Donald Trump’s Lawyers Might Have Made a Huge Mistake

The ex-president’s companies are on trial for tax fraud. Defense attorneys just made the case all about Trump.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File

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During closing arguments on Thursday in the criminal tax fraud case against Donald Trump’s companies, Trump’s attorneys did their best to blame everyone but Trump himself. They told the jury that the alleged fraud was the fault of rogue employees, some of whom had been employed by the Trump family for decades. But after laboring for weeks inside a Manhattan court room to minimize mention of their famous client, attorneys for both Trump-owned companies on trial invoked the former president’s name and discussed his role, which, they insisted, was minimal.

That may have been a major tactical error.

Trump’s companies—not Trump himself—are the defendants in the case. But as soon as prosecutor Joshua Steinglass started his own closing statement, he went straight at Trump, personally. “Donald Trump knew exactly what was going on with his top executives,” Steinglass told the jury. His closing was then paused for the evening, set to resume on Friday morning with what Steinglass told the jury will include much more detail about Trump’s role in the alleged tax fraud. The cliffhanger elicited furious protests from Trump’s attorneys, who reiterated as they had throughout the trial that everyone, including the judge and prosecutors, had agreed that Donald Trump the person was not on trial.

But Judge Juan Merchan swatted down that objection, telling Trump’s team late Thursday that they were the ones who had opened the door to direct focus on the former president. “It was the defense who invoked the name Donald Trump numerous times,” Merchan said. 

That was one of a several apparent errors Trump’s defense team made on Thursday, and it set up a potentially dramatic close to the trial when Steinglass finishes his closing statement on Friday. Trump’s attorneys, who have already spoken, will have no opportunity to argue back. 

Their final defense argument started on a rocky note Thursday when they began showing jurors a series of slides that were described as quotes from the trial transcripts of key testimony delivered by witnesses. But following an objection from Steinglass, it turned out that not all of those quotes were accurate. In fact, at least one shown to jurors was something that prosecutors had previously objected to and that Merchan had agreed was to be removed from the official transcript. However, the only thing the defense team had actually removed from the passage before presenting it to jurors was the prosecutor’s objection and the judge’s words agreeing with that objection.

“It’s problematic, and I don’t fault people for being upset about this,” Merchan told defense attorney Susan Necheles, who has represented the Trump Organization in the trial. Necheles was allowed to edit her statement, but throughout the day continued to get scolded by Merchan for repeatedly crossing boundaries of what the attorneys were allowed to tell the jury. 

The case centers on millions of dollars in fringe benefits paid to top Trump Organization employees—benefits like cars, apartments, and even envelopes of cash—that prosecutors say the company provided instead of paying salary. That set-up allowed the company to pay employees more without the employees having to pay income taxes on the benefits, according to the prosecution. This summer, Trump’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, pleaded guilty to 15 counts of tax fraud, admitting that he lied on his tax returns about compensation he received from the Trump Organization; he promised to testify against the company but not Donald Trump personally, in exchange for a lighter jail sentence. Weisselberg will be sentenced following the conclusion of this trial, but if prosecutors say he cooperated with their case, they will recommend five months in jail—likely to be served at New York City’s Riker’s Island jail—for the 75-year-old.

Trump’s attorneys used their closing statements to blame all the wrongdoing in the case on Weisselberg and an outside accountant, Donald Bender, who helped prepare the company’s taxes. According to Necheles and fellow Trump attorney Michael van der Veen, who represents Trump Payroll Corp.—one of several hundred subsidiaries of Trump’s business empire—Weisselberg is a confessed tax cheat, and it’s all on him.

“Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg,” van der Veen repeatedly told the jury. 

Both Necheles and van der Veen tried to belittle Weisselberg and Bender, accusing them of greed and—particularly in Bender’s case—incompetence. Both lawyers mockingly mimicked Bender’s voice on the stand.

Jurors seemed unimpressed, watching stone-faced or with expressions of boredom as the attorneys made their case.

On Friday, Steinglass will continue his closing argument. Jurors will begin deliberations on Monday.

Correction, December 2: Judge Juan Merchan’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.

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