Opinion: Michael Cohen Propels Prosecution of Trump Past Critical Threshold | VIDEOs

By
Norman Eisen
Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen

*(CNN) — Michael Cohen, former President Donald Trump’s onetime lawyer and fixer, faced the man he simply called “Boss” as he began testifying in the Manhattan Trump trial on Monday. It was the most important day yet in what had already shaped up as the trial of the century.

Cohen was one of the first witnesses I interviewed as part of the first Trump impeachment, as I was investigating the 2016 alleged election interference now at issue in the former president’s hush money criminal trial. I expected someone very different from the person I met, who turned out to be candid, likable, and believable.

As we began his keenly anticipated appearance Monday, I think he exceeded expectations in how he presented to the jury, at least so far.

That’s no accident.

The District Attorney’s Office had methodically bolstered Cohen’s testimony beforehand with a series of credible witnesses and corroborating documents, gradually narrowing the universe of uncorroborated evidence that Cohen would need to provide.

Michael Cohen - screenshot
Michael Cohen – screenshot

And they continued that with their handling of Cohen in his first day on the stand. Both Assistant District Attorney Susan Hoffinger and Cohen carefully stepped through the origin of the Cohen-Trump relationship and its key aspects relevant to this prosecution and the $130,000 hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to keep her from going public with allegations that she and Trump had a sexual encounter (Trump denies having the tryst).

That included Cohen’s history serving as Trump’s fixer, addressing the real estate mogul’s thorniest problems. Cohen said he kept Trump closely apprised of developments on issues that would be “troubling to him” because “if Trump found out the information from somewhere else, it wouldn’t go well for you.”

The prosecution used that background in corroborating Cohen’s story about the Daniels payment by establishing the “catch-and-kill” scheme — buying and concealing media stories that could be damaging to Trump — of which it was a part. Cohen testified that he, American Media Inc. CEO David Pecker (the former publisher of the National Enquirer) and Trump met “in Mr. Trump’s office on the 26th floor” of Trump Tower. Corroborated by Pecker’s earlier testimony, Cohen explained their plan: Pecker would “keep an eye out for anything negative about Mr. Trump,” and “would be able to help us to know in advance what was coming out.” Trump’s reply, according to Cohen: “The two of you should work together. And anything negative that comes, you let Michael know, and we’ll handle it.”

Cohen testified to the execution of this catch-and-kill plan through his accounts of helping facilitate American Media payments to prevent potentially damaging stories from Dino Sajudin, a Trump Tower doorman who alleged Trump had a child with a former housekeeper, and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who claimed she had an affair with Trump. A gripping stretch of the testimony, adding yet more corroboration before we ever got to the hush money paid to Daniels, came when the prosecution played aloud a September 6, 2016, conversation Cohen recorded between himself and Trump discussing Pecker’s repayment for the $150,000 in hush money he paid McDougal.

As the tape came on, those of us in the courtroom heard Cohen’s unmistakable New York accent: “I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David [Pecker]” and “I’ve spoken to [Trump Organization CFO] Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up.” Then Trump’s voice came on: “So what do we got to pay for this? 150?” We even heard Trump directing the format of the payments to Cohen: “Pay with cash.”

By the time we got to October 2016, Cohen’s recollection of the “Access Hollywood” tape damage control and Daniels, we had multiple layers of corroboration showing a familiar pattern: paying hush money to avoid harm to the Trump campaign. Moreover, it was from a witness who had credibly presented himself and who was believable when he said he agreed to make the payment to Daniels himself with Trump’s approval.

The same was true when Cohen described working with Weisselberg and Trump on the 2017 cover-up. Cohen finished the day by testifying that the concealment of the repayment as income was agreed between the two of them and Trump in his office on January 16 or 17 of that year. Once again, the testimony was heavily corroborated, including by Weisselberg and Cohen’s notes about how the repayment was “grossed up” to account for taxes and by phone records.

Cohen will be the subject of a vigorous cross-examination by lead defense counsel Todd Blanche that will likely include the many lies Cohen now admits to having told, as well as Cohen’s guilty plea for perjury. But the prosecution’s effective strategy has significantly shortened the leap of faith the jury will have to take to believe him — as I did when I interviewed him.

Still, Monday was the most important day yet because it was the day that the prosecution crossed the barrier of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Cohen’s testimony about Trump’s intentional participation at every critical juncture of the scheme achieved that milestone. But Trump’s lawyers are effective, and they may push Cohen and the proof back to the other side of that demarcation on cross. That will likely begin Tuesday, making it an even more important day than Monday. In the meantime, prosecutors should be feeling very good about where the case is at.

Norm Eisen - screenshot
Norm Eisen – screenshot

Editor’s note: Norman Eisen is a CNN legal analyst and editor of “Trying Trump: A Guide to His First Election Interference Criminal Trial.” He served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee for the first impeachment and trial of then-President Donald Trump. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

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