Will jurors believe Michael Cohen? Defense tries to chip his credibility at Trump’s hush money trial

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NEW YORK (AP) — With prosecutors’ hush money case against Donald Trump barreling toward its end, their star witness was back in the hot seat Thursday as defense lawyers sought to chip away at Michael Cohen’s crucial testimony implicating the former president.

Trump’s attorneys resumed the potentially explosive cross-examination of Cohen, trying to paint him as bent on destroying his former boss’s reputation and to undermine his credibility, which could determine the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s fate in the case.

Cohen is prosecutors’ final witness — at least for now — as they try to prove Trump schemed to suppress a damaging story he feared would torpedo his 2016 presidential campaign and then falsified business records to cover it up.

Trump did not look at Cohen as he entered the room, gazing straight ahead.

The trial got off to a slow start, with attorneys halting proceedings to have several sidebar conversations with the judge out of earshot of reporters. The stop-and-start continued as Trump lawyer Todd Blanche resumed his cross-examination by asking Cohen about text messages he exchanged with an investigator for the Manhattan district attorney’s office who collected his cellphones as part of the hush money probe.

Prosecutors objected to the phrasing of several questions, prompting him to rephrase.

Trump’s attorneys also played two clips of Cohen’s podcasts over the years in which he discussed Trump and the potential charges in this case.

In the recordings, Cohen’s voice was louder, higher-pitched and much more animated than his reserved presentation in the courtroom. In one clip, Cohen could be heard using an expletive and saying he truly hopes “that this man ends up in prison.”

“It won’t bring back the year that I lost or the damage done to my family. But revenge is a dish best served cold,” Cohen was heard saying. “You better believe that I want this man to go down.”

Cohen acknowledged he has continued to attack Trump, even during the trial.

In one social media post cited by the defense attorney, Cohen called Trump an alliterative and explicit nickname, as well as an “orange-crusted ignoramus.” Asked if he used the phrase, Cohen responded: “Sounds correct.”

Pivoting from Cohen’s podcasts to his criminal history, Blanche grilled him about his 2018 guilty plea to federal charges, including for lying to Congress about a Trump Tower Moscow project.

As he did when pleading guilty, Cohen conceded on the witness stand that he lied to two congressional committees about his contacts with Russian officials and lied when he said he never agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the project and never discussed with Trump plans to travel to Moscow to support the project.

“Just related to that issue, you lied under oath, correct?” Blanche asked.

“Yes sir,” Cohen said.

With the defense not expected to call many — if any — witnesses, Cohen’s cross-examination is a pivotal moment for Trump’s team, which must convince jurors that his once-loyal attorney and fixer can’t be believed. The defense has suggested that Cohen is on a mission to take down the former president and will say whatever he needs to put Trump behind bars.

Over two days on the witness stand so far, Cohen placed Trump directly at the center of the alleged scheme to stifle negative stories to fend off damage to his White House bid. Cohen told jurors that Trump promised to reimburse him for the money he fronted and was constantly updated about efforts to silence women who alleged sexual encounters with him. Trump denies the women’s claims.

Cohen also described a meeting in which he says he and Trump discussed with Allen Weisselberg, a former Trump Organization chief financial officer, how the reimbursements for Cohen’s $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels would be paid as legal services over monthly installments. That’s important because prosecutors say the reimbursements were falsely logged as legal expenses to conceal the payments’ true purpose.

Trump, who insists the prosecution is an effort to torpedo his campaign to reclaim the White House, says the payments to Cohen were properly categorized as legal expenses because Cohen was a lawyer. The defense has suggested that he was trying to protect his family, not his campaign, by squelching what he says were false, scurrilous claims.

“The crime is that they’re doing this case,” he told reporters Thursday before entering the courtroom, flanked by a group of congressional allies that included Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., the chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.

The former president has been joined at the courthouse in recent days by a slew of conservative supporters, including some considered potential vice presidential picks and others angling for future administration roles. House Speaker Mike Johnson appeared Tuesday.

Gaetz later posted a photo on social media of him standing behind Trump in court, with the words, “Standing back, and standing by, Mr. President.” That is a phrase that the Proud Boys, an extremist group whose leaders were convicted of seditious conspiracy after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, have used since Trump, during a 2020 campaign debate, said: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”

Cohen, in earlier testimony, told jurors how his life and relationship with Trump were upended after the FBI raided his office, apartment and hotel room in 2018. Trump initially showered him with affection on social media and predicted that Cohen would not “flip.” Trump’s tone changed when, months later, Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance charges and implicated him in the hush money scheme. Trump was not charged with a crime related to the federal investigation.

Prosecutors tried to blunt the defense attacks on their star witness by getting him to acknowledge at the outset his past crimes, including lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project that he had pursued on Trump’s behalf during the heat of the 2016 campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton. Cohen admitted on the witness stand to a slew of other lies, including many he says were aimed at protecting Trump. The defense is expected to seize on his history of falsehoods to cast doubt on his testimony.

Blanche began grilling Cohen on Tuesday with questions unrelated to the criminal charges but designed to show that Cohen turned on Trump because he wanted fame and revenge. Blanche confronted Cohen with profane social media posts, a podcast and books about the former president, getting Cohen to acknowledge that he has made millions of dollars off his new persona as one of Trump’s fiercest critics.

Defense lawyers are expected to question Cohen through the end of the day on Thursday. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office has said it will rest its case once he’s done on the stand, though it could have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses if Trump’s lawyers put on witnesses of their own.

The defense isn’t obligated to call any witnesses, and it’s unclear whether the attorneys will do so. Blanche told Judge Juan M. Merchan on Tuesday that the defense may call one expert witness and that there was still no determination on whether Trump would take the stand.

In any event, the trial will take Friday off so Trump can attend the high school graduation of his youngest son, Barron.

Source: Toronto Star