Jury begins deliberations in Trump criminal hush money trial

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By Luc Cohen, Jack Queen and Andy Sullivan

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Jurors in Donald Trump’s criminal hush money trial began deliberations on Wednesday, retreating behind closed doors to weigh the evidence and testimony they have heard and seen over the last five weeks.

It was far from certain how long jurors might take to reach a verdict in the first criminal trial of a U.S. president.

Trump, 77, is charged with falsifying business documents to cover up a hush money payment to a porn star shortly before the 2016 presidential election. He has pleaded not guilty and denies wrongdoing.

“Mother Teresa could not beat these charges,” he told reporters outside the courtroom, referring to the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate. “The whole thing is rigged.”

Shortly before deliberations began, the judge overseeing the trial told jurors that they cannot rely solely on the testimony of star witness Michael Cohen, who played a central role in the hush money payment at the heart of the case.

Justice Juan Merchan told jurors to apply extra scrutiny to Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, because he testified he was directly involved in Trump’s alleged effort to cover up the payment to porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election.

“Even if you find the testimony of Michael Cohen to be believable, you may not convict the defendant solely on that testimony unless you find it was corroborated by other evidence,” Merchan said.

Merchan’s comments were part of his detailed instructions to the 12 jurors and six alternates who have sat silently in a New York courtroom for weeks while prosecutors laid out their case and Trump’s lawyers tried to knock it down.

“You must set aside any personal opinions or bias you might have in favor of or against the defendant,” Merchan said.

A guilty verdict could upend the 2024 presidential race, in which Trump, the Republican candidate, is seeking to take back the White House from Democratic President Joe Biden in the Nov. 5 election.

Merchan’s instructions underlined the pivotal role played by Cohen, who was Trump’s lawyer and fixer for roughly a decade before they had a falling out.

Cohen testified that he paid $130,000 out of his own pocket to prevent Daniels from telling voters about the alleged sexual encounter with Trump that she says took place 10 years before the 2016 election.

Cohen testified that Trump approved the payoff and agreed after the election to a plan to reimburse Cohen through monthly installments disguised as legal fees.

Trump’s lawyers have argued that jurors cannot rely on Cohen, a convicted felon with a long track record of lying, to tell the truth.

“He is literally the greatest liar of all time,” Trump lawyer Todd Blanche toll jurors on Tuesday.

In his closing argument on Tuesday, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass walked jurors through voice messages, emails and other documents that he said backed up Cohen’s testimony.

Prosecutors from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office say the Daniels payment could have contributed to Trump’s 2016 victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton by keeping an unflattering story out of the public eye.

“We’ll never know if this effort to hoodwink the American voter impacted the election,” Steinglass told jurors on Tuesday.

Prosecutors face the burden of proving Trump’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard under U.S. law.

A conviction will not prevent Trump, from trying to take back the White House. Nor will it prevent him from taking office if he wins.

Opinion polls show Trump and Biden locked in a tight race. But Reuters/Ipsos polling has found that a guilty verdict could cost Trump support among independent and some Republican voters.

A verdict of not guilty would remove a major legal barrier, freeing Trump from the obligation to juggle court appearances and campaign stops. If convicted, he would be expected to appeal. Trump faces three other criminal prosecutions, but they are not expected to go to trial before the Nov. 5 election.

Biden campaign officials say any verdict will not substantially change the dynamics of the election.

(Reporting by Jack Queen and Luc Cohen in New York and Andy Sullivan in Washington; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Howard Goller)

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