Will jurors believe Michael Cohen? Defense keys on witness' credibility at Trump's hush money trial

NEW YORK (AP) — With prosecutors’ hush money case against Donald Trump barreling toward its end, their star witness will be back in the hot seat Thursday as defense lawyers try to chip away at Michael Cohen’s crucial testimony implicating the former president.

The trial, now in its fourth week of testimony, will resume in Manhattan with potentially explosive defense cross−examination of Cohen, whose credibility could determine the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s fate in the case.

Cohen is prosecutors’ final witness — at least for now — as they try to prove Trump schemed to suppress a damaging story he feared would torpedo his 2016 presidential campaign and then falsified business records to cover it up.

With the defense not expected to call many witnesses, Cohen’s cross−examination is a pivotal moment for Trump’s team, who must convince jurors that his once loyal attorney and fixer can’t be believed. The defense has suggested that Cohen is on a mission to take down the former president and will say whatever he needs to put Trump behind bars.

Over two days on the witness stand, Cohen placed Trump directly at the center of the alleged scheme to stifle negative stories to fend off damage to his White House bid. Cohen told jurors that Trump promised to reimburse him for the money he fronted and was constantly updated about efforts to silence women who alleged sexual encounters with him. Trump denies the women’s claims.

Cohen also described a meeting in which he says he and Trump discussed with Allen Weisselberg, a former Trump Organization chief financial officer, how the reimbursements for Cohen’s $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels would be paid as legal services over monthly installments. That’s important because prosecutors say the reimbursements were falsely logged as legal expenses to conceal the payments’ true purpose.

Trump says the payments to Cohen were properly categorized as legal expenses and the prosecution is an effort to torpedo his campaign to reclaim the White House. His defense has suggested that he was trying to protect his family, not his campaign, by squelching what he says were false, scurrilous claims.

Cohen told jurors how his life and relationship with Trump were upended after the FBI raided his office, apartment and hotel room in 2018. Trump initially showered him with affection on social media and predicted that Cohen would not “flip.” Trump’s tone changed when, months later, Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance charges and implicated him in the hush money scheme. Trump was not charged with a crime related to the federal investigation.

Prosecutors tried to blunt the defense attacks on their star witness by getting him to acknowledge at the outset his past crimes, including lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project that he had pursued on Trump’s behalf during the heat of the 2016 campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton. Cohen admitted on the witness stand a slew of other lies, including many he says were designed to protect Trump. The defense is expected to seize on his history of falsehoods to cast doubt on his testimony.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche began grilling Cohen on Tuesday with questions unrelated to the criminal charges but designed to show that Cohen turned on Trump because he wanted fame and revenge. Blanche confronted Cohen with profane social media posts, a podcast and books about the former president, getting Cohen to acknowledge that he has made millions of dollars off his new persona as one of Trump’s fiercest critics.

Defense lawyers are expected to question Cohen through the end of the day on Thursday. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office has said it will rest its case once he’s 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 defense isn’t obligated to call any witnesses, and it’s unclear whether the attorneys will do so. Blanche told Judge Juan M. Merchan on Tuesday that the defense may call one expert witness and that there was still no determination on whether Trump would take the stand.

In any event, the trial will take Friday off so Trump can attend the high school graduation of his youngest son, Barron.

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Richer reported from Washington.

Michael R. Sisak, Jake Offenhartz, Jennifer Peltz And Alanna Durkin Richer, The Associated Press

Photo: AP