A tense day at the Trump trial: From the Politics Desk

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Welcome to the online version of From the Politics Desk, an evening newsletter that brings you the NBC News Politics team’s latest reporting and analysis from the campaign trail, the White House and Capitol Hill.

In today’s edition, we have the latest news from a tense day at the Trump trial and what to expect next. Plus, senior national politics reporter Jonathan Allen breaks down why Biden's debate challenge shows he's worried about where his 2024 bod stands.

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‘That was a lie!’: Trump’s lawyer gets heated during questioning of Michael Cohen

By Adam Reiss, Gary Grumbach, Jillian Frankel and Dareh Gregorian

Michael Cohen returned to the witness stand in Manhattan criminal court Thursday for a tense cross-examination by Donald Trump’s defense attorneys, who have been trying to paint him as a dishonest and unreliable narrator whose claims cannot be believed.

The key moment: In one heated exchange, defense lawyer Todd Blanche pushed Cohen about the details of a phone conversation he said he had with Trump on Oct. 24, 2016, about the $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels. Cohen had testified he got ahold of Trump through his bodyguard Keith Schiller to “discuss the Stormy Daniels matter and the resolution of it.”

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Blanche noted the call was at 8:02 p.m. and lasted 90 seconds, and at 8:04 p.m., Cohen texted Schiller the phone number of a 14-year-old he’d complained had been prank-calling him. He shouted that Cohen’s account of talking to Trump that night “was a lie!” The real conversation was about the teenager, Blanche insisted. Cohen said he “believed he was telling the truth, based upon the records and documents” he reviewed.

“We are not asking for your belief. This jury does not want to hear what you think happened,” Blanche snapped.

The timeline: Prosecutors told Judge Juan Merchan this week that Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, is their final witness in the often-sensational trial, which began on April 15.

Blanche had not finished his cross-examination by the end of the day Thursday, so Cohen will return to the witness stand on Monday. There’s no court Friday so Trump can attend his son’s high school graduation.

It’s unclear at this point if Trump will put on a defense case. Blanche told the judge this week that he may offer some testimony from an expert if he determines it’s necessary to do so.

The other possible witness is Trump himself, but Blanche said on Thursday that he did not know if his client would take the stand. If he does not, the judge said both sides should be prepared to deliver their closing arguments on Tuesday.

Trump’s team: Trump once again appeared with some high-profile allies in tow. His contingent Thursday included Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Bob Good of Virginia.

Read more from Day 18 of the Trump trial →

What Biden’s debate challenge reveals about the state of his campaign

By Jonathan Allen

Sometimes, a politician tells us something without saying it directly.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden let the political world know he’s worried about his re-election campaign.

He did that by releasing a quick and quippy video countering Trump’s challenge to debate. Trump quickly agreed, and, under Biden’s conditions, it looks like they will meet in June and September.

If Biden felt like he were in command of the race, there would be no reason to take the risk of debating Trump.

It’s not that Trump will necessarily win debates against Biden. The first one in 2020 was an epic debacle for Trump that left many viewers concluding that the then-sitting president was the candidate who was unpresidential.

But Biden clearly doesn’t relish standing onstage with Trump. When he had a chance to cancel one of their debates in 2020, he leapt at it. Most importantly, though, a debate is one of the few opportunities a candidate has to shake up a race. Biden wouldn’t want to do that if he thought he were on the right track.

Sure, Trump has said for months that he would debate Biden anywhere and at any time — but Trump often defies conventional political behavior both to his benefit and detriment. His aides had to do everything but physically restrain him to keep him from debating the also-rans who tried to wrest the Republican nomination from him.

Trump may suffer from overconfidence, but he wants to debate Biden because he and his allies believe Biden will falter — not because he thinks he’s losing.

Ultimately, it would have been difficult for Biden to avoid debates without looking like he was afraid of Trump. So, perhaps this outcome was inevitable. But the timing of the decision, and the call for an earlier-than-usual June debate, were not. The early-summer meeting suggests Biden wants time to recover if Trump gets the better of him.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that both campaigns see this as a tight race. But this is the first indication Biden has given that he’s not thrilled with where he stands right now.

Read more on how Biden and Trump are honing their messages ahead of the first debate →

That’s all from The Politics Desk for now. If you have feedback — likes or dislikes — email us at politicsnewsletter@nbcuni.com

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This article was originally published on NBCNews.com