Trump's defense takes aim at ex-fixer Michael Cohen at trial

Former US President Donald Trump speaks to the press with his lawyer Todd Blanche at the end of the day of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 14, 2024. [AFP]

Donald Trump's lawyers on Tuesday got their first stab at Michael Cohen, the former president's confidante-turned-foe,trying to paint him as a money-hungry, untrustworthy narrator.

But the first two hours of defense attorney Todd Blanche's questioning packed less of a punch than expected, even as senior Republican allies increasingly politicized the proceedings by showing up to support Trump -- who is again running for the White House but forced to sit through his own criminal trial, the first of any former US president.

His most high-profile entourage to date turned out for the trial, including House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson and pro-Trump politicians vying to be on the defendant's vice-presidential shortlist.

But the focus was squarely on Cohen, who served as Trump's "fixer" for years and described himself as a repentant former surrogate who was "knee-deep into the cult of Donald Trump."

Trump is accused of falsifying business records as he reimbursed Cohen for a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election, when her account of a sexual encounter with the then-Republican nominee could have doomed his campaign.

The prosecution painstakingly detailed the alleged crimes, walking Cohen and the jury through the issue of 11 checks -- most signed by Trump -- in return for invoices Cohen said were falsified to cover up the hush money reimbursement.

Cohen said he had made the payments "to ensure that the story would not come out, would not affect Mr Trump's chances of becoming president of the United States."

He told prosecutors he arranged for the payment and reimbursements in an illegal scheme "on behalf of Mr. Trump"

The prosecution questioned Cohen all day Monday and all morning Tuesday before turning him over to Team Trump.

The cross-examination started off combative -- but quickly turned tepid  and convoluted.

Defense lawyer Todd Blanche's first question was stricken from the record, after he asked Cohen if he had called him an expletive on TikTok.

"Why are you making this about yourself?" the judge asked Blanche, according to a transcript of the sidebar that jurors did not hear.

After that, Blanche was largely deferential to Cohen, who despite having a reputation for a temper was mostly measured as he answered a laundry list of questions whose overall purpose was not particularly clear.

But the defense will resume Thursday morning -- there is no session Wednesday -- and it's possible they're saving their heat for when the jury has had some rest.

A number of jurors appeared increasingly weary over the course of Blanche's approximately two hours of cross examination after the lunch break, with a couple letting out yawns and wiping their eyes.

Even some court officers guarding the aisles couldn't quite hold their composure.

"Almost there," one weary officer quipped to another as the afternoon crawled to the finish line.


Cohen, 57, is crucial to the Manhattan district attorney's case. Right out of the gate Trump's lawyers have sought to undermine his credibility, and it's expected they'll try to drive that point home Thursday.

Cohen spent 13 months in jail and another year and a half under house arrest after pleading guilty in 2018 to lying to Congress and committing financial crimes.

Speaking to prosecutors he said Trump had reassured him after FBI agents, seeking evidence of the bank fraud and hush money payments at the heart of the case, raided his hotel room and office in April 2018.

"Don't worry, everything's going to be fine, I'm the president of the United States," Cohen recalled Trump saying.

"I felt reassured because I had the president of the United States protecting me," Cohen testified.

But in a poignant moment under direct questioning, he said his dedication to protecting Trump frayed when his family voiced exasperation, asking "why are you holding on to this loyalty?"

"We are supposed to be your first loyalty," Cohen said his family told him.

"It was about time to listen to them."

'Protect my boss'

On Monday, Cohen told jurors how he arranged the payment to Daniels to prevent her from going public about her alleged 2006 tryst with the married Trump, a revelation that could have been "catastrophic" to his White House bid.

His testimony largely corroborated that of both Daniels and David Pecker, the former tabloid boss who says he colluded with Cohen and Trump to stifle unflattering stories of the then-presidential hopeful.

Trump, 77, has denied having sex with Daniels, and his lawyers last week unsuccessfully asked Judge Juan Merchan for a mistrial.

Even if he is convicted in the hush money case, Trump could still run in the November election and be sworn in as president.

In a bid to cast him as disgruntled and out for blood, Blanche on Thursday asked Cohen several times whether he wanted to see his former boss convicted.

Cohen at first equivocated -- saying "accountability" was the goal.

"I'm just asking you to say yes or no," Blanche asked again. "Do you want to see president Trump convicted in this case?"

Cohen then flashed a bit of his blunter side.

"Sure," he said.