Trump’s lawyer and Cohen match wits in crucial cross-examination

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) speaks to reporters Tuesday at Collect Pond Park outside of former President Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York. Johnson accused prosecutors of advancing a “sham” trial against “one president to provide cover for another.”. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times)

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan Criminal Court, amid his trial, on Thursday in New York. (Steven Hirsch/Pool via REUTERS)

NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s criminal trial entered a critical and combative phase Thursday as his lawyer grilled the prosecution’s star witness, Michael Cohen, about a medley of misrepresentations, manipulations and outright lies.

Trying to destroy Cohen’s credibility with the jury, the lawyer, Todd Blanche, portrayed him as an unrepentant criminal and a serial deceiver who took the stand only to exact revenge on Trump. He argued that Cohen, Trump’s loyal lawyer and fixer until a falling-out years ago, had changed his story about matters big and small: whether he had wanted a White House job, whether he had sought a presidential pardon and whether he had actually committed crimes to which he had pleaded guilty.


“There’s no doubt that you know what perjury means, correct?” Blanche asked Cohen. The witness, who has admitted lying to Congress and the courts, replied, “I know what perjury means.”

Cohen’s conduct — and truthfulness — is at the case’s heart. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he made a $130,000 payment to a porn actor to suppress her account of a sexual liaison with Trump, who later reimbursed Cohen from the White House. Prosecutors accused Trump, who denies the sex, of falsifying related records so he could cover up the scandal for good.

When the deal leaked anyway, Trump soon washed his hands of Cohen, who in turn vowed to turn on his onetime mentor. Cohen is the only witness offering firsthand knowledge of Trump’s involvement in the records, which Trump denies falsifying.

During cross-examination Thursday, Blanche tried to create showstopping moments, including a challenge to Cohen’s claim that he had contacted Trump specifically to update him on the hush-money deal in the campaign’s waning days. Producing a string of Cohen’s text messages that referenced a teenage prankster bothering him, Blanche offered an embarrassing alternative theory of the call, raising his pointer finger as his voice hit a higher register.

“You were actually talking,” Blanche said, “about harassing phone calls from a 14-year-old,” rather than calling about the hush money.

“That was a lie,” Blanche then shouted, evoking the climax of a courtroom drama. “You can admit.”

“No sir, I can’t,” Cohen responded, sticking to his story, equivocating only slightly: “I believe I was telling the truth.”

It was one of dozens of heated exchanges between the two lawyers — Blanche a former prosecutor, Cohen a disbarred litigator. Each sought to outmaneuver the other as they parried throughout the day.

Some of Blanche’s attacks meandered, and some Cohen easily turned aside. The questioning drew more than a dozen prosecution objections that the judge sustained and prompted a handful of sidebar conferences at the judge’s bench. The interruptions gave a disjointed feeling to a high-stakes confrontation.

Cohen, now on his third day of testimony in the first criminal trial of an American president, showed signs of fragility as the defense chipped at his credibility. A self-described former “thug” for Trump who oscillated between tirades and charm, Cohen bent on the stand, but did not break.

He even appeared to lighten the mood in the courtroom amid the tension caused by the prosecution’s string of successful objections. Glancing at jurors, Cohen shook his head, appearing to crack into a smile, before accepting a fresh cup of water from a court officer.

Trump, who had kept his eyes closed for much of Cohen’s earlier testimony, was now very much awake, leaning in and at one point glaring at his former fixer.

The former president, who faces probation or up to four years in prison if convicted, stands accused of 34 counts of falsifying business records, one for each record involved in the reimbursement of Cohen: 11 checks, 11 invoices and 12 entries in the former president’s ledger.

The records, prosecutors say, disguised the nature of the repayment to Cohen. Although Trump was reimbursing him partly for the hush money, the records referred only to a legal “retainer” agreement and ordinary legal expenses.

Under questioning from prosecutors earlier in the week, Cohen illuminated two crucial meetings with the former president about the records, the first in January 2017, where he said Trump learned about a plan to falsify the records. They met again the following month in the Oval Office, where Trump confirmed a plan to send Cohen a check.

Although Trump did not personally falsify records or explicitly instruct anyone to do so, under New York law, prosecutors need only show that Trump “aided” a crime, or “caused” his company to file false records.

Blanche has not addressed those two meetings, but instead focused much of his cross-examination on what he described as Cohen’s obsession with hurting Trump, casting him as an unrepentant liar.

The defense lawyer began by playing excerpts from Cohen’s podcast, “Mea Culpa,” in which the former fixer sounded giddy about Trump’s indictment last year.

The jury heard Cohen’s excitement as he called Trump “dumbass Donald.” In another recording, he expressed his hope “that this man ends up in prison,” adding that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” He averred that “you better believe I want this man to go down and rot inside for what he did to me and my family.”

Blanche also highlighted what he said was a motive for Cohen to attack Trump. Cohen, he noted, missed out on a Trump administration job.

“You really wanted to work in the White House, correct?” Blanche said, laying a trap for Cohen, who briefly stepped in.

“No, sir,” Cohen replied.

Then Blanche produced records that appeared to undercut that denial, raising his voice as he showed that Cohen had in fact longed to be Trump’s chief of staff.

“That was for my ego, yes,” Cohen acknowledged, and it seemed as if Blanche had landed a blow.

But the questioning soon devolved into a debate over semantics and nuance. Cohen said that he had actually wanted a “hybrid” role, both White House and personal lawyer, that would keep him close to the president.

Cohen also denied Blanche’s claim that he had initially turned on Trump to receive leniency from federal prosecutors years ago as they investigated him for crimes related to the hush-money deal and other wrongdoing.

He fired back that he “wasn’t interested” in a formal cooperation deal after he pleaded guilty in 2018; he also received nothing from the local prosecutors who brought the case against Trump.

In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a potential Trump Tower deal in Moscow. He also pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations related to payoffs of Daniels and another woman. Cohen has taken responsibility for those crimes, attributing them to a primal urge to protect his family and Trump, his longtime boss and a man he once revered.

But he also pleaded guilty to personal financial crimes unrelated to Trump, and admitted under oath that he committed them. Now, however, he disputes his guilt in those personal matters.

Blanche sought to underscore the discrepancy, casting Cohen as an indiscriminate liar who changed his story to suit the situation.

Cohen said he had pleaded guilty to tax evasion only because prosecutors were threatening to charge his wife as well. But, Blanche noted, when Cohen pleaded guilty, he was asked whether anyone had “threatened or induced you to plead guilty.”

He suggested that when Cohen answered no, he had lied.

Cohen conceded that was the case, a compelling back-and-forth that appeared to command the jury’s attention.

Blanche also painted Cohen as something of a conspiracy theorist as he noted that Cohen has placed blame on the federal judge who oversaw the case, William H. Pauley.

“So you believe Judge Pauley was in on it?” Blanche asked.

“I do,” he replied.

Blanche also seized on Cohen’s claim under oath before Congress in 2019 that he had never sought a pardon from Trump. Cohen testified during this trial, as well as during an unrelated deposition, that he had once directed his lawyers to explore the possibility of a pardon.

While Blanche, now lowering his voice, harped on the inconsistency, Cohen pointed out that Trump was dangling pardons to various allies at this time. Cohen explained that he simply wanted to know if he might qualify as well, a line of testimony that drew a slight shake of the head from Trump.

“Is this really something that they’re talking about? Can you find out?” Cohen recalled saying to his lawyers. “I wanted this nightmare to end.”

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