Legal analyst: Trump "stormed out like a baby" after Michael Cohen "stumped" his lawyers in court

"Trump's lawyers were not well prepared for what happened today," says MSNBC legal analyst Lisa Rubin

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published October 26, 2023 12:11PM (EDT)

Former US president Donald Trump walks during a break at court in New York at his $250 million civil fraud trial against him and his company on October 25, 2023. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US president Donald Trump walks during a break at court in New York at his $250 million civil fraud trial against him and his company on October 25, 2023. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump's conduct during the Wednesday hearing of his New York civil fraud trial only hurt his standing in the case and with the judge while lending credence to witness and his former-lawyer-turned-foe Michael Cohen, legal experts say.

Wednesday's proceedings saw the continuation of Cohen's testimony and his cross-examination by Trump lawyers Alina Habba and Cliff Robert, an hours-long process that MSNBC legal analyst Lisa Rubin said signaled to her that Trump may not be "faring very well" in court. 

"Yesterday's first 45 minutes of cross-examination was far more effective than the hours that Alina Habba and Cliff Robert, who represents the adult Trump sons, put in today," she told host Nicolle Wallace, per RawStory.

She went on to highlight how Cohen deftly navigated the attorneys' questions by stating when he didn't understand a question, asking for clarification when they jumped between time periods and answering "yes" or "no" questions "honestly and truthfully, sometimes even stumping the lawyers." As an example, Rubin pointed to the instance when Robert kept mentioning an arraignment while asking Cohen about the space and time between his indictment on the charges that led to his 2018 plea and his ultimate plea, explaining that "anybody who has Google knows" Cohen was never arraigned. He pled and filed criminal information the same day.

"Trump's lawyers were not well prepared for what happened today. They knew they wanted to paint Michael Cohen as a liar, and they succeeded in that to some extent, but in terms of dismantling the core of his testimony, which was about Trump's intent and participation, they didn't even do that very well," Rubin said.

"And Michael Cohen was able to square that circle," she continued. "He basically said, 'Yes, Mr. Trump never directly instructed me to inflate the numbers, and so I was telling the truth when I testified in 2019 before the House oversight committee, but he spoke like a mob boss at all times to me and all the other executives who worked for him.

"'So while he never said directly, "Michael, go inflate the numbers," we all understood what he meant.' So I thought Michael Cohen did a good job cleaning up that portion of his testimony later in the day, and as you noted, he maintained his cool throughout the day," Rubin concluded. "And Trump, unfortunately, did not."

Rubin also lambasted the former president for fleeing the courtroom with his Secret Service agents in the second half of Wednesday's hearing after New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron fined him $10,000 for violating his partial gag order a second time. Engoron issued the sanction after Trump slighted Engoron's law clerk, whom Trump's inflammatory social media posts about led the judge to impose the order earlier this month and initially sanction him for last week, in a statement outside of the courtroom, and was later found to have lied about it during a brief stint on the witness stand.

The former president "stormed out like a baby," Rubin said during the Thursday edition of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," adding that he was likely also aggravated because Habba was unable to gain any traction during her cross-examination of Cohen Wednesday.

"I think the first day, she had a great day, the second day was tougher for her," Rubin suggested according to RawStory. "We should have been talking about Michael Cohen. Instead, the person's credibility on the line at the end of the day was Donald Trump himself. He didn't have to flaunt the order and nonetheless, he did both."

Rubin again praised Cohen later in the appearance, acknowledging both the gravity of his lie under oath during a plea hearing and that admitting to doing so in court Wednesday took guts.

"On the other hand, to get up in front of a court now and admit that, you don't do that unless you are really serious about what you're about to say, as well," she said.

"It took a lot of bravery, particularly in this political environment, as Donald Trump is making his enemies list, as his campaign continues, to come into open court and admit to that in court," Rubin concluded.

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Andrew Weissmann, a former assistant U.S. attorney, suggested Trump's proclivity for violating his gag order is instead a "very deliberate strategy" meant to rally support from his camp, according to HuffPost.

Speaking to MSNBC's Wallace, Weissmann said that Trump could have legitimately called into question Cohen's credibility after the lawyer admitted to deceiving Congress and lying in court while on the witness stand. But the former president's choice to attack Engoron's clerk demonstrates a different goal. 

"Trump is deliberately playing to his base and goading the judicial system as part of a strategy in terms of his base, in terms of his political campaign, in playing the victim,” he said. 

"I think this is quite intentional on his part because it would have been so easy to go with the facts today” about Cohen, Weissmann added.

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Lawyer and author Mark Herrmann echoed those sentiments in a Wednesday op-ed for The Daily Beast, arguing that Trump is going out of his way to ensure that his final judgment in the trial involves a steep fine.

Trump, he notes, will lose the New York attorney general's $250 million lawsuit against him over “numerous acts of fraud and misrepresentation" on his statements of financial condition because Engoron ruled he was liable in September summary judgment just ahead of the trial's start. What Engoron will determine through the trial is exactly how much Trump will ultimately have to pay.

Herrmann pointed to Trump's failure to delete the cross-posted message about Engoron's law clerk from his campaign website that led him to be sanctioned $5,000 last week, the circumstances around his Wednesday fine and the former president's unexpected but brief exit from the courtroom.

"This is not a man who’s trying to ingratiate himself with the court," Herrmann wrote. "When you’re the defendant in a trial without a jury, you really want the judge to like you. The judge may in the end rule against you, but you shouldn’t encourage the judge to want to hammer you. Any lawyer will tell you that needlessly antagonizing a presiding judge is just stupid."

He explained that judges try to be fair, and while they set out to prevent their personal feelings from interfering with their rulings, judges are still human. "Any rational defendant," he writes, would have taken Engoron's ruling and current aim to determine how badly to ding Trump for his actions as a sign to stop the antics, but Trump isn't that.

"Perhaps he can’t resist the publicity that he gets from attacking the judge and his clerk during trial. Perhaps Trump is affirmatively trying to antagonize the judge, so that the court’s final decision is particularly harsh. This may help Trump politically—or make the opinion weaker when Trump ultimately takes his appeal," Herrmann said.

"Or perhaps Trump simply can’t help himself. He’s spent a lifetime attacking those who don’t accommodate him, and he’s not able to break that habit," continued. 

"Whatever the cause however, the legal reality is the same: When the judge speaks, Trump should listen," Herrmann concluded, adding that while the former president's conduct may help his political cause and grant him personal satisfaction, from a legal perspective, "it’s just plain crazy."

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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Aggregate Arthur Engoron Donald Trump Letitia James Michael Cohen