NEW YORK — As Michael Cohen prepared to take the stand in a civil fraud trial against last week, two women who shared a strong interest in his testimony slipped into the courtroom.
One was Susan Hoffinger, who is overseeing the Manhattan district attorney’s separate criminal case against Trump, which accuses him of concealing secret payments to an adult film actress. The other was Susan Necheles, who would help defend him against these charges.
They were there not as spectators but as scouts: to see how Cohen—a star witness in the most important case any of the lawyers had ever worked—could perform under pressure.
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The result was decidedly mixed.
In his first day of testimony in the civil case, Cohen took some jabs at Trump, calmly recounting committing crimes on behalf of the former president. His testimony supported the trial’s central allegation, which stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general: that Trump inflated the value of his assets to increase his net worth.
Cohen’s second day was more uneven. Under questioning by one of Trump’s lawyers, Cohen appeared confused and admitted to several lies, including to a judge when he was sentenced to federal prison in 2018.
The two-day spectacle offered a preview of how Cohen, who once idolized Trump but now hates him, might perform on the larger stage of the criminal trial. He also captured the trade-offs for prosecutors to call a witness like Cohen, a felon who could nonetheless offer inside information about Trump’s conduct.
Hoffinger, Necheles and Todd Blanche, another Trump lawyer who also attended the civil fraud trial, may use last week’s testimony to inform how they navigate Cohen’s role in the criminal case brought by the Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg. Unlike the civil fraud trial, which is decided by a judge, the criminal case will be played out before a jury, which will assess Cohen’s credibility for themselves, increasing scrutiny.
One option for Hoffinger would be to thoroughly prepare Cohen ahead of the trial, which is scheduled to begin in late March, although it could be postponed to a later date.
In the civil case, Cohen took the stand without preparing to testify with attorneys from the attorney general’s office, according to two people familiar with the matter. Cohen became so troubled by the lack of help that his attorney, E. Danya Perry, prepared him to argue on his own behalf.
Hoffinger is more likely to take a hands-on approach. Her office interviewed Cohen more than a dozen times before Trump’s indictment, vetting his story for months, and prosecutors gathered testimony that could corroborate much of his story.
In the civil case, Cohen was more of a side witness, grabbing headlines but not essential to the victory. But he is at the heart of the criminal case.
It was he, as Trump’s intermediary, who paid the hush money to the actress . He and Trump discussed paying Daniels, prosecutors say, and in a separate conversation that was recorded, they talked about another hush money deal with a former Playboy model, Karen McDougall. There are also documents and phone records that will directly match some of what Cohen is expected to say about the hush money deals.
Former prosecutors said those records could bolster Cohen’s credibility even if jurors dislike him or have concerns about his 2018 guilty plea to multiple crimes, some related to the deals.
“A jury could find him hateful and despicable as an individual,” said Daniel Horwitz, a criminal defense attorney who spent nearly a decade as a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office and previously represented McDougall. “But they may choose to believe him because when he says, ‘I had conversations with Donald Trump about paying Stormy Daniels hush money,’ it’s supported by other witnesses and other evidence.”
Cooperating witnesses are rarely choirboys. To know about a crime, they are often either the criminals themselves or people who were present when the crimes were committed.
Prosecutors usually try to forestall attacks on such witnesses by asking them questions about their vulnerability so that the jury is prepared for the worst. The witness can then discuss the facts in the best possible light.
In the civil case, the attorney general’s office who questioned Cohen, Colleen Faherty, used this strategy in some cases: For example, she made sure to question Cohen about the federal crimes to which he had pleaded guilty. Some, including charges related to the secret money, he still admits to having committed. But he said he should not have been tried for others related to his personal finances despite his guilty pleas.
Trump’s lawyer, Clifford Robert, succeeded in excoriating Cohen on this point, insisting that his subsequent denial of those crimes meant he lied when he pleaded guilty. Cohen initially said he couldn’t remember.
“You don’t remember if you lied at your sentencing?” Robert asked.
“I do not remember. I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Cohen replied.
Cohen eventually admitted that he remembered.
“Do you remember now?” asked Robert.
“Yeah, I see,” Cohen said.
“And lied to you?”
When Faherty first questioned Cohen, she did not touch on a key point: whether Trump specifically ordered him to manipulate the financial statements. Although Cohen has often said that Trump communicates like a “mob boss,” stating his wishes without giving explicit direction, that was not clear in his testimony.
And when Robert asked Cohen for a yes or no answer on whether Trump ordered him to inflate the numbers, Cohen said no.
Trump raised his hands as if he had won, and Robert demanded that the case be dismissed immediately.
Judge Arthur Engoron denied the motion.
“There is no way, no way this case can be dismissed,” Engoron said, adding that “there is enough evidence in this case to fill this courtroom.”
Trump stormed out of the courtroom, and Faherty eventually asked Cohen to clarify how Trump had expressed his wishes.
After court ended for the day, Attorney General Letisha James was quick to play down Cohen’s importance.
“The defendants’ attorney has tried and failed to discredit our entire case,” James said in a videotaped statement. “But our case is the result of a four-year investigation that is based on hundreds of thousands of documents and many, many witnesses.”
Trump took to his social media website to claim the case had been torpedoed. In private, he scoffed at Cohen’s presentation to advisers.
Cohen had a more positive review of his time on the stand. Summing up the experience in an interview Thursday, he called it “pretty good for me — really bad for him in the end.”
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