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The stakes are high for prosecutors to save Cohen's testimony as the Trump trial enters the final phase

The stakes are high for prosecutors to save Cohen's testimony as the Trump trial enters the final phase

 


CNN-

The biggest questions as Donald Trump's first criminal trial resumes Monday are whether his lawyers destroyed the credibility of star witness Michael Cohen and how much of the damage prosecutors can repair.

The presumptive GOP presidential nominee must return to court amid clear signs that the secret trial is nearing its end unless he makes the risky decision to testify in his own defense, a step that would prolong and complicate the procedure.

Defense lawyers say they expect to finish their bruising cross-examination of Cohen, Trump's former lawyer and enforcer, on Monday morning. Prosecutors will then use their second chance to question Cohen to try to dispel any doubts that the ex-president's team might have planted in jurors' minds about his version of events.

New York state prosecutors say Trump broke the law by falsifying financial records to conceal a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels. This, they say, was intended to mislead voters in 2016, an early example of election interference. Trump denies having an affair with Daniels and has pleaded not guilty.

In dramatic testimony, Cohen directly implicated Trump last week in the alleged scheme, saying the former president ordered him to hand over $130,000 to Daniels and promised repayment. Do it, Cohen said as he described his boss's alleged order to make the payment, insisting that Trump feared the story would doom his campaign.

But at a critical point in cross-examination, Cohen appeared to stumble over the account of a call he said under oath was to discuss payment. But the call, at least at first, seemed to be about something else entirely.

Trump's lawyer, Todd Blanche, produced a text from before the call that Cohen sent to bodyguard Keith Schiller, who was with Trump at the time, in which Cohen said he wanted to helped him deal with a 14-year-old who called him in a prank way. He did not mention Daniels in the text, although he later said the purpose of the call was to discuss the situation surrounding him. It was a lie! Blanche said, leading Cohen to insist: I believe I also spoke to President Trump and told him that everything regarding the Stormy Daniels case was being worked out and that it was going to be resolved. .

The defense also attempts to portray Cohen as obsessed with bringing down Trump and has cited a series of insults he has hurled at ex-presidents on social media and on television, including when he called Trump a Cheeto-sprinkled cartoon villain.

Cohen has long been seen as a potentially problematic witness, given his history of lies and his own conviction for events related to the hush money payment and for other offenses, including lying to Congress. The prosecution therefore built a structure of testimonies before his appearance, including from former collaborators of the ex-president, to try to corroborate what he would say. But apparently they hadn't planned everything, including the exchange of texts with Schiller.

Therefore, during their re-questioning, prosecutors will likely attempt to tone down Cohen's testimony on the call. But if jurors believe Cohen lied about the contents of the call with Schiller and whether he spoke to Trump, they could begin to doubt other aspects of his testimony. This is exactly what the judge will ask the jury: if you find that something a witness said is untrue, unbelievable, is a lie, feel free to ignore the entire testimony of that witness, Randy Zelin , a trial lawyer and assistant professor at Cornell Law School, said Friday on CNN News Central.

Trump's lawyers must create a reasonable doubt in the mind of a single juror to open up the possibility of a hung jury or acquittal.

The scrutiny of Cohens' testimony was the latest twist in the multi-pronged legal saga of the presumptive Republican nominees, which includes three other criminal indictments and means the path to the 2024 election has passed more through the courts than through the election campaign. Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him in two cases related to his attempt to overturn the 2020 election and one for his hoarding of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort. And he based his attempt to win back the White House on allegations of political persecution.

There is no evidence that Trump is the victim of a coordinated attempt by President Joe Biden to weaponize the justice system against his rival, despite claims from a parade of Republican lawmakers flocking to the Manhattan courthouse in recent days. The most important visitor was House Speaker Mike Johnson, who played up the symbolism of his office in an extraordinary attack on the judge and the case. The Louisiana Republican also tried to discredit Cohen, joining fellow Republicans in bolstering Trump's own attacks after the judge threatened the ex-president with prison if he continued to violate a limited silence order.

As the end of Cohen's testimony nears, there is uncertainty about the extent of the arguments in Trump's defense. His lawyers said they may call at least one witness, Bradley Smith, a former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission. Judge Juan Merchan indicated Thursday that he was reluctant to change the limits he has already set on the scope of such testimony. Merchan ruled that Smith could discuss the role and function of the FEC and define certain terms related to campaign finance, but he cannot say whether the law was violated in this case.

The biggest unknown, aside from the verdict, is whether Trump will speak.

There are many reasons why the testimony of the accused is often considered risky for the defense. But when the accused is as difficult to control and prone to contesting the truth as the former president, the stakes are even higher. Trump initially said he would testify as he often threatens to do in his legal dramas, but then appeared to backtrack by falsely invoking a silence order in the case designed to protect witnesses and court staff meant he couldn't.

Blanche raised the possibility of Trump testifying on Thursday, the last day the court was in session. This is another decision we need to think about, Blanche said. After days on the defensive, Trump's lawyers may have finally succeeded in making Cohen's credibility an important factor in last week's trial. But a Trump appearance could greatly distract from Cohen's problems. It could also lead to the former president being questioned about inconsistencies in his own story. And Trump could be asked about details of the alleged affair with Daniels in Lake Tahoe in 2006, which he denies existed.

Trump has often left no doubt that he sees himself as its best defender. Throughout his business career and political life, he was notoriously impossible for his subordinates to control. During this trial, he used interruptions in the hearing to speak to reporters to shape public perception of the case, as there were no television cameras in the court. The temptation to take the most critical turn on his own trial and try to create an even bigger political circus than he already has might be irresistible.

Trump took the stand in a civil fraud case against him, his adult sons and his business organization in November. The judge in that trial, Arthur Engoron, initially tried to keep Trump in check, but the testimony quickly devolved into a replication of the wild rhetoric from the ex-president's campaign trial, much to the chagrin of the judges. And Trump's histrionics appear to have hurt him, as Engoron wrote in a civil judgment against Trump worth nearly half a billion dollars that the ex-president and his sons demonstrated a total absence of contrition and remorse for massive frauds which bordered on the pathological. The crucial difference in the hush money criminal case is that it will be tried by a jury and not a judge.

Once the defense's presentation of the case is complete, the prosecution has the opportunity to rebut the case itself. Next come summaries of the case from prosecutors and the defense, a process Merchan said he hopes to begin as early as Tuesday.

Then the lawyers leave the stage and the judge instructs the jury members on the law they must apply in their deliberations. It is at that moment, when the jurors retire to consider their verdict, that the country will be in suspense, awaiting the unprecedented moment when it will know whether, for the first time, a former president will be convicted of a crime.

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