Destroying Michael Cohen: Trump team sets off on mission at trial

A court sketch showing Michael Cohen reacting during direct examination Tuesday at Donald Trump's hush-money trial in Manhattan. The Trump ally turned nemesis is one of the highly anticipated witnesses of the criminal trial. (Elizabeth Williams/The Associated Press - image credit)
A court sketch showing Michael Cohen reacting during direct examination Tuesday at Donald Trump's hush-money trial in Manhattan. The Trump ally turned nemesis is one of the highly anticipated witnesses of the criminal trial. (Elizabeth Williams/The Associated Press - image credit)

Donald Trump's legal team set out to demolish the credibility of the key witness in his criminal trial, assailing Michael Cohen as an untrustworthy, ill-tempered, revenge-hungry narrator.

For two days, a jury heard Cohen methodically build up elements of the case against his former boss and confidant.

But just seconds into the cross-examination Tuesday, the defence's objective became clear: Tear down the witness in the jury's eyes.

The grilling started with a fiery opening. Cohen was accused of making clear his desire to see Trump imprisoned, in profane public tirades against the defendant and his legal team.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche began by observing that he'd never even met Cohen, and added, "You went on TikTok and called me a crying little shit."

"That sounds like something I would say," Cohen replied.

After some aggressive back-and-forth, Cohen admitted he wanted to see Trump convicted.

The court heard that he'd said so on his podcast — that he'd yearned aloud to see Trump in handcuffs and to do a perp walk. He'd even sold a T-shirt depicting Trump behind bars.

Blanche also asked about his public references to Trump as a "dictator-douchebag," a "boorish, cartoon misogynist" and "a Cheeto-dusted cartoon villain."

The defence cast Cohen's turn against Trump as motivated by fame, by sales of books that netted Cohen about $3.4 million US, and a failed attempt to avoid prison several years ago.

The trial, which is entering its final stages, is adjourned through Thursday.

Seth Wenig/The Associated Press
Seth Wenig/The Associated Press

Pre-emptive grilling from prosecutors

Cohen was also subjected to a sustained grilling — from his own side.

It was prosecutors who subpoenaed him as their witness, with his detailed first-hand knowledge of Trump's alleged cover-up of hush-money payments to a porn star.

They launched a pre-emptive strike earlier on Tuesday, battering him with questions about his prolific history of lying and criminal convictions for fraud.

It was an attempt to prepare the jury for the withering cross-examination Cohen is now facing as Trump's defence team took over.

Justin Lane/The Associated Press
Justin Lane/The Associated Press

The attacks were foreshadowed by the appearance of numerous Republicans at the Manhattan courthouse this week: the governor of North Dakota, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and other members of Congress have made the political pilgrimage.

With Trump under a gag order, forbidden from attacking witnesses, several of these people rumoured for potential roles in the next administration came as part of his entourage, to disparage the case and the witness.

'I regret doing things for him that I should not have'

The prosecution's final questions for Cohen sought to present his past lies in the light most favourable to the case: As having been done exclusively for Trump.

In his second day on the witness stand, Trump's former lawyer and personal fixer expressed regret for years of behaviour that he said cost his reputation, his freedom, his finances and his family.

"I regret doing things for him that I should not have. Lying. Bullying people," said Cohen, who spent 10 years working for Trump.

"It violated my moral compass."

With that, the prosecution completed its questioning. As court broke for lunch Tuesday, prosecutor Susan Hoffinger said, "Nothing further, your honour."

That was after she'd gotten Cohen's testimony bolstering the key facts of the felony case: That Trump knew about the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, that he in fact had ordered them and approved a cover-up, and that it was done primarily for electoral purposes in 2016.

Judiciary of New York State
Judiciary of New York State

She had Cohen walk her through what he called false financial statements — invoices claiming he was being paid a legal retainer; Trump company statements mentioning legal expenses; and cheques signed by Trump, totalling $420,000 US, which Cohen said included a $130,000 US reimbursement for his own payment to cover up a sex scandal.

Judiciary of New York State
Judiciary of New York State

How the Cohen-Trump relationship soured

Cohen described how his relationship with Trump started to break down. After the FBI raided Cohen's home in 2018, he said he spoke to Trump that day — and never again.

He said he felt various forms of pressure from Trump not to flip on him. This came in the form of public tweets from the president, and in private overtures from a lawyer who offered to discreetly convey messages to and from the president, through their mutual friend, Rudy Giuliani.

Cohen read into the court record one letter from that lawyer, Robert Costello, which said, "You are loved.… Sleep well tonight. You have friends in high places."

Cohen said he understood that to refer to then-president Trump, and called it reassuring that the man running the Justice Department was in his corner.

WATCH | Michael Cohen returns to court to testify at Trump trial: 

Months later, reports surfaced that Cohen was considering testifying before the Mueller probe into Russian collusion in 2016. His relationship soured with Costello, who again sent messages urging him not to flip on Trump.

At that point, in the spring of 2018, he said his family persuaded him to stop lying for Trump. He made a promise to them: "I would not lie for President Trump any longer."

He subsequently pleaded guilty to tax fraud, lying to Congress, and to a federal election finance crime, in a payoff to another Trump paramour peripherally related to this case.

There came the pre-emptive move from Hoffinger who, in an attempt to inoculate her witness, asked him repeatedly about all these misdeeds and — crucially — about why he committed them.

Cohen's reply: "For the benefit of Donald J. Trump."

His lies for Trump included his one-time insistence that he had paid Daniels out of generosity for a friend, not expecting a refund; his lies to Congress denying Trump was trying to get a skyscraper built in Moscow during the 2016 election; and a misleading 2018 letter to the Federal Election Commission saying Trump had never refunded him for the Daniels payments.

What Cohen, and the prosecution, left out, is that some of his criminal charges were unrelated to Trump — including tax-evasion charges involving Cohen's taxi business.

Visitors to the courthouse

Outside the courthouse Tuesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson referred to Cohen as a known liar. Others rumoured to be candidates for roles in a future Trump administration came to the courtroom, and did interviews and rage-tweeted against the case.

They've included lawmakers Byron Donalds, Nicole Malliotakis and J.D. Vance, former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, and Doug Burgum, the sitting governor of North Dakota. They were seated in the front row of the courthouse, with Trump's son Eric.

Trump, for his part, has shown little emotion inside the courthouse. In fact, for many minutes Tuesday, his eyes were closed, with his head was titled sideways, as if sleeping — a common occurrence throughout the trial.

But the cross-examination appeared to lift Republicans' spirits.

In the second row of the gallery, congressman Byron Donalds giggled with Trump associate Boris Epshteyn, as Cohen tried to avoid admitting to lying, before admitting it.

Even some members of the jury stifled giggles, as the defence burst out its rapid-fire succession of profane quoted insults. Others chuckled aloud.

Asked about a topic that once drew him a criminal conviction for perjury, Cohen first said he had been "inaccurate," then that he'd been "untruthful," then finally admitted he'd lied and said the terms all meant the same thing.

Donalds repeatedly shook his head in amusement. Moments later, Trump's son, Eric, smiled broadly at members of the entourage, as he returned to the courtroom following a break.

It's unclear how much Cohen's testimony or his grilling will sway the jury: Some legal analysts have opined that this is primarily a documents case, where the human witnesses add context to bank records and invoices.