Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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Michael Cohen’s Cross-Examination: A Tale of Lies, Loyalty, and Betrayal

Michael Cohen withstands fierce questioning and insists Trump orchestrated hush payments; testimony continues on Monday.

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump, and Judge Merchan in court
Sketch: Christine Cornell

The tension was palpable in the Manhattan courtroom as Michael Cohen, a key witness against his former boss Donald Trump in the hush money case, took the stand for a fierce cross-examination. Cohen’s testimony is crucial to prosecutors’ allegations that Trump was involved in the falsification of business records to cover up payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal ahead of the 2016 election.

Trump’s lead attorney Todd Blanche wasted no time going on the offensive. His scorched-earth strategy aimed to demolish Cohen’s credibility and depict him as a lying, vengeful former loyalist bent on taking down the former president at all costs.

Blanche wasted no time in going for the jugular, grilling Cohen about his well-documented history of lying. He hammered home the point that Cohen had lied under oath on multiple occasions, highlighting his 2018 guilty plea for lying to Congress and his subsequent claims he had only done so out of misguided loyalty to Trump.

“There’s no doubt that you know what perjury means, correct?” Blanche asked, his voice dripping with disdain. Cohen could only nod in acknowledgment, fully aware of the gravity of his past transgressions.

Michael Cohen Stands Firm Despite Attacks on Credibility

Blanche’s strategy was obvious from the outset: to undermine Cohen’s credibility and portray his testimony as the ramblings of a disgruntled individual motivated by a desire for revenge. He hammered away at Cohen’s well-documented history of deception, repeatedly mentioning his guilty pleas for crimes ranging from tax evasion to campaign finance violations.

Yet, despite Blanche’s best efforts, Cohen remained steadfast in his testimony, insisting that while he had indeed lied in the past, his current statements were truthful and backed by extensive documentation, records, and corroborating testimony from other witnesses with unimpeachable credibility, such as former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker.

Dramatic Clash Over Crucial October 2016 Phone Call

Michael Cohen, Todd Blanche, and Donald Trump during hush money trial
Sketch: Jane Rosenberg

The most dramatic moment came when Blanche challenged Cohen’s account of a crucial October 2016 phone call, in which Cohen claimed he informed Trump that he had taken care of the hush money payment to Stormy Daniels. Blanche presented text messages showing Cohen had been dealing with a prank call from a teenager around the same time, and he loudly accused Cohen of lying about the conversation with Trump.

“That was a lie, you did not talk to President Trump, you talked to Keith Schiller — you can admit it,” Blanche shouted, his voice rising to a high pitch.

Cohen remained unfazed, calmly responding, “No sir, I don’t know that it’s accurate. I believe I spoke to Mr. Trump.” His composure was a stark contrast to Blanche’s theatrics, a reminder that Cohen’s testimony is backed by a careful review of records and documents, not mere conjecture.

Cohen acknowledged part of the call involved the prank, but stated “I knew that Keith was with Mr. Trump at the time and there was more potentially than this.” He maintained he always immediately ran everything important by Trump, so the call would have included updating him on resolving the Stormy Daniels issue.

Blanche continued grilling Cohen’s memory, pacing with waving arms as his voice raised in volume and pace. “But now your memory is you were testifying truthfully on Tuesday. A 1 minute, 36 second phone call and you had enough time to update Schiller about all the problems you were having and also update President Trump?”

Cohen firmly defended the veracity of his recollections, though acknowledging he couldn’t recall every call’s circumstances after thousands of calls over the years. “These phone calls are things that I have been talking about for the last six years. They are and they were extremely important and they were all-consuming.”

Cohen Explains Early Lies About Seeking Trump Pardon

Blanche peppered Cohen with questions about his past lies to Congress, his shifting accounts of his tax evasion and campaign finance convictions, and his previous statements denying he ever sought a pardon from Trump.

However, Cohen largely weathered these attacks, acknowledging his past misdeeds but maintaining that his current testimony was truthful. He even conceded that while he had initially lied about seeking a pardon, it was because Trump was “dangling” the possibility at the time to keep him from flipping, and he simply wanted the “nightmare to end.” And he mentioned that he later informed lawmakers about this behind closed doors.

Throughout the day, a newly attentive Donald Trump could be seen glaring intensely at his former fixer Michael Cohen. This marked a stark contrast from earlier in the trial, when the former president appeared disinterested, even seeming to doze off at times. Trump could be seen glaring at his former fixer, no doubt stung by the devastating revelations Cohen was making about his conduct.

Trump Confirmed Plan to Disguise Stormy Daniels Payment, Cohen Says

Indeed, Cohen’s testimony has been a crucial component of the prosecution’s case, as he is the only witness directly linking Trump to the falsification of business records related to the hush money payments. While Trump himself did not physically alter the records, prosecutors argue that he “aided” the crime by reimbursing Cohen and orchestrating the cover-up of the true nature of the payments.

This is a significant legal distinction, as under New York law, the prosecution only needs to prove that Trump was involved in the scheme, rather than requiring proof that he personally falsified the records. And Cohen’s firsthand accounts of his interactions with Trump have provided powerful evidence to support this claim.

For example, Cohen testified that in January 2017, shortly before Trump’s inauguration, the then-president-elect learned about the plan to disguise the Daniels payment as a retainer agreement. Cohen said Trump confirmed the plan during a subsequent Oval Office meeting in February 2017.

Cohen’s Credibility Boosted by Admitting Past Lies

Ultimately, Cohen’s composure and willingness to own up to his past misdeeds may have undercut the defense’s efforts to completely discredit him. By acknowledging his history of lies but asserting the truthfulness of his current testimony, Cohen presented a compelling picture of a man who had learned from his mistakes and was now determined to set the record straight.

This dynamic was encapsulated in a particularly tense exchange when Blanche questioned Cohen about pleading guilty to tax evasion charges. The defense lawyer suggested that Cohen had lied when he told the judge at the time that no one had threatened or induced him to plead guilty.

Cohen readily conceded that this was the case, explaining that he had only pleaded guilty because prosecutors were threatening to charge his wife as well. This willingness to admit past wrongdoing, even under intense cross-examination, may have helped bolster Cohen’s credibility in the eyes of the jury.

Defense’s Attacks on Cohen Could Backfire

Moreover, the defense’s relentless focus on Cohen’s history of dishonesty could ultimately backfire. As the trial progresses, the jurors may come to see Trump’s decision to hire and then publicly defend such an untrustworthy figure as a damning indictment of the former president’s own character and judgment. After all, Cohen was Trump’s fixer for years.

Indeed, Trump’s own behavior in the courtroom on Thursday suggested a growing unease with the proceedings. After largely appearing disengaged during the earlier stages of the trial, the former president was now leaning forward intently, glaring at Cohen as the defense tried to undermine his testimony.

This shift in Trump’s demeanor underscores the high stakes of this trial for the former president. With the prosecution’s case now nearing its conclusion, the defense will have to decide whether to call additional witnesses, including the possibility of Trump himself taking the stand.

Either way, the testimony of Michael Cohen has already provided a damning portrait of Trump’s conduct, revealing a pattern of deceit, manipulation, and a disregard for the law that extends far beyond the specific hush money allegations. And as the trial moves forward, the American public will be left to grapple with the troubling implications of a former president who allegedly went to such lengths to cover up his personal indiscretions.