May 15, 2024

An update on Trump's hush money trial.

Former President Trump appears in court with his attorneys. (Photo by Justin Lane - Pool/Getty Images)
Former President Trump appears in court with his attorneys. (Photo by Justin Lane - Pool/Getty Images)

Plus, a story about school segregation.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

Today, we are discussing the latest updates in Trump's hush money trial. Plus, a story about school segregation and an invitation to a webinar tomorrow.

Talking independent media.

Tomorrow (May 16) at 12:00 pm ET, I’ll be joining a public webinar hosted by Jane Friedman, founder of the newsletter Electric Speed. We’ll be chatting about the business side of Tangle, how the Tangle team has built a fully independent media company, and our strategies for bringing together people of all political persuasions. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about what goes on behind the scenes at Tangle, please join us! The webinar is free, and you can register here

Quick hits.

  1. In Maryland, former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) won the Republican nomination for Senate. In West Virginia, former Gov. Jim Justice (R) also won his Senate primary. (The primaries
  2. Secretary of State Tony Blinken arrived in Kyiv as new U.S. military aid began arriving in Ukraine. (The visit)
  3. President Biden and former President Trump have agreed to two debates before the election, with the first being held in June. (The debates)
  4. Pro-Palestinian protesters at Harvard disbanded after saying they came to an agreement with the university. (The agreement)
  5. A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board said the cargo vessel that crashed into Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge had lost power four times in the 12 hours before the crash. (The report)

Today's topic.

The latest in Donald Trump’s New York trial. This week, Trump's one-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified in the former president’s trial for allegedly falsifying business records, commonly referred to as the "hush money" case. Cohen’s testimony comes a week after adult film star Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, took the stand to describe her alleged relationship with Trump. Cohen and Daniels are key witnesses for the prosecution, which is claiming that Trump falsified records of payments to suppress incriminating personal information during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Reminder: The case is founded on Cohen’s claim that Trump directed him to pay Daniels $130,000 in 2016 to keep quiet about their sexual encounter from roughly 10 years earlier. In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, lying to Congress, and tax evasion and served three years in prison. Cohen also claimed he paid the publisher of the tabloid National Enquirer to kill a story about an affair between Trump and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Trump denies any sexual relationship with either woman. 

You can read our previous coverage of the trial here

Last week, Daniels testified over multiple days about her encounter with Trump in 2006, when she claimed they engaged in a sexual relationship. Although Daniels said the relationship was consensual, she also said there was a power “imbalance” between them. During cross examination, Trump’s lawyers pressed Daniels about whether she fabricated the story to extort Trump as he rose to political prominence and if she knew whether Trump directly orchestrated her payments. Daniels maintained her story was true, adding “I know nothing about his business records… why would I?”

Daniels’s presence on the stand drew the ire of Trump’s team, who moved for a mistrial midway through her testimony. Defense lawyer Todd Blanche told the judge, Juan Merchan, that Daniels’s testimony had “nothing to do with this case” and would unfairly prejudice the jury. Merchan rejected the request, though he said that some details she shared were excessive.

On Monday, Cohen took the stand and testified that Trump viewed Daniels’s story as a "total disaster” during his 2016 campaign and told Cohen to "just take care of it." Cohen also claimed he met with Trump and former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg in 2017 to discuss his reimbursement for facilitating the payment. 

During Cohen’s testimony, prosecutors presented a series of invoices and checks Trump signed to pay Cohen for legal fees, which Cohen said were fraudulent as he had not done any work for Trump at that time. Additionally, after federal agents executed search warrants at Cohen’s hotel, home and office in 2018, Cohen claimed that Trump assured him he would be protected if he remained loyal. “He said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m the president of the United States... Everything is going to be OK. Stay tough,’” Cohen said.

Convincing the jury of Cohen’s credibility is a pivotal challenge for the prosecution. On the stand, Cohen spoke openly about his past transgressions, acknowledging that he has previously lied under oath, including to Congress.

Cohen is the prosecution’s final witness, so once the defense concludes its cross examination they will present their case to the court. On Tuesday, Trump’s lawyers told Judge Merchan that Trump may testify when they present their case.

Today, we’ll explore arguments from the left and right about the latest in the trial, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left thinks Cohen and Daniels delivered strong and convincing testimony.
  • Some question whether the prosecution has done enough to prove Trump’s guilt. 
  • Others say Daniels’s testimony presents real problems for Trump’s defense. 

In MSNBC, Dennis Aftergut argued “the Trump jury needed to hear from Michael Cohen — and so far he's delivered.”

“The prosecution was laser-focused on prebutting one of Trump’s anticipated defenses: that even if he was part of a scheme to falsify business records, he had no intent to deceive voters or violate election laws, a key element of the prosecution’s case to elevate the charged crime from a misdemeanor to a felony,” Aftergut said. “Trump’s defense is further undercut by other evidence about the timing of the payoff. Daniels testified last week that Trump and Cohen’s interest in buying her story came right after the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape surfaced.”

“Given the blistering cross-examination to come, jurors are not likely to take Cohen’s word alone that Trump was behind the payoff. But there is plenty of corroboration,” Aftergut wrote. “Cohen left jurors with detail and color they will not forget when Trump’s lawyers argue — contradictorily — that the former president was not part of the scheme to pay off Daniels and that, even if he was, he did not intend to violate election law. When Cohen takes his turn being cross-examined, he can do it knowing that the corroboration of his testimony shows he has been truthful in Judge Juan Merchan’s courtroom.”

In The Guardian, Margaret Sullivan said “Trump’s hush-money case has proved he’s a low-life. Can it prove he’s a criminal?”

“Against the odds, Cohen’s testimony does ring true… What’s more, much of it has been ‘pre-corroborated’ by testimony and evidence earlier in the trial,” Sullivan wrote. “Will a jury decide that Trump’s behavior amounted to criminal election interference? That will require a lot of connecting the dots – that Stormy Daniels not only was paid off to keep quiet about the time she claims to have had sex with Trump, but that the payment was then recorded falsely in a way that violates campaign finance law. If those dots are going to be connected, it’s Cohen who must connect them.”

“Can jurors find him credible, given his checkered past? Even if they do, is it possible to make the leap to criminal violations of campaign-finance law? And could every one of them then agree to convict? That’s an Everest-high mountain to climb,” Sullivan said. “As for a jury then connecting that credibility to criminal election-law interference? And then, unanimously, deciding to convict the former president? That’s a big stretch.”

In The Los Angeles Times, Harry Litman wrote “did Stormy Daniels’ testimony help or hurt the case against Trump? It’s complicated.”

“Daniels’ testimony posed a problem by suggesting her alleged encounter with Trump was in some sense coercive. Although she testified repeatedly that she was not forced to have sex with the defendant, she also noted his greater physical size, the unbalanced power dynamic between them and her care to keep their subsequent encounters public,” Litman said. “At the same time, Daniels’ cross-examination by Trump lawyer Susan Necheles had its own problems and may have increased the jury’s sympathy for the witness.”

“A number of analysts suggested the district attorney would have been better off not calling her at all. What that analysis overlooks, however, is the jury’s natural desire to take the measure of the woman who propelled the crisis and about whom they had heard so much,” Litman wrote. “From Trump’s vantage point, the risks are keener. That is in large part because his vanity and arrogance have forced his lawyers to commit to an unnecessary insistence that he never had sex with Daniels. Consequently, if the jury credits the basics of her story, it discredits Trump.”

What the right is saying.

  • The right says the prosecution’s case has failed to show evidence of a crime. 
  • Some doubt the decision to put Cohen on the stand given his past transgressions.
  • Others say Daniels’s testimony was solely intended to embarrass Trump.

In The Hill, Andrew and Katie Cherkasky asked “where’s the crime?”

“The New York case against Donald Trump is drawing to a close, and Trump may have done exactly what the prosecutors claim — but one critical aspect seems to be missing: Where’s the crime? If the prosecution plans to rely upon Michael Cohen’s plea deal to a campaign finance violation to convict Donald Trump, they’ve severely miscalculated,” Cherkasky and Cherkasky wrote. “As the state’s case draws to a close, it seems all but certain that the ‘other crime’ they allege Trump tried to conceal is Cohen’s alleged campaign finance violation.”

“If the prosecution’s theory relies upon Cohen’s plea to this offense, their case is dead in the water. No matter what Cohen says about all the alleged conversations and agreements he made with the former president, one still can’t conspire to not break the law,” they said. “At this rate, even conflicted Judge Merchan may be forced to grant the defense’s motion for a directed verdict of not guilty if the prosecution rests on the testimony of convicted fraudster Michael Cohen — who, oddly enough, may have been the victim of an overzealous prosecutor himself.”

In Fox News, Gregg Jarrett said “Cohen's lies, lies and more lies could sink DA Bragg's case.”

“Cohen presents a contradiction about truth and falsity. In philosophy and logic it’s known as the ‘liar’s paradox,’ and it bedevils juries whenever habitual liars take the witness stand and promise to tell the truth. The paradox is this: if a liar indeed lied, then his admission of his lies is truthful. Unless, of course, he is lying about the lie and everything else. You can never really know,” Jarrett wrote. “It was on full display Monday when Trump’s one-time self-proclaimed ‘fixer’ failed to connect the accused to any cognizable crime.”

“Cohen later testified that Trump was concerned about how Daniel’s story might impact his 2016 electoral chances. Not surprisingly, that nugget is contradicted by other witnesses who informed the jury that the candidate’s main concern was his wife and family. Either way, it doesn’t matter.  Bragg’s argument is legally flawed because Trump used his own money, not campaign funds. The law imposes limits on the latter, but not on the former,” Jarrett said. “Bragg knows that he is teetering dangerously close to suborning perjury. But he is wholly committed to convicting Donald Trump for crimes not committed or fully revealed.”

In National Review, Andrew C. McCarthy wrote that Daniels’s testimony shows “Trump’s humiliation is the point of Bragg’s prosecution.”

“The point of this trial is to bruise Donald Trump politically — to humiliate him with a tawdry sexual episode from nearly 20 years ago that is utterly unnecessary to prove the charges in the indictment,” McCarthy said. “Just to remind you, the allegation in the indictment is that Trump fraudulently caused his business records to be falsified eleven years after this encounter. The encounter makes no difference to the proof of the charges.”

“It could not be more patent that Bragg is spotlighting the long-ago extramarital tryst by his party’s main opponent in the upcoming election to profoundly embarrass him,” McCarthy added. “Were Trump to testify, he’d have to address it. The ‘did it happen’ issue, even though extraneous, prevents Trump from giving testimony narrowly tailored to the charges… If the jurors believed Stormy’s version and concluded Trump was lying, they could convict Trump even though the question of whether it happened is irrelevant to the actual charges in the indictment. That could be yet another reason for Trump to opt out of testifying.”

My take.

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  • This case is seedy, everyone involved feels slimy, and I really just have trouble caring about it at all.
  • I believe that Trump had this affair, that Cohen paid Daniels off, and that Trump directed him.
  • However, it doesn’t seem like the prosecution has enough evidence to prove Trump is guilty of the crimes they’re accusing him of.

I'm trying to articulate a very weird element of this trial in a simple way, but I think the best thing I can come up with is this: Everyone in this case is just so seedy, inconsistent, dishonest, partisan, and self-interested that it’s hard to feel like justice will be served regardless of the outcome.

I’m not talking about just Michael Cohen and Donald Trump, as some readers might think. Yes, both have a long history of orchestrating shady deals and lying to the public. I’m also talking about Stormy Daniels, Judge Juan Merchan, the press covering the case, the prosecutors bringing the case — literally everyone. 

Simultaneously, I have a hard time caring about this case when the defendant (Trump) is a former president facing far more serious charges for attempting to overturn an election and mishandling sensitive classified documents. I just don’t care if he paid off Daniels, or committed some misdemeanor fraud to cover up the payment eight years ago, or even if he had the affair in the first place (18 years ago, by the way). This is the least important or relevant of all the cases against Trump, and yet it looks like it's the only one that will actually conclude before the November election. 

Here’s another element of the trial I find weird and difficult to articulate: Determining whether Trump did the things he is accused of is not the same as convicting him of a crime.

Whether Trump had a sexual relationship with Daniels and then paid off Michael Cohen to help keep it quiet is foundational to the prosecution’s case. Yet proving Trump falsified business records to cover up the payments and had intent to commit a felony is necessary for the prosecution to prove criminality. 

First, and at the most basic level, proving that Trump is an indecent enough person to have the affair and orchestrate its payoff is key to the prosecution's case. And that’s what I think is most damning for Trump: Most of the evidence points to him doing many of the things he is accused of. 

Central elements of these accusations have already been corroborated in court and by the press. Trump literally admitted that he reimbursed Cohen for the payment to Daniels in 2018, though we all seem to have memory-holed that. The paper trail is so obvious it’s actually kind of amusing. We also know Trump has participated in similar schemes in the past, as a recording Cohen secretly made of himself and his boss discussing a similar scheme related to Playboy model Karen McDougal was played in court.

Ever since The Wall Street Journal first broke this story in 2016, it’s seemed legit. And while there is no recording or live video of the trial — making it hard to read people’s tone, expression, defensiveness, or personality —  what I’ve read from press reports and testimony leads me to believe Trump both had this affair and reimbursed Michael Cohen to kill the story.

That brings us to the fraudulent business records. Central to the prosecution’s case is their ability to paint a picture of a man who was more worried about his campaign than his wife as allegations of adultery came out in the press — who would go to great lengths to kill such a story. And I think prosecutors painted that picture well. 

Daniels gave convincing and detailed (perhaps too detailed) testimony about her alleged sexual relationship with the former president. She said things that sounded remarkably similar to testimony from both Trump’s friends and foes. For example, she testified that when she asked Trump about Melania in 2006, Trump told her “Don’t worry about that. We ... actually don’t even sleep in the same room.” Michael Cohen said when he raised the issue of Daniels’s story coming to light in 2016, Trump told him “Don’t worry” and expressed confidence he’d easily find a new partner if Melania left him. David Pecker, Trump’s longtime friend, said he “didn’t hear or discuss” any concerns from Trump about Melania in 2016, only what the “impact would be on the campaign or election.”

Tim O’Brien, a biographer who has been an authoritative voice on Trump for 30 years (long before he was a president or political figure), has chimed in on this case by saying affirmatively that Trump is a “cheat, a liar, a fraud, a bully, a racist, a predator, and a con man.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement from a man who knows him well, but it is a characterization consistent with Daniels’s, and it’s exactly the kind of portrait the prosecution is successfully painting of Trump during this trial.

And yet... This case is still far from a slam dunk. In part, that’s because — as I’ve said before — Alvin Bragg is trying to stretch the law beyond reason. He is introducing a new legal theory against a former president (who’d be exempt from the charges if he hadn’t left the state, which paused the statute of limitations), he stacked the charges by separating each alleged falsified document into its own count, all when previous prosecutors saw the same evidence and chose not to bring these charges. 

Furthermore, Cohen, the star witness, is a known liar. He has lied for Trump’s benefit and to hurt him. He has lied under oath in courtrooms, to investigators in private, and to the press as a means of elevating his own status. He’s lied to Congress, to the IRS, to the banks. Yet now we are supposed to believe that this is the time we should believe his word? From the guy currently peddling a reality TV show about his own life? 

Sorry, but I’ll take a hard pass on believing much of anything Cohen says. 

And even if you take him at his word, Cohen didn’t confirm Trump intentionally committed fraud — he just testified that Trump knew Cohen was going to pay for the nondisclosure agreement and that the story would be killed. My beliefs about what Trump has done rest on a huge bank of evidence that has nothing to do with this case’s star witness, but that star witness will be key to convincing a jury Trump should be charged with whatever concoction of a federal “election fraud” or “falsified business records” crime Bragg can pin on him.

These prosecutors are trying to connect lots of sordid dots. They’ve certainly succeeded in making Trump — and everyone else involved in the trial — come off as unlikable as possible. But they’ve done little to prove the kind of crime they said they would.

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Under the radar.

Racial segregation in schools across the country has been surging since 1988. Today, the share of U.S. public schools with student bodies that are more than 90% non-white is 19.8%. In 1988, it was 7.4%. The dramatic rise in racial segregation comes despite the fact the U.S. is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever. With the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legal segregation in schools, coming this Friday, the numbers paint an alarming picture for educators and communities across the country. Axios has the story


  • 10. The number of times Judge Juan Merchan has found former President Donald Trump in contempt of court for violating the gag order in his hush money trial. 
  • $10,000. The total fines imposed on Trump for violating the gag order. 
  • 30. The maximum number of days Trump could be sentenced to jail for further violations of his gag order. 
  • 1 in 10. Since 2015, the approximate number of New York criminal cases where falsifying business records in the first degree was the most serious charge that resulted in a prison sentence, according to an analysis by Norman L. Eisen. 
  • 29%. The percentage of U.S. voters who say they would be less likely to vote for Trump if he’s convicted of a crime in the hush money trial, according to a March 2024 poll from  Quinnipiac.
  • 12%. The percentage of voters who say they would be more likely to vote for Trump if he’s convicted of a crime in the trial. 
  • 55%. The percentage of voters who say the outcome of the trial won’t affect their vote. 

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about the Biden investigation findings.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday’s newsletter was the adopted baby elephant
  • Nothing to do with politics: Inappropriate behavior led to shutting down a “portal” between New York City and Dublin.
  • Yesterday’s survey: 769 readers answered our survey on bird flu with 44% saying they’re not at all concerned. “My only concern is for a dramatic government overreach like with Covid,” one respondent said.

Have a nice day.

After an architectural internship left her unmotivated, Neriman Raim, a 16-year-old student in Cologne, Germany, switched tracks and now plans to go to a technical college for teaching. Neriman is taking part in “Kein Abschluss ohne Anschluss” (KAoA) — or “no graduation without connection” — a program that has been rolled out across the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia to help students better plan for their futures. The KAoA program has helped students find more opportunities in trades that don’t require college educations, and has caught on across Germany and is gaining attention internationally. Reasons to Be Cheerful has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.