Donald Trump

Can You Believe What Michael Cohen Just Said at the Trump Trial?

Author: Editors Desk Source: The New Yorker
May 14, 2024 at 16:01
A photo of Michael Cohen pictured in profile. Photograph by Mike Segar / Reuters Aft
A photo of Michael Cohen pictured in profile. Photograph by Mike Segar / Reuters Aft

The star witness in the former President’s criminal trial is also the most aggrieved and seemingly unreliable one.

After Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, was released from prison, in 2020, he became very online. He launched a podcast, “Mea Culpa,” with the goal of righting “the wrongs he perpetuated on behalf of his former boss,” according to the show’s description on Apple Podcasts. Early episodes featured Rosie O’Donnell and Anthony Scaramucci discussing the cult of Trump; more recently, Cohen had brought on the Navy cryptologist turned cable-news commentator Malcolm Nance and the former Trump ghostwriter Tony Schwartz. On TikTok, Cohen has posted gleefully about the prospect of the former President, who is currently on trial in Manhattan, going to prison. (“Trump 2024? More like Trump twenty to twenty-four years,” he said during one of his nightly live streams.) On X, Cohen has even started openly praising the current President. “Thank you @POTUS @JoeBiden,” he wrote, in response to an interview that Biden did with CNN about the protests on college campuses. “There is no place in this country, or the world, for anti-semitism, racism or hate!”

He who once endeavored to own the libs has set out to court them. Though this strategy has earned Cohen a decent audience on social media—more than six hundred thousand followers on X, and nearly three hundred thousand on TikTok, where his live-stream viewers have been sending him donations—it presents a problem for the prosecutors in Trump’s criminal trial, who are relying on Cohen as their star witness. In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign-finance violations, in connection with hush money that he paid to the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 Presidential election. He has now testified that Trump expressly asked him to do this. Basically, the case against the former President is riding on the willingness of a jury to believe the words of a notorious turncoat—a man who went from vowing to “take a bullet” for Trump to writing memoirs literally titled “Disloyal” and “Revenge.” A man used to bluffing, bootlicking, and bullying for a living, who has also admitted to lying to Congress. A man who has nothing left to lose by testifying against his old boss.

Back in 2019, there were lawyers in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office who were opposed to bringing the case against Trump on the ground that it would have to rely too heavily on Cohen, who was unreliable. “He struck me as a somewhat feral creature,” one former prosecutor, who found Cohen credible, wrote. The first month of Trump’s trial has been, in some ways, a long setup for Cohen’s testimony, with prosecutors calling other witnesses in the hope of corroborating in advance as much as they could of what would later come out of Cohen’s mouth. Many of these witnesses could not resist taking shots at Cohen. Hope Hicks, Trump’s former communications aide, said that Cohen was a “fixer” only in the sense that “he first broke it.” Keith Davidson, Stormy Daniels’s former lawyer, referred to Cohen as a “pants-on-fire kind of guy.” Even Cohen’s former First Republic banker, Gary Farro, acknowledged that Cohen was a difficult customer. “Everything was urgent with Michael Cohen,” he said.

Cohen may have been “highly excitable,” as Davidson put it, but prosecutors need jurors to believe that he wasn’t so excitable that he then went rogue in covering up a scandal for the future President. It doesn’t help that he always appears shifty, even on the witness stand—his eyebrows sit high on his face, making him look like a basset hound, and one brow naturally arches about an inch above the other. On Monday, his first day on the stand, he wore a light-pink tie. “He said to me, ‘This is a disaster, total disaster,’ ” Cohen told the court, describing Trump’s reaction to finding out that, in the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” tape’s release, Daniels was shopping around a story about having sex with him in 2006. “ ‘Women are going to hate me,’ ” Cohen continued, mimicking Trump’s intonation. “ ‘Guys may think it’s cool, but this is going to be a disaster for the campaign.’ ” Cohen said that Trump instructed him to hammer out a deal to buy the rights to the story from Daniels and to delay payment for as long as possible: “What he had said to me is ‘What I want you to do is just push it out as long as you can. Just get past the election, because, if I win, it has no relevance, I will be President. If I lose, I don’t even care.’ ”

These quotes sound like Trump. But no other witness can corroborate them. When it comes to these and other conversations between Cohen and his old boss, prosecutors can only offer jurors Cohen’s word. To try to give them a sense of who they were listening to, the Assistant District Attorney Susan Hoffinger prompted Cohen to speak about his childhood on Long Island, as the son of Holocaust survivors, about the heady early days of his employment at the Trump Organization, and about his dismay in late 2016 when he found out that Trump had cut the size of his annual bonus. “I was truly insulted, personally hurt by it,” Cohen said. “Didn’t understand it. Made no sense.”

Last week, when Stormy Daniels took the stand, Hoffinger struggled to control the actress’s testimony. Judge Juan Merchan became frustrated with the amount of graphic detail that Daniels gave about her sexual encounter with Trump—missionary position, no condom—and Trump’s lawyers asked for a mistrial. There was reason to expect that Cohen’s testimony would be equally dramatic: Trump’s lawyers had already complained to the judge about Cohen bashing the former President on TikTok while Trump himself is under a gag order that prohibits him from posting about Cohen and the other witnesses in the case. But Cohen’s testimony on Monday was surprisingly subdued. He kept his answers to Hoffinger’s questions short and to the point, accepted her premises, and often looked to her for approval when he was done responding. “Did you at times during your work for the Trump Organization, for Mr. Trump, bully people for him?” Hoffinger asked. “Yes, Ma’am,” Cohen said. “Why did you do that?” she asked, to which Cohen replied, “The only thing that was on my mind was to accomplish the task to make him happy.” Online, Cohen may still be a feral creature, but in court he seemed thoroughly domesticated. (We have yet to see how he fares during cross-examination.)

Trump, who has pleaded not guilty in the case, spent much of the day with his eyes closed. He has appeared to doze through many of his days in court, but he seemed especially determined to play it cool with his old lawyer on the stand. He didn’t whisper much in his attorneys’ ears, or slap them on the arm to get their attention. At times, he looked engrossed as he read through documents that he’d brought with him to the defense table. (New York magazine’s Andrew Rice reported that the pages included the latest Times voter poll.) His lawyers objected only sparingly as Cohen testified on Monday, and called for no sidebar conversations with the judge.

The Trump courtroom has become an unofficial venue for Trump World courtiers. On Monday, Trump was accompanied to court by Senators J. D. Vance and Tommy Tuberville. On Tuesday, North Dakota’s governor, Doug Burgum, the former Presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy, and Representative Byron Donalds were all in attendance. I wondered if, as they watched Cohen get questioned, they considered the possibility of their own future of apostasy. Trump is always Trump, but his hangers-on are all a wrong turn or two from becoming Michael Cohens. Earlier in the trial, Keith Davidson, Daniels’s former lawyer who worked with Cohen to arrange the hush-money payment, recalled talking to Cohen during the Presidential transition in late 2016. Cohen had been dreaming of a big White House job, but he ultimately settled for the non-governmental title of personal attorney to the President. “I thought he was gonna kill himself,” Davidson said, of Cohen. On Monday, Hoffinger asked Cohen if he had been disappointed not to get the job of White House chief of staff. “I didn’t believe the role was right for me or that I was even competent to be chief of staff,” he said. “But I wanted to at least be considered. It was more about my ego than anything.” 


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Eric Lach, a staff writer, has contributed to the magazine since 2008. His column on life in New York City appears regularly on
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