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Trump lawyers vs. Michael Cohen: 5 takeaways

Former President Trump’s lawyers began their quest to undercut his former attorney-turned-enemy Michael Cohen on Tuesday.

The cross-examination got off to a fiery and profane start after Cohen had been questioned by the prosecution for about a day and a half.

Cohen is a pivotal figure in the trial because he paid porn actor Stormy Daniels $130,000 in the final stretch of the 2016 election campaign. The money was intended to stop Daniels going public with her story of having sex with Trump at a celebrity golf event at Lake Tahoe a decade earlier.

Cohen was later reimbursed from Trump’s personal account and a related trust.

At issue is whether those payments amounted to legitimate payments for legal services, as Trump contends, or whether they were misclassified, as prosecutors allege.

The prosecution’s case is that the payments were intentionally mislabeled to conceal their true purpose — to silence Daniels and thereby boost Trump’s chances of prevailing in the election.

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

He denies all wrongdoing and also denies he had sex with Daniels.

Here are five takeaways from day 17 of the trial.

Sparks fly as Cohen cross-examination begins

The tone of the cross-examination of Cohen was set from the earliest moments. 

The lead defense attorney, Todd Blanche, asked Cohen whether he had called him a “crying little shit” in a TikTok video.

“Sounds like something I would say,” Cohen responded.

Blanche went on to paint Cohen as fundamentally unreliable, citing past examples when the witness had paid extravagant tribute to Trump, noting his current desire to see Trump convicted and drawing attention to the anti-Trump merchandise Cohen now sells.

At one point, Blanche asked Cohen whether he was “motivated by fame.” 

Cohen denied this, saying it was not “fair” and that he was motivated “by many things.”

Cohen, a convicted felon, is plainly not a lily-white witness. But the prosecution had covered some unflattering ground already — presumably in an effort to take the sting out of the cross-examination.

Team Trump isn’t done with Cohen yet, however. He will return to the stand when the trial reconvenes Thursday.

As the afternoon wore on, some of the early tension seemed to fade. 

Speaker Johnson arrives to back up Trump

Trump has been accompanied to court by an expanding entourage in recent days, including prominent elected officials such as Sens. Rick Scott (Fla.) and JD Vance (Ohio).

On Tuesday, a fresh stir was created when Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) turned up to show support.

Johnson addressed the media outside the courthouse, calling the trial a “sham.” He also lambasted Cohen as a man bent on “personal revenge.” 

More broadly, Johnson endorsed Trump’s view of the trial as a politicized effort by Democrats to hobble President Biden’s opponent in November’s election.

In some ways, none of this is surprising. The GOP has been largely remade in Trump’s image, and Johnson in particular is eager to maintain his closeness to the former president. The Speaker’s efforts in that regard have paid political dividends, with Trump publicly opposing efforts to oust Johnson.

Still, Johnson’s presence was also a reminder of how the features of the current political scene would have been unimaginable a decade ago: The man second in line to the Oval Office showed up to back a former president accused of 34 felonies — and who has another three criminal trials pending.

Back at the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to be drawn on whether Johnson’s presence at the trial was appropriate.

“He makes his choices on what he does,” Jean-Pierre told reporters.

Cohen testifies to Trump’s awareness of deal

The core of the case against Trump lies in two questions: First, is it true or false that the money paid from Trump to Cohen covered legal expenses? Second, was the original hush money payment to Daniels made for electoral purposes rather than to save Trump personal embarrassment?

Cohen testified repeatedly Tuesday that the money he got from Trump was not for legal fees and that the two men had no retainer agreement at the time.

He also testified about a visit to the White House in early 2017, less than a month into Trump’s presidency.

By Cohen’s account, Trump displayed an awareness during this Oval Office meeting of the terms of the reimbursement, discussing with Cohen some imminent payments and telling him to “deal with Allen” — a reference to Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s long-standing chief financial officer.

Those details, delivered in response to questions from the prosecution, could prove crucial.

Big question — will Trump testify? — hangs in the air

Cohen is expected to be the final prosecution witness in a trial that so far appears to be moving on, or slightly ahead, of schedule.

The biggest question remaining is whether Trump will testify in his own defense.

An exchange Tuesday revealed only that the answer remains unknown.

The Associated Press noted that a court transcript included an exchange out of earshot of the assembled media in which Judge Juan Merchan asked Blanche whether there was any “determination” yet as to whether Trump would testify.

“No,” Blanche responded.

Gag order stays in place

The never-ending saga of the gag order against Trump had yet another turn Tuesday.

The former president has complained constantly that the order — which bans him from attacking witnesses, court officials and the judge’s family, among others — unfairly prevents him from hitting back at public accusations against him.

Trump’s lawyers had previously asked a state appeals court to loosen or terminate the order.

On Tuesday, it declined to do so. The order remains in place.

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