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Former assistant U.S. attorney weighs in on Trump verdict

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right, let's turn now to Randall Eliason. He teaches white-collar criminal law at George Washington University School of Law. He's also a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia specializing in public corruption cases for several years there. Welcome.

RANDALL ELIASON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. So I just want to start out by getting your reaction to the verdict - guilty on all 34 counts.

ELIASON: Yeah. Well, it's clearly a pretty overwhelming affirmation of the DA's case - unanimous, you know, all 34 counts. It was a very fast verdict. And I think it demonstrates that the prosecutors here did a really excellent job of, you know, not only putting their case but putting these false documents in a larger context of the conspiracy to interfere with the election and demonstrating why, in fact, you know, this really was an important case, that these documents that formed the basis of the charge were part of this much larger picture that included not just the hush money to Stormy Daniels but other efforts to influence the election.

CHANG: Well, I remember when we had you on this show last April, when former President Trump had just been charged with these 34 counts. You were speculating at the time about the approach that his legal defense team might take. And, well, today, now that we have a verdict - 34 counts guilty - how would you rate the defense's performance in this trial?

ELIASON: Not very highly. I think the...

CHANG: OK. Why?

ELIASON: The - I think there was - I think the defense had a shot at making an argument that would say something like, you can assume everything happened, ladies and gentlemen, if you want to about the hush money. You can assume the sex with Stormy Daniels happened, that the hush money was paid, that President Trump knew about it and knew about the reimbursements to Michael Cohen. Assume all of that's true if you want to. The state has still failed to show here that Mr. Trump himself knew about these particular false internal bookkeeping documents and that he caused them to be created in order to cover up another crime.

But instead of taking that kind of targeted approach, just focusing on the defendant's intent, they denied everything. They - everybody's lying. Everybody's out to get me, attacking, you know, Stormy Daniels when they didn't need to. They could have really not cross-examined her at all, but instead, they keep her on the stand for hours. And it seemed like kind of a scattershot approach. They were trying to poke holes wherever they could without really focusing on whether they were telling a consistent, coherent story because, you know, the defense doesn't have to prove anything...

CHANG: You're saying it was like, deny, deny, deny, deny, rather than holding everything together with one thread, one consistent theme.

ELIASON: Exactly. I mean, like I said, they don't have to prove anything. But the defense does want to offer the jury some kind of coherent alternative explanation that a juror could hang their hat on if they want to say, yeah, I think there is a reasonable doubt here.

CHANG: Right.

ELIASON: But the defense didn't do that because they didn't have any consistent theme about what really went on here, and they insisted on denying things that I think the jury thought were obviously true. And that causes you to lose credibility.

CHANG: And what about the prosecution? You talk about the effectiveness in how they told a larger-picture story. But also, I mean, they did present an overwhelming amount of evidence. What do you think ultimately shaped this verdict, persuaded the jurors?

ELIASON: Yeah, absolutely. It's just - it was a really professional job. The case seemed to go in very seamlessly, very well-organized in terms of the order of the witnesses and things like that. All told this logical story. And then, like you said, even a witness with baggage like Michael Cohen - everything he said was backed up by documents, evidence, you know, other testimony. And that, in the end, made a really overwhelming case, as, I think, is evidenced by the speed with which the jury came back.

CHANG: Yeah. And we have only about 30 seconds left, but I am very curious how you'll answer this quick question. Do you think former President Trump will get prison time - sentencing on July 11?

ELIASON: I guess personally, I'd be surprised. I mean, it's the least serious felony under New York law. He doesn't have a prior record. You know, so I think historically, if you looked at that, you wouldn't necessarily expect prison time, but there are some aggravating circumstances here.

CHANG: All right.

ELIASON: And, you know...

CHANG: OK.

ELIASON: ...There are those who say...

CHANG: Thank you. That is Randall Eliason, former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. 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.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.