Trump opts not to take witness stand in hush money case as testimony ends

By Jack Queen, Andy Sullivan and Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Former U.S. President Donald Trump opted not to testify in his criminal hush money trial on Tuesday, bringing his defense to a quick conclusion and clearing the way for jurors to begin deliberations next week.

Trump had stoked speculation for weeks about whether he would take the stand to defend himself against charges of falsifying business records to cover up a hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election.

By testifying, he might have sought to personally convince a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates that his aim was to protect his family from embarrassment, not bury a story about an alleged sexual encounter damaging to his political prospects.

But criminal defendants typically do not testify in their own trials as it exposes them to probing questions from prosecutors.

He would have been at risk of perjury if he lied under oath.

In defiant and rambling testimony in a civil fraud trial last year, Trump was reprimanded by the judge and ultimately ordered to pay $355 million in penalties. A similar performance in this case could have alienated jurors.

“He could tank his whole case with one outburst," retired New York judge George Grasso said in an interview last week.

Trump, 77, has pleaded not guilty to 34 charges of falsifying business records. He has denied wrongdoing and said he never had sex with Daniels, who testified in detail about a 2006 liaison she said she had with Trump.

Prosecutors say the altered records covered up election-law and tax-law violations - since the money was essentially an unreported contribution to Trump's campaign - that elevate the crimes from misdemeanors to felonies punishable by up to four years in prison.

Outside the courtroom, Trump has criticized the judge overseeing the case as corrupt, and said prosecutors were trying to hurt his effort to win back the White House as a Republican from Democratic President Joe Biden in the Nov. 5 election.

Trump's legal team called two witnesses on his behalf.

Justice Juan Merchan said jurors would return next Tuesday, following the three-day Memorial Day weekend, to hear closing arguments, with deliberations likely beginning the following day.

Trump's lawyers had asked Merchan to dismiss the case before it reaches the jury, arguing that it rests on the testimony of a witness, the estranged former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, who has a well-documented history of lying.

Such dismissal motions are rarely successful, and Merchan indicated on Monday that he was inclined to let jurors assess Cohen's credibility for themselves. Prosecutors say his testimony is buttressed by other evidence.

Cohen testified that he spoke repeatedly with Trump about the payment to Daniels in the final stretch of Trump's successful 2016 presidential campaign when the businessman-turned-politician was facing multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.

Cohen said Trump worried that Daniels would hurt his appeal to women voters if she went public with her story.

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