Michael Cohen testifies, will likely cap prosecution’s case in Trump hush money trial

Michael Cohen returned to the witness stand in Manhattan criminal court Thursday for a tense cross-examination with Donald Trump’s defense attorneys, who have been trying to paint him as a dishonest and unreliable narrator whose claims cannot be believed.

In one heated exchange, defense lawyer Todd Blanche pushed Cohen about the details of a phone conversation he said he had with Trump on Oct. 24, 2016 about the $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels. Cohen had testified he got a hold of Trump through his bodyguard Keith Schiller to « discuss the Stormy Daniels matter and the resolution of it. »

Blanche noted the call was at 8:02 p.m. and lasted 90 seconds, and at 8:04 p.m., Cohen texted Schiller the phone number of a 14-year-old he’d complained had been prank calling him. He shouted that Cohen’s account of talking to Trump that night « was a lie! » The real conversation was about the teenager, Blanche insisted. Cohen said he “believed he was telling the truth, based upon the records and documents” he reviewed.

“We are not asking for your belief. This jury does not want to hear what you think happened,” Blanche snapped.

Prosecutors told Judge Juan Merchan this week that Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, is their final witness in the often-sensational trial, which began on April 15.

Trump once again appeared with some high-profile allies in tow. His contingent Thursday included Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Bob Good of Virginia. Also spotted in the courthouse was Jeffrey Clark, a former official in Trump’s Justice Department who’s one of his co-defendants in the state election interference case in Georgia. Both he and Trump have pleaded not guilty.

Donald Trump; Michael Cohen.Getty Images

After Cohen first took the stand in the morning, Blanche questioned the former Trump loyalist on comments he made about his ex-boss on his « Mea Culpa » podcast, including that he hoped he’d end up « in prison. »

“You better believe I want this man to rot in his cell and pay for what he has done to me and my family,” he said on the show. Blanche asked Cohen if he ever boasted on his show that he was partly responsible for Trump getting indicted.

« I took some credit, yes, » he replied.

Blanche also grilled Cohen on his 2018 guilty plea to tax evasion and other charges, including some related to his work for Trump. Cohen took responsibility for those crimes at the time, but has since maintained he was pressured into pleading guilty by federal prosecutors and a judge who were « corrupt » — the same thing Trump has often claimed about the prosecutors and judge in his case.

“Do you agree with me that when you plead guilty of a crime and you are lying, that’s not accepting responsibility, is it?” Blanche asked. “I accepted responsibility and I am suffering the consequences as a result,” Cohen said.

Blanche noted that Cohen has blamed multiple people over the years for the various crimes he pleaded guilty to, including his accountant, Trump and the judge. « Yes, sir, » Cohen responded.

He also pushed Cohen on his shifting answers about whether he ever sought a pardon from Trump while he was being investigated by the FBI in 2018. Cohen told Congress he’d never asked Trump for one, but later acknowledged he’d asked his lawyer to « explore » the possibility of a pardon. He maintained his statement was accurate because he hadn’t « personally » asked Trump for a pardon.

Follow live updates on Trump’s hush money trial

Blanche’s cross-examination of Cohen began with a contentious start on Tuesday.

« After the trial started in this case, you went on TikTok and called me a ‘crying little s—,’ didn’t you? » he asked.

« Sounds like something I would say, » Cohen responded.

Blanche then peppered Cohen with questions designed to show he has a documented history of lying — and a strong bias against his former boss. Blanche asked Cohen if he’d said in the same April 23 TikTok that Trump belongs in a « cage, like an animal. »

« I recall saying that, » Cohen said.

Cohen, 57, is a pivotal witness in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case against Trump, the first criminal trial of a former president. It was Cohen who paid Daniels $130,000 in the closing days of the 2016 presidential election to keep her quiet about her claim of having had a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier after they met at a celebrity golf tournament. Trump denies her claim.

Prosecutors say then-President Trump reimbursed Cohen in a series of payments that were falsely recorded as legal expenses in a bid to hide what they were really for.

In testimony this week, Cohen said Trump had directed him to deal with Daniels’ claims because he feared they could be a « total disaster » for his campaign. Cohen said Trump assured him he would pay him back, and later told him to work out the details with then-Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg.

When news of his payment to Daniels became public in 2018, Cohen said Trump encouraged him to take full responsibility for the hush money deal, which Cohen did.

Asked why he’d taken those actions and others aimed at suppressing scandalous Trump stories during the 2016 election, Cohen said he’d done so « at the direction of » and « for the benefit of Donald J. Trump. »

Cohen is the only witness to directly tie Trump to the alleged falsifying business records scheme.

Blanche told jurors in his opening statement that Trump’s payments to Cohen were for legal work, and that Cohen “cannot be trusted” because he has a history of lying and an ax to grind against his former boss.

Cohen has acknowledged lying in the past — including to Congress, for which he pleaded guilty in 2018 — but maintains he was motivated by what was then his strong desire « to protect Mr. Trump. »

Blanche said in court Tuesday that he anticipated that his continued cross-examination would take most, if not all, of Thursday.

Court is not in session Friday in order for Trump to attend his son’s high school graduation; so if Blanche’s estimate is correct, Cohen would likely return to the stand on Monday for additional questions from prosecutors, followed by additional questions from Blanche before the prosecution rests.

It’s unclear at this point if Trump will put on a defense case. Blanche told the judge this week that he may offer some testimony from an expert if he determines it’s necessary to do so. Court filings show that the expert is Bradley A. Smith, a former Federal Election Commission chair who could testify about the FEC and its function, laws that the agency is responsible for enforcing, and definitions and terms that relate to the case.

The other possible witness is Trump himself. Trump said before the trial began that he would “absolutely” testify in the case, but has since said he’d do so if necessary. Blanche told the judge on Tuesday that he did not know if his client would take the stand.

If he does not, that would pave the way for closing arguments early next week.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted.

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