A challenging key witness in Donald Trump’s hush money trial

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Michael Cohen, former lawyer for Donald Trump, leaves after attending the Trump Organization civil fraud trial in the New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City on October 24, 2023.

Jeenah Moon | Reuters

He once said he would take a bullet for Donald Trump. Now Michael Cohen is prosecutors’ biggest legal weapon in the former president’s hush-money trial.

But as Trump’s enemy-turned-fixer is set to give jurors this week an insider’s view of the issues at the heart of prosecutors’ case, he’s also a star witness who’s as challenging as they come.

There’s his tortured history with Trump, for whom he served as personal attorney and problem-zapper until his practices came under federal investigation. That led to felony convictions and prison time for Cohen, but by then there were no charges against Trump in the White House.

Cohen, who is expected to take the stand on Monday, can address the jury as someone who has honestly dealt with his own misdeeds and paid for them with his freedom. But jurors will also likely learn that the now-disbarred lawyer not only pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and a bank, but recently claimed under oath that he wasn’t even truthful when he admitted some of these falsehoods.

And there’s Cohen’s new persona — and podcast, books and social media posts — as a ruthless and sometimes crude Trump critic.

As Trump’s trial began, prosecutors took pains to portray Cohen as just one piece of their evidence against Trump, telling jurors that corroboration would come through other witnesses, documents and the ex’s own recorded words -president. But Trump and his lawyers have attacked Cohen as an admitted liar and criminal who now makes a living from taking down his former boss.

“What the defense wants the jury to focus on is the fact that he is a liar” with a tarnished past and a prickly streak, said Richard Serafini, a Florida criminal defense attorney and former federal and Manhattan prosecutor.

“What the prosecutor wants to focus on is ‘everything he says is corroborated – you don’t have to like him,’” Serafini added. “And No. 2, this is the guy Trump picked.”

Loyalist became enemy

Cohen’s introduction to Trump in the early 2000s was a classic New York real estate story: Cohen was a board member of a condo in a Trump building and became involved in a dispute between residents and management on Trump’s side. The mogul soon brought Cohen into his company.

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Cohen, who declined to comment for this story, had had an eclectic career that ranged from practicing personal injury law to operating a taxi fleet with his father-in-law. Ultimately, he functioned as both a Trump advocate and a shark-toothed loyalist.

He worked on a number of deal-making efforts, but also spent much of his time threatening lawsuits, berating reporters and otherwise maneuvering to neutralize potential reputational damage for his boss, according to congressional testimony that Cohen resigned after breaking with Trump in 2018. The FBI raided Cohen’s home and office and Trump began to distance himself from the lawyer.

Cohen soon told a federal court that he helped candidate Trump use the National Enquirer tabloid as a kind of house organ that flattered him, tried to squash his opponents and bottled up sticky accusations about his personal life by buying stories or feeding them to Cohen to pass on. purchase. Trump says all the stories were false.

These schemes, which Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office portrays as a multi-pronged scheme to withhold information from voters, are now under scrutiny in Trump’s hush money trial. He has pleaded not guilty to 34 charges of falsifying company records to conceal payments made to Cohen for paying off porn performer Stormy Daniels. She claimed to have had a sexual encounter with the married Trump in 2006, which the former president has denied.

Other witnesses have testified about the hush-money transactions, but Cohen remains key to piecing together a case centered on how Trump’s company compensated him for his role in Daniels’ payoff.

Trump’s defense contends that Cohen was paid for legal work, not a front, and that there was nothing illegal about the deals he facilitated with Daniels and others.

A witness with history

In criminal cases, many witnesses come to the witness stand with their own criminal records, relationships with defendants, previous conflicting statements, or anything else that could affect their credibility.

Cohen has special baggage.

In testimony, he will have to explain his previous rejections of key aspects of the hush money schemes and convince jurors that this time he is telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

As the Daniels deal continued to come to light, he initially told The New York Times that he had not been reimbursed, and later acknowledged the repayment — as did Trump, who had previously said he was not even aware of Daniels’ payout. .

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Then, over the course of two federal guilty pleas, Cohen admitted to committing tax evasion, orchestrating illegal campaign contributions in the form of hush money payments and lying to Congress about his work on a possible Trump real estate project in Moscow. He also pleaded guilty to signing a mortgage loan application that understated his financial obligations.

While many types of convictions can be used to question a witness’s credibility, if crimes involve dishonesty, “there’s a wealth of stuff for a cross-examiner,” Serafini said.

In addition, Cohen raised new questions about his credibility when he testified in Trump’s civil fraud trial last fall. Under critical cross-examination — he answered some questions with a legal “objection” or “ask and answer” — Cohen insisted he was not entirely guilty of tax evasion or the falsification of the loan application. Ultimately, he testified that he had lied to the now-deceased federal judge who accepted his plea.

The judge in the fraud trial found Cohen’s testimony credible and noted that it was corroborated by other evidence. But a federal judge suggested that Cohen had committed perjury, either in his testimony or in his guilty plea.

Since breaking with Trump, Cohen has confronted his past lies head-on. The title of his podcast – “Mea Culpa” – refers to a reckoning with his crimes, and he acknowledged in the foreword to his 2020 memoir that some people see him as “the world’s least reliable narrator.”

At his sentencing in 2018, he said his “blind loyalty” to Trump made him feel like it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds, rather than listening to my own inner voice and moral compass. in an avatar of anti-Trump sentiment as the trial began, Cohen used a scatological nickname for Trump and taunted him to “keep whining, crying and violating the gag order, you petulant defendant!” defense.

The messages could give Trump’s lawyers fodder to portray Cohen as an agenda-driven witness bent on revenge. In a nod to that vulnerability, Cohen posted two days after opening statements that he would stop commenting on Trump until he testified, “out of respect” for the judge and prosecutors.

But during a live TikTok this past week, Cohen wore a shirt with a figure resembling Trump, with his hands in cuffs, behind bars. After Trump’s lawyers complained, Judge Juan M. Merchan urged prosecutors on Friday to tell Cohen that the court had asked him not to make any more statements about the case or about Trump.

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For Jeremy Saland, a New York criminal defense attorney and former Manhattan prosecutor, Cohen’s background isn’t much of a hurdle for prosecutors.

“The problem for Cohen is: he doesn’t close his trap,” Saland said. “He is constantly trying to undermine his own credibility.”

Prosecutors will have to convince Cohen to come clean, acknowledge his past misconduct and rein in his liberal comments, Saland said, or the case could become “the Michael Cohen show.”

Indeed, Trump lawyer Todd Blanche used his opening statement to highlight Cohen’s “obsession” with Trump and his admitted past under oath.

“You cannot make a serious decision about President Trump based on the words of Michael Cohen,” Blanche told jurors.

But prosecutor Matthew Colangelo characterized Cohen as someone who made “mistakes” and told jurors they could still believe him.

Meanwhile, prosecutors have pointed to comments Trump made about Cohen and others to accuse him of multiple violations of a gag order that bars him from commenting on witnesses, jurors and some other people involved in the case. The judge found Trump in contempt, fining him a total of $10,000 and warning that jail time could follow if he violates the order again.

Prosecutors have also not shied away from testimony about Cohen’s combative personality. A banker testified that Cohen was seen as a “defiant” client who insisted that everything was urgent. Daniels’ former attorney, Keith Davidson, described his first phone call with Cohen as a screaming “barrage of insults, innuendo and accusations.”

While such episodes may not be flattering to Cohen, eliciting them could be a way for prosecutors to subtly signal that he is not their teammate but simply a person with information, said John Fishwick Jr., a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia. .

“It’s a way to build his credibility while distancing yourself from him,” he suggested.

If Cohen takes the stand, prosecutors would be wise to address his troubled past before defense attorneys do, said Anna Cominsky, a professor at New York Law School. She taught a course with Bragg before he became prosecutor, but she commented as a legal observer, not as someone familiar with his office’s strategy.

“I imagine in their closing arguments,” Cominsky said, “the prosecutor looks straight at the jury and says, ‘This is not a perfect witness, but none of us are.’”

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