Trump trial judge cracks down on Cohen’s taunting of ex-president

NEW YORK — In a startling precursor to what could be the most explosive testimony in Donald Trump’s criminal trial, the judge Friday told prosecutors that he was personally asking that a key witness stop speaking out against the former president.

The witness, Michael Cohen, was once a personal lawyer for Trump and in 2016 paid $130,000 in hush money to a porn actor to silence her account of extramarital sex with the then-presidential candidate. Cohen, who is expected to begin testifying next week, has been outspoken in his taunting of Trump, recently posting a TikTok video in which he wore a shirt with a picture of the former president behind bars.


On Friday, moments after prosecutors acknowledged that they have little control over their star witness, the judge, Juan Merchan, asked them to tell Cohen again to refrain from making any more statements about the case. He made it clear that the directive came from the highest authority in the court: him.

“That comes from the bench,” Merchan said.

Cohen declined to comment.

Merchan’s remarks might as well have been a billboard previewing next week’s main event. Cohen is crucial to the case: He says that records of his reimbursements for the hush-money payment were falsified in 2017 at the then-president’s direction.

The judge’s admonition injected a sense of anticipation into an otherwise placid proceeding, perhaps the first routine day in a most unusual trial. Prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office steadily tightened their focus on the central accusations against Trump before what they said could be their final week of witness testimony.

They prepared for Cohen’s arrival by calling a round of custodial witnesses, whose testimony allowed the prosecutors to introduce important documents, phone logs, and text and email messages — much of it relevant to Cohen. Such witnesses are used to authenticate evidence that prosecutors and defense lawyers have not otherwise previously agreed should be admitted.

Between the riveting testimony of the porn actor, Stormy Daniels, and Cohen’s looming appearance, Friday’s session was a moment of calm in the eye of the storm that is the first criminal trial of a U.S. president.

Trump is charged with 34 felonies, accused of orchestrating the falsification of documents — 11 invoices, 11 checks and 12 ledger entries — that were used to reimburse Cohen. Trump has pleaded not guilty and has denied having had sex with Daniels.

Friday’s most substantive witness was Madeleine Westerhout, a former executive assistant during Trump’s presidency who had direct insight into how documents flowed in and out of the Oval Office.

Westerhout testified that Trump would sign checks sent from his family business, the Trump Organization, often stapled to the related invoices. She said she saw him sign them at the Resolute Desk and sometimes in Sharpie.

She also testified that she had helped schedule a February 2017 meeting between Cohen and Trump in the White House. There, Cohen is expected to testify, he and Trump discussed reimbursement for the $130,000 payment to Daniels.

During cross-examination Thursday, Susan Necheles, a defense lawyer, elicited warm testimony from Westerhout, who said Trump had been “a really good boss” who cared for his wife and family.

Those statements bolstered a key component of the defense’s case. Trump’s lawyers have argued that he was motivated to pay Daniels not to win the election, as prosecutors have said, but rather “to protect his family, his reputation and his brand” from “salacious allegations.”

But Westerhout missed a chance to further that case Friday. Necheles asked Westerhout about Trump’s reaction in 2018 after Daniels’ story became public.

Although Westerhout acknowledged that “the whole situation was very unpleasant,” she said her former boss had not brought up his family.

Shortly before Westerhout took the stand, the jury got a chance to assess Daniels’ story for themselves.

Beginning on Tuesday, Daniels was on the stand for more than seven hours. She described, in often graphic detail, her account of a liaison with Trump in a Lake Tahoe, Nevada, hotel suite in 2006. Though not directly related to the charges, the encounter — a brief and fraught experience, as recounted by Daniels — was the impetus for the hush-money payment made by Cohen, and for the case itself.

Cohen was once one of Trump’s closest confidants and most loyal enforcers. But he has since become a bitter enemy, openly mocking the former president and his legal travails.

Trump has returned fire, calling Cohen a liar and reposting similar attacks by allies. It was those broadsides, in part, that prompted Merchan to prohibit Trump from attacking witnesses and jurors, among others. The judge has since found the former president to have violated that order 10 times, and fined him $10,000. Twice, Merchan has threatened Trump with jail if the violations continue.

Cohen, a felon who pleaded guilty to a raft of federal crimes in 2018, some of which he said were executed at Trump’s direction, is an imperfect witness. He has already been introduced to the jury by others who spoke of him from the stand, often in unflattering terms.

The jury has heard his voice — in secretly recorded conversations, with Trump and others — and seen a photo of him beaming in the White House. But Monday, he is expected to appear in person.

On Friday, jurors got a taste of Trump’s disdain when prosecutors displayed Twitter posts disparaging Cohen, including one in August 2018, a day after Cohen’s plea deal was announced.

“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” the former president wrote.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email