Trump trial arrives at a pivotal moment: Star witness Michael Cohen is poised to take the stand

Advertisement

The star prosecution witness in Donald Trump’s hush money trial is set to take the stand Monday with testimony that could help shape the outcome of the first criminal case against an American president. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer, is by far the Manhattan district attorney’s most important witness in the case and his expected appearance signals that the trial is entering its final stretch. Prosecutors say they may wrap up their presentation of evidence by the end of the week.

Cohen is expected to testify about his role in arranging hush money payments on Trump’s behalf during his first presidential campaign, including to adult star Stormy Daniels, who told jurors last week that the USD 130,000 that she received in 2016 was meant to prevent her from going public about a sexual encounter she says she had with Trump in a hotel suite a decade earlier. He also matters because the reimbursements he received form the basis of the charges – 34 felony counts of falsifying business records – against Trump. Prosecutors say the reimbursements were logged as legal expenses to conceal the payments’ true purpose.

Defense lawyers have teed up a bruising cross-examination of Cohen, telling jurors during opening statements that the fixer-turned-foe is an “admitted liar” with an “obsession to get President Trump.” The testimony of a witness with such intimate knowledge of Trump’s activities could heighten the legal exposure of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee if jurors deem him sufficiently credible. But politically, prosecutors’ reliance on a witness with such a checkered past – Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the payments and to lying to Congress – could be a boon for Trump as he fundraises off his legal woes and paints the case as the product of a tainted criminal justice system.

Advertisement

Either way, his role as star prosecution witness further cements the disintegration of a mutually beneficial relationship that was once so close that Cohen famously said he’d “take a bullet for Trump.” After Cohen’s home and office were raided by the FBI in 2018, Trump showered him with affection on social media, praising him as a “fine person with a wonderful family” and predicting – incorrectly – that Cohen would not “flip.” Months later, Cohen did exactly that, pleading guilty that August to federal campaign-finance charges in which he implicated Trump.

By that point, the relationship was irrevocably broken, with Trump posting on the social media platform then known as Twitter: “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” Cohen later admitted lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project that he had pursued on Trump’s behalf during the heat of the 2016 Republican campaign. He said he lied to be consistent with Trump’s “political messaging.” Prosecutors are expected to elicit detailed testimony from Cohen about his past crimes in hopes of blunting the impact of defence lawyers’ questioning and showing that they’re not trying to hide his misdeeds.

But it’s unclear how effective that will be, given that defence lawyers will be prepared to exploit all the challenges that accompany a witness like Cohen. In addition to painting Cohen as untrustworthy, they’re also expected to cast him as vindictive, vengeful and agenda-driven. Since their fallout, Cohen has emerged as a relentless and sometimes crude critic of Trump, appearing as recently as last week in a live TikTok wearing a shirt featuring a figure resembling Trump with his hands cuffed, behind bars. The judge on Friday urged prosecutors to tell him to refrain from making any more statements about the case or Trump.

“He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump go to prison,” Trump attorney Todd Blanche said during opening statements. “He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump’s family go to prison. He has talked extensively about President Trump getting convicted in this case.” No matter how his testimony unfolds, Cohen is indisputably central to the case, as evidenced by the fact that his name was mentioned in the jury’s presence during opening statements more than 130 times – more than any other person.

Other witnesses, including former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker and former Trump adviser Hope Hicks, have testified at length about the role Cohen played in arranging to stifle stories that were feared to be harmful to Trump’s 2016 candidacy. And jurors heard an audio recording of Trump and Cohen discussing a plan to purchase the rights to a story of a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, who has said she had an affair with Trump.

During a massive rally on Saturday in the southern New Jersey resort town of Wildwood, Trump revived his criticism of the case, wrongly blaming President Joe Biden for orchestrating the New York charges, calling the case a “Biden show trial.” That argument ignores the reality that the hush money case was filed by local prosecutors in Manhattan who do not work for the Justice Department or any other White House office. The Justice Department has said the White House has had no involvement in the two criminal cases against Trump brought by special counsel Jack Smith.