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Closing arguments set to begin in former President Trump's historic criminal trial

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Closing arguments are scheduled today in the first criminal trial of a former president. Donald Trump is accused of falsifying business records to hide hush money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election. Both sides rested their case last week. The prosecution put 20 witnesses on the stand, while Trump's defense attorneys called just two witnesses to testify during the trial. Former New York Assistant State Attorney General Tristan Snell joins me now to discuss the next steps. Good morning, and welcome to the program.

TRISTAN SNELL: Good morning.

FADEL: So what do you expect to hear from each side today as they make their final pitch to the jury?

SNELL: From the prosecution, I expect to go back through all of the bricks that they've laid in this foundation - one by one, establish the pieces of evidence, the witness testimony, how they all interlock and corroborate one another. That's really key to this, to make sure that there's not any undue weight being placed on any one person's testimony. Obviously, Michael Cohen looms large in this case.

FADEL: Right.

SNELL: But the star attraction, the star witness here really is the documents, the evidence, the audio recording, the signed checks. They're going to walk back through all of that very methodically and show how it leads to a guilty verdict. On the defense side, I think their primary focus is going to be saying that Donald Trump was not actually the one who did all of this, that this was Michael Cohen somehow acting on his own. I think that's pretty much going to be what we hear from them.

FADEL: Now, you mentioned Michael Cohen looming large. That's Trump's former lawyer and fixer, a key witness in the prosecution's case. But, you know, the defense has painted him as a - as not a credible witness. I mean, how credible of a witness is he, especially in the eyes of jurors?

SNELL: I maintain that the jurors, any jurors, bring their common sense with them, and they're going to understand - and I think the prosecution will probably drive this home - that if you're going to be getting an inside view into some sort of criminal operation, you're probably going to be dealing with people who were there and participating in it. So I don't know that they're going to reject Michael Cohen's testimony out of hand because he was doing these things for Donald Trump, that he was in the room where it happened, as it were. I don't think they're going to write him off because of that, especially because we're hearing from all of these other people. We're hearing from David Pecker. We heard from Hope Hicks. We heard from the folks who were in the finance department of the Trump Organization.

But I think, again, critically, it's the evidence. It's the pieces of evidence, the exhibits that have been entered, the fact that we've got this audio recording of Trump discussing the payment to Karen McDougal, the fact that we've got the signed checks, all of the different hoops that they went through - the fact that they established a shell company, the fact that they used all these fake names. It doesn't look accidental, and it doesn't look like something that Michael Cohen did on his own. I think that's what the prosecution is going to go for here. And it's all about buttressing Cohen's testimony and having it be resting on a foundation that distributes the weight among all of the different pieces of evidence and all of the different witnesses.

FADEL: Now, it seems like, in your view, you feel like the prosecution has presented convincing evidence to get a conviction. But, you know, all of the defense attorneys for Trump, who's denied wrongdoing, needs is one juror saying there's reasonable doubt...

SNELL: Correct.

FADEL: ...That a crime was committed. In your view, has the defense succeeded in creating that reasonable doubt?

SNELL: I don't think that they have. But of course, again, yes, all they need is one juror, and they could have gotten that. It's possible that they could have gotten that. I think that the bar for them to succeed in the defense is actually relatively low. That's the way our system works. So it's possible that they have gotten that. I don't think that they have. I think that they failed to put on any kind of case, and I also think that they failed to do much to damage any of the witnesses that went on the prosecution side.

FADEL: Tristan Snell is a former New York state assistant attorney general. Thank you for your time.

SNELL: Thank you. 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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.