• Tue. Jun 25th, 2024

Trump’s hush money trial lawyers needed to discredit Michael Cohen. Did they succeed?

Trump's hush money trial lawyers needed to discredit Michael Cohen. Did they succeed?


Donald Trump’s odds of avoiding the indignity of becoming the first felony-offending American president hinges, to a large degree, on discrediting his former fixer, Michael Cohen, in the eyes of a Manhattan jury.

But despite Cohen’s track record as a Trump hater and felon who’s admittedly lied under oath — and one with an apparent ax to grind, having gone to prison for the hush money payoff central to the case when its beneficiary went to the White House — some trial watchers believe the defense came up short.

Trump’s defense lawyer, over the last several days, assailed Trump’s longtime confidant-turned-foe on cross-examination as a serial fabulist whose word is worthless — an indignant ex-employee driven by greed, hatred, and revenge for his prison stint for paying off Stormy Daniels and being overlooked for a top job in the Trump administration.

As the sole witness to directly tie Trump to the falsified business records forming the 34 charges, which prosecutors allege hid evidence of a strategic election fraud conspiracy, Cohen’s testimony about never taking action without Trump’s signoff is crucial.

Todd Blanche, in a long day of cross-examination Thursday, interrogated Cohen about his record of perjury and reasons for hating Trump, suggesting he was motivated by vengeance.

Legal experts who spoke to The News had varied opinions on whether the defense’s primary focus on discrediting Cohen’s character — rather than his story — has been effective and which side benefits or loses from his reputation as a criminal and a liar.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche cross examines Michael Cohen in Manhattan criminal court, Tuesday, May 14, 2024.

Elizabeth Williams via AP

Defense attorney Todd Blanche cross examines Michael Cohen in Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

“Michael Cohen is a, you know, scabrous slimeball, but he’s far from the worst person prosecutors have called to make their case. They call mafia killers, terrorists, mass murderers — father rapists and daughter killers — to testify, and, frequently, the juries believe them,” veteran defense attorney Ron Kuby said.

“So, in one sense, all of Michael Cohen’s deficits, which are too numerous to catalog, boomerang on the defense because all the prosecution has to say is, ‘We didn’t pick Michael Cohen.’ 

“Donald Trump picked Michael Cohen.’”

Trump, the presumed Republican nominee for president, has pleaded not guilty in the case. His defense counters that monthly checks he signed to Cohen in 2017 paid for legitimate legal services and there was nothing inherently illegal about Daniels’ nondisclosure deal, which Blanche got Cohen to admit. Trump denies being a philanderer, with his defense saying his concerns over the allegations revolved around his family, not his political prospects.

His former fixer has testified that he last spoke with the boss he long considered a mentor just after the FBI swept through his office and Park Ave. hotel room in April 2018. Months later, he pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws at Trump’s direction, lying to Congress about Trump’s business dealings with Russia, and cheating taxes on his yellow cab medallions, receiving a three-year prison term.

Jeff Lichtman, who’s repped the likes of mob scion John Gotti Jr. and Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, thought Blanche highlighted Cohen’s checkered past sufficiently enough to discredit his claims against his client.

“What you do is you show that he can’t be trusted. You say, ‘This is what he said about what Trump told him.’ It’s obviously a lie because, what, he told the truth about that, and he lied about 14,000 other things under oath in front of a federal judge? He’s ruined as a witness. He’s completely destroyed, Lichtman said.

“I’ve cross-examined mafia killers, with 75 IQs that did better, that were less dishonest than Michael Cohen.”

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media at the end of the day's proceedings for his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to an extramarital affair with Stormy Daniels, at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 14, 2024 in New York City.

Craig Ruttle – Pool/Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media at the end of the day’s proceedings for his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to an extramarital affair with Stormy Daniels, at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 14, 2024 in New York City. Former U.S. President Donald Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first of his criminal cases to go to trial. (Photo by Craig Ruttle – Pool/Getty Images)

Cohen claimed he informed Trump he paid Daniels into silence about her claims of an extramarital one-night stand for $130,000 — during a phone call weeks out from the election facilitated by Trump’s bodyguard — as part of a task he was assigned in a “catch and kill” scheme devised in 2015 between him, Trump, and former tabloid publisher David Pecker, who the jury met first.

Kuby thought Blanche’s most effective line of questioning elicited uncertainty about the purpose of the communications between Cohen and Trump’s former bodyguard, Keith Schiller, in October 2016. Cohen, under questioning by the prosecution, identified a call log to Schiller among hundreds shown in court between him, Trump, and others in Trump’s orbit as the one where he told Trump the Daniels deal was done.

Blanche cited other phone records from the same time showing Cohen was up in arms about prank calls he was getting from a teenager. On Thursday, he said he believed both matters were addressed and that he took thousands of phone calls a year, the timestamps of which he realistically couldn’t be sure.

“One could easily believe that Michael Cohen was mistaken as to the contents of that phone call,” Kuby said. “Whether that’s going to be enough to puncture this giant edifice of Trump complicity, I don’t know.”

Cohen has told jurors that Trump’s convicted former finance chief, Allen Weisselberg, dictated the payment plan to reimburse him at a January 2017 Trump Tower meeting attended by him and Trump and that Trump reiterated he would be refunded weeks later at the White House.

Copies of checks from Donald Trump to attorney Michael Cohen from 2017, shown as exhibits by prosecutors in the hush money trial against former President Donald Trump, are photographed Tuesday, May 7, 2024.

AP

Copies of checks from Donald Trump to Michael Cohen from 2017 are pictured as exhibits by prosecutors on Tuesday. (AP)

Outside of his accounts about discussing hush money with Trump and Weisselberg, currently serving time for perjuring himself in another case, Cohen’s starring role has mainly served to corroborate testimony by other witnesses and piece together the paper trail prosecutors laid out over the last several weeks. Instead of downplaying details about Cohen’s dodgy reputation, they elicited them from most witnesses. 

Richard Serafini, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, thought Blanche’s opening tactic Tuesday — starting by asking Cohen whether he’d called him a “crying little sh-t” on TikTok — was “truly disastrous” and that the hard evidence Cohen corroborated speaks for itself.

“Everything that Michael Cohen said that is pertinent to this case is either corroborated by documents, or the documents create such that there is no other reasonable explanation for what happened,” he said.

Handwritten notes by Weisselberg's deputy, Jeff McConney, concerning reimbursement owed to Cohen that he testified was dictated by his boss. Credit: Manhattan District Attorney trial exhibitPDF

Manhattan District Attorney

A handwritten note calculating how much Cohen was owed was introduced as evidence by the prosecution.

Among the evidence is a recording of Cohen and Trump appearing to discuss a payoff to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and a statement reflecting Cohen’s payment to Daniels funneled through her former lawyer, Keith Davidson, who testified several weeks back that Cohen negotiated the deal amid the disastrous leak of the “Access Hollywood” tape threatening the Trump campaign.

The statement contains Weisselberg’s handwritten notes and Cohen’s recording of how much he was owed for an additional expense. Jurors also have invoices showing Cohen received it in installments, billing the Trump Org monthly for a bogus “retainer fee,” and corresponding Sharpie-signed checks from Trump.

Michael Cohen and Donald Trump together in 2016.

AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

Michael Cohen and Donald Trump together in 2016. (AP)

Kuby didn’t think jurors would have a hard time believing Cohen, given that most of his testimony had been corroborated by the stack of uncontradicted evidence, or that Trump’s side highlighting Cohen’s reputation for being a scoundrel would have the intended effect. 

“Almost all of the defense has focused on doing one thing, which is to discredit the witness, but the other thing that you have to do is you have to discredit the story. And in this case, it’s difficult to do because most of it is corroborated, Kuby added.

“All the bad things Michael Cohen did, he claims he did for Trump, and there’s substantial evidence to support it.”

Cohen will return to the stand on Monday as the potential last witness. His attorney declined to comment.



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