The long-awaited Donald Trump vs. Michael Cohen showdown is not “High Noon”

It’s more like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”

By Brian Karem

Published May 13, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)
Updated May 13, 2024 1:28PM (EDT)
Michael Cohen and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Michael Cohen and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Somewhere in the twisted, addled and nearly empty mind of Donald Trump, he’s enjoying the showdown coming. Michael Cohen, his former fixer, will take the stand against Drowsy Don in Manhattan today and to Trump, it’s part of the grade B movie narrative of his life. He knows there are real consequences, but he can’t help enjoying being the center of attention. He views himself as a cinematic hero facing off against the forces trying to bring him down. Like any true villain, he always sees himself as the hero. He promotes himself as Gary Cooper in “High Noon”; the brave, rugged individualist ready to save the gentry as Lon Chaney Jr. admits, “People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don't care. They just don't care.”

But Trump isn’t the salvation. He’s the storm. And the reality is, he’s more like Lee Marvin in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” though he’d love everyone to think he’s John Wayne. 

For the record, Michael Cohen is neither Gary Cooper in “High Noon” nor John Wayne as Tom Doniphon in “Liberty Valance.” Cohen is the city-dwelling Ransom Stoddard as played by Jimmy Stewart in “Liberty Valance,” but with a few more colorful curse words at his disposal than Stewart. Yet, as was done by Stewart in the movie, Cohen will show up in a Manhattan courtroom to deliver the message Trump doesn’t want to accept: “All men are created equal” as written in the Declaration of Independence. “A lot of people forget that part,” Stewart said in “Liberty Valance.”

Either way, the stage is set for an epic showdown of biblical proportions this week as Cohen will testify against Donald Trump in Manhattan. Cohen will help decide one way or another, whether Trump will be held accountable for some of his alleged criminal activities in the last several decades after climbing out from under his father’s armpit and reigning supreme in the national public cesspool.

With the Mar-a-Lago sensitive document’s trial on indefinite hold, the Georgia state trial facing a substantial challenge in appeals court, and the D.C. Jan. 6 trial awaiting a Supreme Court decision on presidential immunity that may not come before the end of June, the Manhattan trial against Donald Trump – often cited as the weakest case against Trump – looms as the only set of criminal charges Trump may face before the November general election.

Can Cohen be bombastic? Sure. Will he be in court? I saw him testify in Congress when he admitted his indiscretions and took his lumps. He candidly admits he’d still be in Trump’s inner circle if he weren’t run over by the Trump bus.

The facts show the case is anything but weak. Norm Eisen, the former ethics czar of the Barack Obama administration recently said on the podcast “Just Ask the Question” that the facts themselves are clear enough. Trump tried to buy the silence of former adult film star Stormy Daniels, with whom he’d had extra-marital sex.

What would make it a felony is if Trump tried to buy her silence for the sake of avoiding the scrutiny of voters prior to the 2016 election.

That is why Cohen’s testimony is seen as the lynchpin to the prosecution’s case. Since Trump had him pay off Daniels, he can effectively sink Trump’s narrative that he paid her off for a noble cause or any other reason. It will be Cohen facing Trump face to face in court – for the first time since Cohen left Trump – or if you prefer was thrown under the bus. Cohen was federally charged with campaign finance violations, tax crimes and lying to Congress. His credibility on the stand and with the jury may make or break Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case. 

Eisen, who spent a lot of time with Cohen as he prepared for one of Trump’s two impeachments, said he believes Cohen will perform as required. “He’s maintained the same story to me for years. He’s credible. And I don’t think he’ll take any bait laid out by Trump. I know the prosecutors have spoken with him about the need for professionalism. I think he’ll deliver it.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Trump’s attorneys have asked Judge Juan Merchan to order Cohen to stop talking about the trial and Trump. With terms that refer to Trump like “VonShitzinPants” already having been made public, Trump’s attorneys pointed to a recent TikTok video Cohen posted this week wearing a T-shirt that shows Trump behind bars as another reason to gag Cohen.

“Our request that the court order the government to instruct the witness to not talk about President Trump or this case until the case is over,” Trump attorney Todd Blanche said. As a response Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass said the prosecution has repeatedly told all witnesses to keep their mouths shut, but “we have no control over what they do,” he added.

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The dramatic showdown between the two volatile men threatens to be the stuff of legends, or at least a WWE smackdown on a bad Thursday night. It will definitely be historic. But it’s not just Cohen’s demeanor or bombast that is of concern. Will Donald Trump lose it in court and risk being jailed for violating his gag order? He’s already been fined and the judge has warned him he could find himself cooling his heels in a lockup if he keeps talking. Eisen said it’s a “calculated risk” that Trump could make to try and push Cohen into losing his temper on the stand. “I don’t think he’d be successful” Eisen explained. At the same time Trump runs the risk of not only a night in a secure holding facility for contempt, but should he found guilty of a felony, further violation of his gag order could weigh against Trump at the sentencing phase of the trial.

Having spent a great deal of time with Cohen in writing and researching his latest book, “Revenge,” I can state for the record that Cohen was very meticulous about getting the facts down on paper – and left little room for conjecture. “I want the truth to get out,” he said on numerous occasions. He did more than say it. I saw him actively pursue the facts and wouldn’t accept anything but the facts. 

Can Cohen be bombastic? Sure. Will he be in court? I saw him testify in Congress when he admitted his indiscretions and took his lumps. He candidly admits he’d still be in Trump’s inner circle if he weren’t run over by the Trump bus. He admitted everything he did wrong – and continuously explained that he did it all for the benefit of Donald Trump. Nothing he did was for himself. 

While Cohen isn’t historically a selfless man – again something he candidly admits – he has also continuously told me he wants to do right by his wife and children and set the record straight. I’ve never caught him lying to me. So, if it boils down to a battle of wits between Cohen and Trump, I’d candidly say Trump comes into the battle only half-armed.

Having been in close contact with both men over an extended period of time, I find Cohen has the advantage. He’s smarter, he’s been humbled already and paid the price for his hubris. Trump has an overinflated sense of his self-worth, has never been held accountable for what he does and has the demeanor of a five-year-old bully. More importantly, he’s not that bright. 

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Of course, this could all blow up in the prosecution’s face. But the prosecutors have wisely introduced a wide variety of written evidence, including receipts, texts, emails and the statements of David Pecker and Stormy Daniels to establish why Donald Trump paid off Daniels.

The evidence is indisputable and the defense, while it still has yet to put on its case, has offered little in the way of cross-examination that would destroy the prosecution’s narrative. The only thing the defense has done is ask for a mistrial – twice – to no avail.

At the end of the day, Trump is facing the same fate as the ill-tempered, angry, narcissistic and purely fictional Liberty Valance. But it won’t be John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart that will level Trump.

Let the facts show that Trump is the instrument of his own demise. He chose Michael Cohen. He chose Stormy Daniels. Trump lacks morality, accountability, intelligence, humility and empathy for everyone on the planet.

At the end of the day there is no grand conspiracy to bring down Donald Trump. He once said he was “the storm." Jeffery Epstein, of all people, said Trump had a problem with morals (and I guess Epstein would know). In short, Donald Trump created the myth of Trump in his head and he’s going down via self-inflicted wounds.

The guy standing in the shadows taking him down is merely the reflection of himself.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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