Criminal Justice

One thing is already clear at Trump's NY trial: Nobody liked Michael Cohen

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Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen, longtime attorney for Donald Trump, in 2019. He will be a key prosecution witness later this month at Trump’s hush money trial. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

In the first weeks of testimony at Donald Trump’s hush money trial, witnesses have offered extensive evidence against the former president, describing in detail his efforts during the 2016 election to silence women who claimed to have had sex with him.

At times, however, the testimony has been just as devastating to Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen, who will be a key prosecution witness later this month.

“The moral of the story,” one witness testified Tuesday, “is that no one wanted to talk to Cohen.”

Jurors and prosecutors laughed.

Since rising to prominence as a lawyer and kind of attack dog for Trump, Cohen has become something of a national punching bag, mocked on “Saturday Night Live,” prosecuted by federal authorities, and lambasted by both the left and the right for his “shoot first, aim later” approach to the law and public relations.

In the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president, it will be critically important what the jury thinks of Cohen - and whether they believe his account that he was acting at Trump’s direction when he arranged hush money payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels in 2016 and took reimbursements the following year that were disguised as legal fees.

Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records to keep those payments secret. Witnesses and trial evidence have painted Cohen as Trump’s fixer, but also as an abrasive, arrogant and foul-mouthed fool.

Even the judge is apparently fed up with Cohen, warning in a ruling on Tuesday that if Cohen continues to attack Trump publicly, the judge may lift part of a gag order that prohibits Trump from going after Cohen.

During the trial, Cohen taunted Trump with a profanity on social media, suggesting his former client cannot control his bowels. He has also appeared in frequent live videos on TikTok.

Since pleading guilty in 2018 to federal crimes, including lying and tax evasion, Cohen has very publicly turned on Trump, denouncing him in books, podcasts, social media and interviews.

He acknowledges his past wrongdoing, says he is committed to telling the truth and has warned that there will be dire consequences for the country if Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee in the 2024 race, again wins the presidency.

“Michael Cohen has fully embraced a role that is common and popular in American life - the role of the repentant sinner,” said Ronald Kuby, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in New York. “And he embraces his penance with the same degree of passion and fervor with which he embraced his sins. It’s rather remarkable.”

Managing such a flawed witness as Cohen is a tricky proposition for prosecutors, who appear to be relying on the lawyer’s maxim that the jurors should hear about Cohen’s problems first from them - rather than from Trump’s team. While it may seem odd for prosecutors to have spent so much time and energy trashing their own witness, that is a deliberate and necessary legal strategy, said veteran criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor Robert Katzberg.

“This is an interesting trial, in that you have the most problematic defendant and the most problematic witness in the same case,” Katzberg said. “Prosecutors guard their credibility with the jury by bringing out all the bad stuff on direct examination. A prosecutor never wants to be seen by the jury as hiding something from them.”

Kuby said Cohen’s misdeeds “pale in comparison” with some other people who plead guilty to crimes and then cooperate with prosecutors, including mafia hit men and terrorists. And to the degree the jury dislikes Cohen, that may still boomerang against Trump, because Cohen “will be firmly seen as Trump’s guy,” Kuby said.

Still, at points during the testimony, prosecutors seemed to be doing more damage to Cohen than to Trump.

Gary Farro, Cohen’s former banker, testified that he was told when he got him as a client that Cohen was “difficult” and that the bank stopped handling accounts for him when it realized he was dishonest about his transactions.

“He was a challenging client because of his desire to get things done so quickly,” Farro said.

The jury also saw texts from a former National Enquirer editor who called Cohen “hopeless.”

The most devastating courtroom account of Cohen came from Keith Davidson, a Los Angeles lawyer who negotiated the hush money deal at the heart of the prosecution case. Davidson, who is expected back on the stand on Thursday, described miserable experiences dealing with Cohen.

Their first interaction was in 2011, when a talent manager named Gina Rodriguez asked Davidson to call a person she said had just been abusive to her over the phone.

“Some jerk called me and was very, very aggressive and threatened to sue me,” Rodriguez told Davidson, the lawyer testified.

“Who was that jerk?” asked prosecutor Joshua Steinglass.

“It was Michael Cohen,” Davidson replied.

When he called Cohen, Davidson said, he introduced himself, “and before I could barely get my name out, I was just met with, like, a hostile barrage of insults and insinuations and allegations. That went on for quite a while … He was just screaming.”

Years later, Davidson said ruefully, he was brought in to represent Daniels as she negotiated the hush money payment, because “no one wanted to talk to Cohen.”

After the deal was signed, Cohen didn’t pay and offered nonsensical explanations for the delay, Davidson testified. The computers were down. The Secret Service was making problems. It was a religious holiday.

“It was excuses. It was contradictions,” said Davidson, adding that he told Cohen at one point: “I don’t really believe a word that you are saying.”

Cohen “created this drama and this situation … He was highly excitable, sort of a ‘pants on fire’ kind of guy,” Davidson said. “He had a lot of things going on. Frequently I would be on the phone with him, he would take another call, he would be talking out of two ears.”

Davidson compared Cohen to the excitable dog character in the animated movie “Up,” constantly distracted by random things, particularly squirrels.

He probably will not be the last witness to tell the jury bad things about Cohen. Daniels, who is also expected to testify in the case, wrote in her book that Cohen was “a complete [expletive] moron.”

Still, not all of the evidence presented in the Manhattan criminal courthouse about Cohen has been negative.

On Tuesday, prosecutors played a short clip of a 2016 C-SPAN video featuring Trump talking about his then-fixer.

“Michael Cohen is a very talented lawyer,” Trump said.

Perry Stein contributed to this report.

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