"I wonder whether the jury is getting bored": Expert blasts Trump lawyer's "meaningless" questions

Todd Blanche and Donald Trump CURTIS MEANS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Todd Blanche and Donald Trump CURTIS MEANS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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Legal experts say the Trump team’s cross-examination of former Trump fixer Michael Cohen has focused little on the central focus of the Manhattan criminal trial: whether Trump caused the falsification of checks, invoices and ledger entries in a scheme to disguise hush money as legal fees.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche on Thursday instead continued to press Cohen about his long history of telling lies to help Trump, as well as boost Cohen’s own interests.

“The defense is engaged in a theatrical play that has little bearing on the facts,” Bennett Gershman, a former New York prosecutor and law professor at Pace University, told Salon.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and his legal team have argued that the Trump campaign was thrown into turmoil by the "Access Hollywood" recording, prompting increased interest in silencing others with potentially damning stories to tell. Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records to, prosecutors say, cover up a $130,000 payment to Daniels ahead of the 2016 election.

Blanche questioned Cohen at length about his desire for a job at the White House, his lies to authorities in official proceedings and his efforts to reduce his prison time by cooperating with authorities.

Gershman said he questions how the repeated recitation of Cohen’s lies in particular were landing with jurors.

“The defense is going over and over that Cohen has a history of lying,” Gershman said. “But everybody knows that, including the jury. I wonder whether the jury is getting bored by the repetition. It may be that Blanche is doing what his client wants, not necessarily what’s best for an effective defense.”

Gershman said jurors have already seen ample evidence of Cohen evolving from establishing himself as a Trump devotee, to feeling cast aside after the election, to shifting to a new career as one of Trump’s most gleeful detractors.

“The heavy-throttled attack by the defense on Cohen’s credibility, his motives for testifying against Trump, and his despising Trump, is really meaningless, as the prosecutors will argue in summation to the jury,” Gershman told Salon. “Everything Cohen says about adulating, and then despising Trump, is bolstered and corroborated by massive other evidence.”

And Gershman said jurors have already seen evidence presented about “the ‘catch and kill’ scheme to bury the Stormy Daniels story by buying her off; the payment to Daniels; the voluminous records showing the way the payment was falsely disguised as a legitimate business expense; the fact that the payments were legally required to be documented as political campaign expenses.”

“Cohen was an extra,” Gershman said. “Sure, his testimony was the glue that connected the dots more clearly, more comprehensively. But Cohen added few new facts.”

David Schultz, professor of political science and legal studies at Hamline University, said Cohen did help connect Trump to the plan to reimburse Cohen for $130,000 in hush money payments to Daniels.

“Cohen did an excellent job connecting Trump to the payment scheme by showing it was  his idea,” Schultz told Salon. “He also did a good job – following up on Hope Hicks – establishing Trump's motive for the cover up and that it was campaign related.”

Trump has said he was worried how salacious stories of extramarital affairs he denies would impact his wife’s feelings – but legal experts say prosecutors could argue that Trump simply had multiple motivations.

Schultz said Cohen’s testimony could put “more pressure on Trump to testify and refute his testimony.”

Whether Trump will testify, and whether his defense will call its own witnesses, remains unclear.

Though Cohen’s baggage is well-established, Schultz said Cohen’s credibility could come into play when jurors weigh the evidence specifically tying Trump to the plan to disguise hush money reimbursements.

Prosecutors have provided crucial financial records: including checks from Trump's bank account to Cohen's LLC with Trump's signature on it, a handwritten plan by his employees to reimburse Cohen through monthly $35,000 payments in 2017 and ledger entries that described the payments as legal fees.

In Cohen's testimony, he said he provided "very minimal" legal services to Trump in 2017.

He described Trump as orchestrating the plan: telling him to "just take care of it" and wait to pay Daniels until after the election. Cohen said at a Trump Tower meeting before the former president's inauguration, Trump "approved" the plan to reimburse him at a meeting with Cohen and former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, who showed Trump a bank statement he brought along with the handwritten reimbursement plan. Cohen also said Trump assured him he'd be reimbursed for the payments to Daniels in an early 2017 Oval Office meeting.

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Trump's lawyers have repeatedly said there is no link between Trump and the reimbursement to Cohen — and alleged that Cohen paid off Daniels all on his own.

Cohen testified how Trump avoided email as a way to avoid a paper trail.

“Normally this would be devastating testimony except that Cohen is flawed,” Schultz said. “He is a convicted felon with a motive to get even with Trump. Defense is doing its best to challenge his credibility and argue Cohen and not Trump was the mastermind of this coverup.”

Schultz said Cohen was “cool and collected” on the witness stand.

Schultz added: “The question will be whether a jury finds him credible.”

Blanche has warned jurors that Cohen is not to be trusted, and his cross-examination has appeared aimed at urging jurors not to trust a word he says — which would include his descriptions of meetings where he said Trump asked him to pay off Daniels and approved the reimbursements to Cohen.

Also on Thursday, Blanche grilled Cohen on the substance of an October 2016 call he had with Trump.

Cohen said he told Trump on the call that he had paid off adult film star and director Stormy Daniels. Blanche asked him whether he was being truthful about the brief call, or whether he just spoke to Trump's bodyguard to complain about a 14-year-old prankster leaving him annoying phone calls.

The New York Times reported that Cohen wasn't definitive in his response to Blanche: “I believe I spoke to Mr. Trump.”

Blanche pressed Cohen on his track record of lying or fudging the truth to authorities: including his testimony at Trump’s civil fraud trial, where Cohen testified that he lied when he pleaded guilty in 2018 to tax evasion and making false statements to a bank.

“You started saying that you had not committed the tax crimes?” Blanche asked Cohen, according to MSNBC host Katie Phang.

Cohen replied: “I have stated I don’t dispute the facts of the case, but I should not have been prosecuted. First time tax evader…”