Tense Exchanges, but Cohen Doesn’t Crack

It was a moment straight out of a courtroom drama: a defense lawyer, barking at a crucial witness, demanding the truth — or, at least, something to help his client.

For several minutes this afternoon, Todd Blanche, the lead attorney for Donald Trump, channeled “A Few Good Men,” boring into Michael Cohen, the former fixer turned witness for the prosecution.

At issue was a brief phone call on the night of Oct. 24, 2016, during which Cohen had previously testified that he had updated Trump about a hush-money deal with a porn star, Stormy Daniels, and “the resolution of it.” That resolution, a $130,000 payment, was made days later and undergirds the case against Trump, the first American president to stand trial.

But during a tense and theatrical showdown, Blanche tried to get Cohen to admit that he had lied about the call, suggesting he was instead talking to Trump’s bodyguard, Keith Schiller, about a prank phone call Cohen had received from a teenager.

“You were actually talking to Mr. Schiller about harassing phone calls from a 14-year-old,” Blanche said, heatedly, his voice pitched.

Cohen stood firm, saying that in light of phone records he’d examined, “I believe I spoke to Mr. Trump.”

Blanche pounced: “The jury doesn’t want to hear what you think happened.”

The prosecution objected, and the judge, Juan Merchan, sustained.

That moment landed just before lunch, bringing the day’s first act curtain down with a bang.

How important such small but sizzling slices of testimony may be for the jury remains to be seen, of course. But Blanche’s attack on Cohen’s truthfulness — which failed to land much of a blow on Tuesday — gained steam today.

Blanche repeatedly sought to paint Cohen as an incorrigible liar, bringing up his false statements to Congress in 2017 and to a federal judge in 2018.

Mind you, Cohen’s lies had already been noted during his direct testimony earlier this week, when prosecutors did a kind of controlled burn, going over his various unsavory actions and falsehoods.

Cohen himself admitting to lying and doing things for Trump “that I should not have.”

“But to keep the loyalty and to do the things that he had asked me to do, I violated my moral compass,” he said. “And I suffered the penalty. As has my family.”

With five weeks now in the books, the trial is rolling toward a conclusion; the jury could have the case before Memorial Day weekend. The defense hasn’t said whether they’ll call anyone, including Trump himself. Late today, Merchan indicated that summations could begin on Tuesday, though that could change.

And after that, the wait for a verdict.

In the four weeks of testimony so far, prosecutors have methodically built their case, interspersing colorful characters — including David Pecker, the former publisher of The National Enquirer, and Stormy Daniels, the porn star at the case’s center — with a drier assortment of phone logs, text messages and other documents.

Trump stands accused of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, in relation to trying to obscure a reimbursement of Cohen, who paid Daniels — via a shell company — from a line of credit for her silence.

The defense has countered by hammering the credibility of witnesses — particularly Daniels and Cohen. Both were attacked for trying to monetize their hatred of Trump in online merchandise. Trump has denied he ever had sex with Daniels.

Late this afternoon, Blanche argued that the $130,000 agreement between Trump and Daniels — using pseudonyms, Peggy Peterson and David Dennison — was commonplace. (The agreement is not at issue; the falsifying of records is, prosecutors say.)

Earlier in the day, Blanche also sought to make Cohen out to be upset — feeling jilted, even — about his nonexistent role in Trump’s White House, having angled for the job of chief of staff or special counsel to the president.

“You really wanted to work in the White House,” Blanche said.

“No, sir,” Cohen replied.

Cohen did concede to saying that he wanted Trump to get his comeuppance, including in a podcast from just before the 2020 election.

“You better believe I want this man to go down and rot inside for what he did to me and my family,” he said on the podcast.

Family, oddly, may also be a factor in the defense’s arguments; in opening statements on April 22, Blanche argued that Trump acted on the “salacious allegations” made by Daniels “to protect his family, his reputation and his brand.”

“President Trump fought back, like he always does and like he’s entitled to do,” Blanche said in April,

That fight was being waged on Trump’s behalf today by his lawyer. Blanche was direct and forceful, sometimes adopting an incredulous tone, at least once adding, “You sure about that?” after Cohen answered.

Cohen, meanwhile, was calm and measured, wearing a quiet hangdog expression even under blistering questions and insinuations by Blanche about his personal failings.

“You’ve blamed a lot of people over the years for the conduct that you were convicted of, correct?” Blanche asked at one point.

“I blamed people, yes,” Cohen said.

Blanche said he had blamed a judge and blamed Trump.

Cohen calmly agreed.

At another moment, Blanche sought to catch Cohen in a lie on the issue of whether or not he had wanted a pardon from Trump. Cohen said he’d never personally asked for one, but had his lawyer “explore it.”

Blanche pushed him if that was truthful, and Cohen came back with perhaps his most emotional comment of the day, saying that he was intrigued by the pardon’s “being dangled.”

“I wanted this nightmare to end,” he said.

He might feel the same about his cross-examination. It isn’t over yet: Blanche did not quite finish on Thursday, and with court off tomorrow while Trump attends his son Barron’s high school graduation, Cohen is due back on the stand on Monday.

We’re asking readers what they’d like to know about the Trump cases: the charges, the procedure, the important players or anything else. You can send us your question by filling out this form.

Can Trump run for president if he is convicted in the Stormy Daniels trial? If yes, then why? — Thomas Kosakowski, Denver, Colo.

Jesse: Yes. There is no constitutional prohibition on a candidate with a criminal record running for president, though felons — a cohort to which Trump would belong if convicted — can lose voting rights, under rules that vary by state. And Trump has shown no indication that a guilty verdict would stop or even slow his campaign.

  • Next week, in Florida, there will be the first of a series of hearings in Trump’s classified documents case that will stretch into late June. The hearing will concern an attempt by one of Trump’s co-defendants, Walt Nauta, to have the charges he is facing dismissed, including by arguing that he has been unfairly and vindictively prosecuted.

Trump is at the center of at least four separate criminal investigations, at both the state and federal levels, into matters related to his business and political careers. Here is where each case stands.

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