Under Cross-Examination, Michael Cohen Spills About His Past With Trump

Mother Jones; Laura Brett/ZUMA; Jane Rosenberg/AP

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.Donald Trump’s criminal trial for engineering a hush money scheme—to save his 2016 campaign from a slew of stories about his infidelities—entered its dramatic final stages on Tuesday, as his former fixer, Michael Cohen, completed his testimony for the prosecution. Then, just as Trump’s attorneys seemed poised to attack, the former president’s defense team was surprisingly ginger when finally given a chance to strike back. Tuesday began, as Monday ended, with prosecutors walking the normally voluble and combative Cohen through his story, calmly explaining how Trump okayed every step of the scheme to pay off adult film star Stormy Daniels for keeping quiet about a sexual encounter she testified to having with Trump. As the prosecution’s case wound down, tension was high in the courtroom. Trump’s lawyers were expected to come out swinging at Cohen, attacking Cohen’s credibility and long history of lying (much of it for Trump’s benefit, he has said).
Trump attorney Todd Blanche started with a sneering jab at Cohen, asking him if they had ever met—and when Cohen said they hadn’t, asking if Cohen had indeed once described Blanche as “a crying little shit” on TikTok. Cohen agreed it was the type of thing he would say, and that was as hostile as the afternoon got. Blanche seemed to wobble through a series of questions designed to make Cohen confirm that he had previously lied, and did, indeed, harbor a deep dislike for his former employer. Among other odd bits of testimony that Blanche elicited from Cohen were confirmations that:

Cohen would like to see Trump go to jail.
Cohen has referred to Trump as a “boorish cartoon misogynist” and “Cheeto-dusted cartoon villain.”
Cohen is selling merchandise on his website, including t-shirts that show Trump in a orange prison jumpsuit, and others that say “Convict 45.”

The cross-examination will continue on Thursday, but so far has been a far cry from the Trump team’s attack on Cohen during last fall’s civil fraud trial—where Cohen also testified, and where Trump’s lawyers didn’t hold back, repeatedly trying to provoke Cohen and even taunting him about whether he lied to his wife. In that case, Trump’s attorneys repeatedly engaged in shouting matches with Cohen, who quickly became flustered. On Tuesday, however, Cohen remained calm throughout his testimony, answering slowly and methodically as Blanche probed.
Even Trump, who at the fraud trial was a noisy presence while his ex-fixer testified, sat quietly, eyes mostly closed, as Cohen—whom several judges have had to issue gag orders to keep Trump from attacking outside court—spoke. 
The trial will likely finish up next week. Cohen is the linchpin of the prosecution’s case against Trump, and prosecutors said on Tuesday that he would be their final witness. Trump’s attorneys told Judge Juan Merchan that they have very limited plans for calling witnesses, but are still undecided on having Trump take the stand in his own defense.
Despite the subdued cross-examination, on Tuesday morning, Cohen repeatedly delivered for prosecutors, with testimony that flowed smoothly from the previous day. Cohen testified on Monday how he orchestrated payoffs to adult film star Stormy Daniels and others who, in the closing weeks before the 2016 election, threatened to go public with embarrassing stories about Trump. In Daniels’ case, it was a story of a sexual encounter at a golf tournament which, on the stand, she refused to call either a relationship or romantic. Despite reaching an agreement to pay Daniels $130,000, and Trump insisting that the deal get done, Cohen couldn’t get Trump to pay out the money in the final days before the election, and opted to supply it himself. On Tuesday, he detailed his efforts to get repaid, testifying that, while in the White House, Trump personally signed off on payments to reimburse Cohen in the guise of legal fees. Cohen barely did any legal work, he said.  
Cohen also testified that when word leaked out about the coverup in 2018, Trump urged him to stay loyal and keep his mouth shut.
“‘Don’t worry. I’m the President of the United States. There’s nothing here. Everything’s going to be OK. Stay tough,’” Cohen said Trump told him the last time they spoke. “You’re going to be okay.’”
But, Cohen said, he wasn’t okay when he became a target of then–FBI Director Robert Mueller’s investigation. At that point, Cohen said, turning to jurors and appearing emotional, he had a conversation with his family, who questioned why he was clinging to his allegiance to his old boss, who had done so little for him since taking office.
“Why are you holding onto this loyalty? What are you doing? We’re supposed to be your first loyalty,” Cohen said his family asked him. 
Prosecutors also guided Cohen through some of his lowest moments—his plan to use his once-close relationship with Trump to sell access to him after he was elected, his repeated and flagrant lying on the former president’s behalf, and his conviction for making the payments to Daniels and another woman, for which he served a year in prison. Discussing those low points was part of a strategy by prosecutors to get ahead of attacks by Trump’s legal team—which, at least initially, did not come. 
Ultimately, the case may come down to which version of Cohen jurors believe: the temperamental, toadying, vengeful serial liar, who Trump’s attorneys tried to draw out with their barbed attacks, or a formerly temperamental, toadying, vengeful serial liar, who now professes remorse for his subservience to Trump. Cohen, for his part, seemed very willing to confess his sins under direct examination from prosecutors. Over the course of his day-and-a-half of testimony, Cohen described how he sought Trump’s attention, buying properties in his buildings and then offering his services as a hyperbolic attack dog who would rage against anyone threatening Trump’s success—long before he ran for president. Cohen also talked, at length, about how he constantly returned to Trump to detail his exploits in what he acknowledged were desperate attempts to win approval and affection. 
By the time Blanche got his turn to attack Cohen and his credibility, Cohen seemed to have confessed to almost everything Blanche tried to ask about. One of the biggest revelations from the initial cross-examination may be that, despite Trump’s repeated efforts to portray the case against him as a conspiracy closely controlled by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Cohen testified that he has never personally met Bragg. 
Before the day’s testimony began, excitement for the expected drama was running high outside the court. There were no signs of any protesters—either for Trump or against him—but a crowd of over one hundred curious members of the public began lining up as early as 4 a.m. to secure a coveted seat in the courtroom, or a nearby overflow courtroom where the trial is being shown live. Many of the hopefuls appeared older or retired, and seemed most excited to see liberal commentators passing by on their way into the courthouse. But most of those in line were disappointed, with only about 20 tickets handed out for admission to the courtrooms; several dozen journalists were left without a ticket as well. One man, who seemed to be a Trump supporter, was berated for cutting the line and refusing to give up his ticket. 
As it became clear that only a few would be able to attend, at least one person towards the back of the queue paid a woman at the front $350 in cash to get in—she had earlier rejected an offer of $80. Given the anti-climactic tone of the afternoon’s testimony, the buyer may regret his largesse. 

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