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Day 18 of Trump’s hush money trial

Michael Cohen endured his roughest hours on the witness stand to date on Thursday as former President Trump’s hush money trial reached its 18th day.

This week has been dominated by testimony from Cohen, Trump’s erstwhile attorney turned enemy. Thursday saw the most sustained attack on his credibility from the former president’s legal team.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. 

The underlying events revolve around a $130,000 payment to adult film actor Stormy Daniels in the closing days of the 2016 election. The money was intended to silence Daniels from going public with her claim that she had sex with Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe a decade earlier.

Cohen is a pivotal figure because he paid the money to Daniels out of his own funds. He was later reimbursed by Trump and a Trump-related trust— and had a bonus and other sums added.

Prosecutors contend these reimbursements were falsely classified as legal expenses to conceal their true purpose — muting Daniels and thereby helping Trump’s chances of winning the election.

Trump counters that the money paid to Cohen was indeed a legal expense, that he did nothing wrong, and that his prosecution is politically motivated. Trump also denies having sex with Daniels.

Here are the main takeaways from Thursday.

A fiery exchange over a phone call

The day’s most dramatic exchange was over a phone call — and whether Cohen had testified truthfully about it earlier this week.

Cohen made the call to the phone of Trump’s bodyguard, Keith Schiller, in 2016. 

Cohen has contended that he did this because he knew Schiller would be with Trump. Cohen says he and Trump went on to discuss the arrangements for paying off Daniels.

But Trump’s lead attorney, Todd Blanche, was able to cast some doubt on that account on Thursday.

Blanche noted that the call happened amid an unrelated minor drama in which Cohen was receiving harassing calls from a teenage prankster.

Text messages show that, in a period of about 15 minutes, Cohen texted Schiller asking for advice on the phone harassment, Schiller dialed back but his call went to voicemail, and Cohen then called Schiller for a conversation that lasted less than 100 seconds.

Blanche pressed Cohen hard, arguing that the call was really about the harassing calls and had nothing to do with Trump or Daniels. 

Cohen admitted that “part of it was about the phone calls” but stood firm that he had also spoken about the hush money to Trump.

“You had enough time in that one minute and 36 seconds to update Mr. Schiller about all the problems you were having with this harassing phone call and also update President Trump on the status of the Stormy Daniels situation?” a bemused Blanche asked.

Cohen insisted this was the case. But the exchange seems likely to have at least raised questions in the minds of the jurors about the accuracy of his earlier testimony.

Defense punches back on Cohen’s credibility

The exchange over the phone call was the sharpest-edged moment in a broader effort by Blanche to dismantle Cohen’s credibility.

The defense was always going to have plenty of material to work with in that regard. Cohen served time in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion, breaches of campaign finance law and lying to Congress.

Blanche brought up the false congressional testimony as well as Cohen’s account of how his plea deal was negotiated; whether he had ever sought a pardon; and whether he was disappointed not to get a position in the White House after Trump won the election. In each instance, he implied Cohen had been untruthful.

He also referenced some of Cohen’s gleeful commentary on his podcast about Trump’s legal troubles.

The whole effort was designed to paint Cohen as a liar motivated by resentment toward the former president.

A problem for the prosecution

Blanche appeared to hit the target in another way while cross-examining Cohen.

Earlier in the week, the prosecution had emphasized that Cohen had no legal retainer agreement at the time he was reimbursed by Trump. This, prosecutors suggested, was plain evidence that Trump’s business records were indeed falsified when those payments were classified as legal expenses.

But Blanche prodded that claim, noting that Cohen had done legal work for Trump and the Trump Organization for years without an official retainer. 

Blanche also got Cohen to confirm that there was nothing illegal, in itself, about the hush money agreement with Daniels.

“This is a perfectly legal contract, correct?” Blanche asked, according to The Associated Press.

“Yes sir,” Cohen replied.

Those rudimentary exchanges underlined Trump’s counternarrative: that every element of what transpired was legal.

Rep. Matt Gaetz arrives, bringing new controversy
Trump has come to court with a sizable entourage in recent days — including a revolving cast of Republican members of Congress.

On Thursday, Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Bob Good (Va.), Anna Paulina Luna (Fla.), and Mike Waltz (Fla.) were among those who came to offer support.

So numerous were the congressional supporters in New York that, back in Washington, one of two GOP-led votes targeting Attorney General Merrick Garland had to be pushed back.

Meanwhile, Gaetz — an ardent Trump loyalist with a penchant for controversy — ignited a new furor by posting a photo of himself behind the former president with the caption, “Standing back and standing by, Mr. President.”

The phrase appeared to be an allusion to a controversial Trump remark during a 2020 debate with President Biden. Asked about white supremacist groups and the Proud Boys, Trump responded: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”

The remark drew criticism from those who felt it was a nudge-and-wink call to the fringe group to be prepared to intervene, including with violence, if Trump lost the election.

The end is near — maybe

The trial is in its closing stages — probably.

The court will not sit on Friday to enable Trump to attend the high school graduation of his youngest son, Barron. 

Cohen is the prosecution’s final witness, and Blanche said he expected to conclude his cross-examination by midmorning Monday.

One huge and unresolved question is whether Trump will testify in his own defense. Otherwise, the former president’s legal team is not giving any indication that it plans to call a long list of witnesses.

Judge Juan Merchan on Thursday instructed the lawyers for both sides to be ready to deliver closing arguments Tuesday.

That’s far from a guaranteed schedule. But it does underscore that the first criminal trial of a former president looks to be in its final stretch.

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