Legal expert: Despite "credibility" issues, Michael Cohen "put it all together" for Trump jury

Cohen's "direct examination went about as well as could be expected for the prosecution," says Barb McQuade

By Marina Villeneuve

Staff Reporter

Published May 14, 2024 6:47PM (EDT)

Michael Cohen at the courthouse during civil fraud trial of former President Donald Trump in New York City on October 24, 2023. (ALEX KENT/AFP via Getty Images)
Michael Cohen at the courthouse during civil fraud trial of former President Donald Trump in New York City on October 24, 2023. (ALEX KENT/AFP via Getty Images)

Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen appeared measured, if at times evasive, Tuesday afternoon as he faced a winding cross-examination in Trump's ongoing criminal trial in Manhattan.

Cohen became emotional at times as he talked about the legal consequences he's faced for his years of lying for Trump. And he had a poker face as Trump's defense lawyer, former federal prosecutor Todd Blanche, asked him about his frequent cascade of insults at Trump, who he's repeatedly said he wants to see behind bars.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, with prosecutors saying that audio recordings, internal business records and witness testimony prove he was scheming to kill damaging stories about alleged extramarital affairs ahead of his 2016 campaign and disguising reimbursements to Cohen as legal fees — all in violation of state and federal election law and state tax law. Trump denies the charges, as well as the affairs.

Blanche asked Cohen if he had once called Trump a "boorish cartoon misogynist" or a "Cheeto-dusted cartoon villain" on his podcasts or social media.

"Sounds like something I would say," Cohen said in response to both.

Blanche at times pushed Cohen to answer his questions more directly.

"You talked about on 'Mea Culpa' your desire that President Trump would be convicted in this case?" Blanche asked, referring to a Cohen podcast.

"Sounds like something I would say," Cohen replied.

Blanche asked why he wouldn't answer yes or no.

"I don't know if I used those words specifically," Cohen said.

Blanche asked questions about whether Cohen was obsessed with Trump, his past strident praise for Trump, whether he was cooperating with Manhattan prosecutors out of self-interest, the money he's made off books and merchandise criticizing Trump and his history of lying in official proceedings — to reporters and to the public.

Blanche asked Cohen if he was lying when he praised Trump in the past, including calling him a "good man" who "cares deeply about this country."

"At the time, I was knee deep into the cult of Donald Trump, yes," Cohen said.

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Blanche also showed Cohen emails in which his lawyer and Manhattan prosecutors discussed frustration with Cohen's frequent media appearances concerning their Trump probe.

Earlier in direct examination, prosecutor Susan Hoffinger asked Cohen about his years of loyalty for Trump that ended in a federal prison sentence and emotional and personal pain.

Cohen said that during an early 2017 Oval Office meeting, Trump told him to expect a check and speak with former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg — a conversation Cohen said referred to the plan to reimburse Cohen for paying off adult film star Stormy Daniels.

Cohen also said he did "very minimal" legal services work for Trump in 2017 when he was paid $420,000 from Trump's bank account.

And he said that following an FBI raid at Cohen's home, Trump assured Cohen that his then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was "in his pocket."

Former federal prosecutor Barb McQuade said she thought Cohen's "direct examination went about as well as could be expected for the prosecution."

"Because the prosecution presented a great deal of evidence before he testified, the jury was already familiar with his story before he ever took the stand," McQuade told Salon. "In addition, the prosecution used email messages and text messages throughout his direct examination."

But she believes that in cross-examination, Cohen proved "less persuasive."

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"He became somewhat argumentative with the defense, and seemed to shirk responsibility for prior inconsistent statements," McQuade said. "If he told the lie in the past, he should own his lie. Instead, he deflected those questions, which could diminish his credibility in the eyes of the jury."

On the other hand, McQuade said that prosecutors may hope that despite Cohen's baggage, the jurors can rely on the reams of financial invoices, bank statements, checks, emails, text messages, audio recordings and witness testimonies that allegedly show Trump caused a scheme to disguise reimbursements for hush money as legal services.

"Nonetheless, he doesn’t need to do a whole lot of work here," McQuade said. "The documents and the other witnesses provide the bulk of the case. Cohen just helps to provide context and pull it all together."

Salon viewed Tuesday's proceedings through an audio and video feed provided in an overflow room in a Manhattan courthouse. Trump's facial expressions weren't always clear through the feed, though he at times appeared to watch Cohen intently and at least once seemed to nod off.

Toward the end of Tuesday's cross-examination, Blanche appeared to signal another focus for the defense: Trump's contention that he didn't know anything about the alleged plan to reimburse Cohen for paying off adult film star and director Stormy Daniels.

Cohen told jurors this week that Trump avoided emails that could leave a written record.

"But when you think of yourself as a fixer, are you fixing things that you broke?" Blanche asked.

"No sir," Cohen said.

By Marina Villeneuve

Marina Villeneuve is a staff reporter for Salon covering Trump's legal battles and other national news focusing on major legal and political narratives.

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Donald Trump Michael Cohen Todd Blanche