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Cohen pressed on his crimes and lies as defence attacks key Trump trial witness

Michael Cohen on his way to court (Andres Kudacki)
Michael Cohen on his way to court (Andres Kudacki)

Donald Trump’s lawyers have accused the prosecution’s star witness in his hush money trial of lying to jurors.

They portrayed Trump fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen as a serial liar who is bent on seeing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee behind bars.

As Trump looked on, defence lawyer Todd Blanche pressed Mr 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 Mr Cohen’s crucial testimony implicating the former president.

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

Mr Blanche said that was a lie, confronting Mr 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. Mr Cohen said he believed he also spoke to Trump about the Daniels deal.

Former president Donald Trump in court
Former president Donald Trump in court (Mike Segar/Pool Photo via AP)

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

The heated moment was the crescendo of defence cross-examination over two days designed to portray Mr Cohen – a one-time 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.

Whether the defence is successful in undermining Mr Cohen’s testimony could determine Trump’s fate in the case.

Over the course of the trial’s fourth week of testimony, Mr 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 defence 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 the prosecutors’ reliance on Mr Cohen, who was peppered repeatedly with questions about his criminal history and past lies. Mr Cohen also testified that he lied under oath when he pleaded guilty to federal charges, including tax fraud, in 2018.

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen is prosecutors’ star witness in the case against Donald Trump (Andres Kudacki/AP)

“It was a lie? Correct?” Mr Blanche asked Mr Cohen about whether he lied to the late US district judge William H Pauley III at a court hearing about not being pressured into pleading guilty.

“Correct,” Mr Cohen said.

He is by far the prosecutors’ most important witness, placing Trump directly at the centre of the alleged scheme to silence women who claimed to have had sexual encounters with Trump. Trump denies the women’s claims.

Mr 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.

Mr 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 Mr Cohen were properly categorised as legal expenses because Mr Cohen was a lawyer. The defence has suggested that he was trying to protect his family, not his campaign, by suppressing what he says were false, scurrilous claims.

“The crime is that they’re doing this case,” Trump told reporters on Thursday before entering the courtroom, flanked by a group of congressional allies.

A court artist sketch of Michael Cohen
A court artist sketch of Michael Cohen (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Mr Blanche confronted Mr Cohen with profane social media posts, a podcast and books he wrote about the former president, getting Mr Cohen to acknowledge that he has made millions of dollars from criticising Trump. In one clip played in court on Thursday, Mr 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,” Mr Cohen was heard saying. “You better believe that I want this man to go down.”

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

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

Mr Cohen – the prosecutors’ final witness, at least for now – is expected to return to the witness stand on 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 Mr 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 defence is not obligated to call any witnesses, and it is unclear whether the lawyers 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.

Defence lawyers said they have not decided whether Trump will testify.