prosecutors resigned because he halted their grand-jury investigation, and ultimately concluded that the hush money payment to Daniels “had a far cleaner narrative than the net-worth case, with clear evidence of Trump’s involvement.” So he directed his team to build that prosecution.

“When I announced I was running for president a long time later, they decided to revive this case.”

This is false. Trump announced he was running for president again on Nov. 15, 2022. But the New York Times reported that Bragg months earlier had already decided to move forward with an indictment: “By the summer of 2022, Bragg was confident that he could convince a court that these misdemeanors should be elevated to felonies. He added prosecutors to the Trump team.” Bragg at the same time was prosecuting a case against the Trump Organization, and decided they were like chapters in a book — first the Trump Organization and then Trump himself.

Trump’s company was found guilty in December 2022. The Trump indictment was announced in April 2023.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post