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Politics

Michael Cohen Pressed on His Crimes and Lies as Defense Attacks Key Trump Hush Money Trial Witness

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s lawyers accused the star prosecution witness in his hush money trial of lying to jurors, portraying Trump fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen on Thursday as a serial fabulist who is bent on seeing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee behind bars.

As Trump looked on, defense attorney Todd Blanche pressed Cohen for hours with questions that focused as much on his misdeeds as on the case’s specific allegations and tried to sow doubt in jurors’ minds about Cohen’s crucial testimony implicating the former president.

Blanche’s voice rose as he interrogated Cohen with phone records and text messages over Cohen’s claim that he spoke by phone to Trump about the hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels that is at the heart of the case, days before wiring her lawyer $130,000.

Blanche said that was a lie, confronting Cohen with texts indicating that what was on his mind, at least initially, during the phone call were harassing calls he was getting from an apparent 14-year-old prankster. Cohen said he believed he also spoke to Trump about the Daniels deal.

“We are not asking for your belief. This jury does not want to hear what you think happened,” Blanche said, his voice growing even louder, prompting an objection from the prosecutor.

The heated moment was the crescendo of defense cross-examination over two days designed to portray Cohen — a onetime Trump loyalist who has become one of his biggest foes — as a media-obsessed opportunist who turned on the former president after he was denied a White House job.

Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, Thursday, May 16, 2024. (Jeenah Moon/Pool Photo via AP)

Whether the defense is successful in undermining Cohen’s testimony could determine Trump’s fate in the case. Over the course of the trial’s fourth week of testimony, Cohen described for jurors meetings and conversations he said he had with Trump about the alleged scheme to stifle stories about sex that threatened to torpedo Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Prosecutors have tried to blunt the defense attacks on their star witness by getting him to acknowledge at the outset his past crimes, including a guilty plea for lying to Congress about work he did on a Trump real estate deal in Russia.

But the cross-examination underscored the risk of prosecutors’ reliance on Cohen, who was peppered repeatedly with questions about his criminal history and past lies. Cohen also testified that he lied under oath when he pleaded guilty to federal charges, including tax fraud, in 2018.

“It was a lie? Correct?” Blanche asked Cohen about whether he lied to the late U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III at a court hearing about not feeling pressured into pleading guilty.

“Correct,” Cohen said.

The defense also attacked Cohen’s motivations and elicited testimony designed to support the defense’s argument that the Daniels deal was essentially a shakedown of Trump, rather than a plot to keep voters in the dark. Cohen acknowledged telling a former prosecutor that he felt Daniels and her lawyer were extorting Trump in seeking the $130,000 payment to keep quiet about her claim of a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump.

“Yes, I recall making a statement like that … that they were extorting Mr. Trump,” Cohen told jurors.

He’s by far prosecutors’ most important witness, placing Trump directly at the center of the alleged scheme to silence women who claimed to have had sexual encounters with Trump. Trump denies the women’s claims. Cohen told jurors that Trump promised to reimburse him for the money he fronted and was constantly updated about behind-the-scenes efforts to bury potentially detrimental stories.

Cohen also matters because the reimbursements he received form the basis of 34 felony counts charging Trump with falsifying business records. Prosecutors say the reimbursements were logged, falsely, as legal expenses to conceal the payments’ true purpose.

Trump, who insists the prosecution is an effort to damage his campaign to reclaim the White House, says the payments to Cohen were properly categorized as legal expenses because Cohen was a lawyer. The defense has suggested that he was trying to protect his family, not his campaign, by squelching what he says were false, scurrilous claims.

“The crime is that they’re doing this case,” Trump told reporters Thursday before entering the courtroom, flanked by a group of congressional allies that included Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.; Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.; and Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., the chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.

The hard-right Republican lawmakers stood outside the courthouse and railed against a “kangaroo court” and the case, amplifying the former president’s attacks on the judicial system as they were heckled but also cheered by the crowd. The former president has been joined at the courthouse in recent days by a slew of conservative supporters, including some considered potential vice presidential picks and others angling for future administration roles.

Among those at the courthouse Thursday were Republican members of the House Oversight Committee, which delayed a hearing on an effort to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress so the lawmakers could appear alongside Trump in Manhattan.

Blanche confronted Cohen with profane social media posts, a podcast and books he wrote about the former president, getting Cohen to acknowledge that he has made millions of dollars off slamming Trump. In one clip played in court Thursday, Cohen could be heard using an expletive and saying he truly hopes “that this man ends up in prison.”

“It won’t bring back the year that I lost or the damage done to my family. But revenge is a dish best served cold,” Cohen was heard saying. “You better believe that I want this man to go down.”

Cohen acknowledged he has continued to attack Trump, even during the trial.

In one social media post cited by the defense attorney, Cohen called Trump an alliterative and explicit nickname, as well as an “orange-crusted ignoramus.” Asked if he used the phrase, Cohen responded: “Sounds correct.”

Cohen — prosecutors’ final witness, at least for now — is expected to return to the witness stand Monday. The trial will take Friday off so Trump can attend the high school graduation of his youngest son, Barron.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office has said it will rest its case once Cohen is done on the stand, though it could have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses if Trump’s lawyers put on witnesses of their own.

The defense isn’t obligated to call any witnesses, and it’s unclear whether the attorneys will do so. Trump’s lawyers have said they may call Bradley A. Smith, a Republican who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to the Federal Election Commission, to refute the prosecution’s contention that the hush money payments amounted to campaign-finance violations. Defense lawyers said they have not decided whether Trump will testify.

___
By MICHAEL R. SISAK, JENNIFER PELTZ, JAKE OFFENHARTZ and ALANNA DURKIN RICHER Associated Press

Richer reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Michelle L. Price and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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