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Michael Cohen pressed on his crimes and lies as defense attacks key Trump hush money trial witness

May 15, 2024, 9:01 PM | Updated: May 16, 2024, 1:26 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — With prosecutors’ hush money case against Donald Trump barreling toward its end, defense lawyers pressed former attorney Michael Cohen on his criminal history and past lies Thursday as they worked to convince jurors not to believe the star witness’ pivotal testimony.

As Trump looked on, defense attorney Todd Blanche peppered Cohen with questions about his own misdeeds, painting him to the jury as a serial fabulist who is bent on seeing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee behind bars.

Whether the defense is successful in undermining Cohen’s testimony could determine Trump’s fate in the case. Over several days on the witness stand, 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.

Trump’s attorneys are seizing on Cohen’s checkered past to try to sow doubt in jurors’ minds over his version of the story, underscoring the risk of prosecutors’ reliance on Cohen.

Cohen acknowledged lying to Congress about work he did on a Trump real estate deal in Russia. He also testified that he lied under oath when he pleaded guilty to federal charges, including tax fraud, in 2018.

The defense also attacked Cohen’s motivations, suggesting he turned on Trump after he was denied a White House job. Blanche confronted Cohen with a a series of text messages showing private conversations he had in November 2016. In one message, Cohen texted his daughter that he still had a shot at becoming the president’s chief of staff. Another shows Cohen telling a friend that she could serve as his assistant once he gets the position.

“The truth is, Mr. Cohen, you really wanted to work in the White House, correct?” asked Blanche. “No sir,” Cohen replied.

Cohen is 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 stories feared to be harmful to his 2016 campaign.

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,” he 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 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. House Speaker Mike Johnson appeared Tuesday.

Gaetz later posted a photo on social media of him standing behind Trump in court, with the words, “Standing back, and standing by, Mr. President.” That is a phrase that the Proud Boys, an extremist group whose leaders were convicted of seditious conspiracy after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, have used since Trump, during a 2020 campaign debate, said: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”

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, in earlier testimony, told jurors how his life and relationship with Trump were upended after the FBI raided his office, apartment and hotel room in 2018. Trump initially showered him with affection on social media and predicted that Cohen would not “flip.” Trump’s tone changed when, months later, Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign-finance charges and implicated him in the hush money scheme. Trump was not charged with a crime related to the federal investigation.

Cohen also described a meeting in which he says he and Trump discussed with Allen Weisselberg, a former Trump Organization chief financial officer, how the reimbursements for Cohen’s $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels would be paid as legal services over monthly installments. That’s important because prosecutors say the reimbursements were falsely logged as legal expenses to conceal the payments’ true purpose.

Defense lawyers are expected to question Cohen through the end of the day on Thursday. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office has said it will rest its case once he’s 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. Blanche told Judge Juan M. Merchan on Tuesday that the defense may call one expert witness and that there was still no determination on whether Trump would take the stand.

In any event, the trial will take Friday off so Trump can attend the high school graduation of his youngest son, Barron.

___

Richer reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Jake Offenhartz and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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Michael Cohen pressed on his crimes and lies as defense attacks key Trump hush money trial witness