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CNN Live Event/Special

Michael Cohen Testifies Against Donald Trump; Cohen Claims Trump Knew About Hush Money Payments; Prosecution and Defense Spar Over Cohen's Credibility; Potential Long Cross-Examination Ahead; Trump's Reaction to Testimony. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 14, 2024 - 14:00   ET




KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to CNN's special live coverage. We are now just momentarily. Moments away from what is expected to be the most contentious testimony in the hush money criminal trial of former President Donald Trump. I'm Kaitlan Collins outside that courthouse in New York along with Wolf Blitzer in Washington. And when court resumes shortly, the defense attorneys, specifically Todd Blanche, Trump's lead attorney on this case, will begin to cross- examine the prosecution's star witness. That is Trump's former fixer and his personal attorney, Michael Cohen and Wolf it promises to be interesting, to say the least.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It should be very, very intense. That's what we're all bracing for. Caitlin, this is the second day Cohen has been on the stand answering prosecutors' questions so far. Over a total of eight hours, he directly linked Donald Trump to the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, detailing how the alleged scheme continued after Trump took the White House. Joining us now, CNNs senior legal analyst Ellie Honig. Ellie, bring us up to speed, first of all, on Cohen's testimony so far today and whether it makes the prosecution's upcoming case even more difficult.

ELLIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, the prosecution has now completed its direct examination of Michael Cohen, the star witness. Now, a couple of really important points that came through in his direct testimony this morning. First of all, Cohen testified about this crucial meeting that happened in February of 2017. Now, this is about three weeks after Donald Trump becomes president. And Michael Cohen at this point has paid Stormy Daniels $130,000, essentially out of his own pocket, but he has not yet been reimbursed. And Michael Cohen told us about a crucial conversation that he had with Donald Trump in the Oval Office. He said, I was sitting with President Trump, and he asked me if I was okay. He asked me if I needed money, and I said, no, all good. He said, because I can get a cheque, I said, no, I'm okay. This is the most important part.

He, Donald Trump, said, all right, just make sure you deal with Allen, meaning Allen Weisselberg, the CFO, in order to get those reimbursements. Which brings us to the documents. Michael Cohen went through for the jury some key documents, including this page of handwritten notes by Allen Weisselberg that shows exactly how they calculated the amount that Michael Cohen would be reimbursed, the $420,000. It breaks down into reimbursement for Stormy Daniels, another expense, plus enough money to enable Michael Cohen to pay his taxes. And Michael Cohen talked the jury through, one by one, the cheques that he was then issued, some of them signed by Donald Trump, for $35,000 each, one per month, for about a year. Now, this is really important. Prosecutors also walked Michael Cohen methodically through the invoices.

And if you want to see the prosecution's case in one word, it's right here. Retainer. These payments were not listed as hush money payments or anything like that. They were labeled as retainers, legal fees. And the prosecution's theory is that's the fraud right there. That's the falsification of business records. Now, the prosecutors concluded the morning by getting into Michael Cohen's baggage. They talked about the fact that he has pled guilty to testifying falsely to Congress. He went in front of Congress in 2017, and he minimized Donald Trump's efforts to build a tower in Moscow. And Cohen testified that the reason he gave that false testimony, he said, because I was staying on Mr. Trump's message that there was no Russia, Russia, Russia. Now, to conclude the story, Michael Cohen is subject to an FBI search in April of 2018, and that's when the relationship really starts to fall apart. And ultimately, Michael Cohen talked about how he pled guilty in federal court to four different crimes. One, campaign finance violations. That relates to the Stormy Daniels payments and payments to Karen McDougal. Two, false statements to Congress. That's what we just talked about with Trump Tower Moscow. And then finally, tax fraud and bank fraud relating to his own individual businesses. Prosecutors want to put this all in front of the jury before the defense cross happens. Of course, the defense team is going to argue that this shows Michael Cohen has a long history of dishonesty and fraud.


So, Wolf, when we go back into the court, the defense for Donald Trump will be cross-examining Michael Cohen, and this, really, this afternoon, will be the moment of truth in this trial.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right, Ellie Honig. Excellent explanation. Thank you very, very much. And Kaitlan, back to you.

COLLINS: Yeah, Wolf, certainly moment of truth is a good way to put it. I'm sure that's not how the defense will frame it. I'm back here with Kristen Holmes and Paula Reid as we were outside the courthouse waiting on Michael Cohen to retake that witness stand. I can't even imagine what this lunch break is like for Michael Cohen or for Todd Blanche, really, for that matter, as they're both preparing for a pivotal moment for both of them, Paula. The other thing that Michael Cohen was really getting into as he was finishing his time with the prosecution was the pressure campaign that he faced in those days after he had had everything, his home, his apartment, his hotel room raided. And he was attached to this, introduced to Bob Costello, who was this attorney that was allied with Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani. And we were seeing the emails from Bob Costello to Michael Cohen that were really notable. He kept saying that he could be a back channel, basically, to Donald Trump. He kept saying, my friend, referring to Rudy Giuliani, my friend's client. I mean, it was very clear what Bob Costello was trying to communicate to Michael Cohen.

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, stay in the fold, which ultimately didn't happen. And Rob Costello, longtime attorney of Rudy Giuliani, a Trump-aligned attorney, is just one of these Trump world characters that just keeps showing up in every story. And it was just about a year ago, right before Trump was indicted, that the defense surprised a lot of people by calling Rob Costello to try to undercut the credibility of Michael Cohen because he was testifying about his time representing Cohen. And he said that, look, Cohen told me that the whole hush money scheme was his idea. Notably, Costello is not being called to testify for the defense. Costello told me he was quite surprised not being called to once again undercut Michael Cohen's credibility here in the trial since he was their sole witness during the grand jury proceedings. But a lot has transpired in the last year, including Costello and Rudy Giuliani, specifically asking Trump to help pay Costello for some of the legal work that he had done for Rudy Giuliani. That hasn't happened yet. And that is one theory about why he's not here. I think the other theory is Joe Tacopino is the defense lawyer. He was leading things back when Costello was called. Now it's Todd Blanche, and he just doesn't seem to think that Costello is necessary for their case.

COLLINS: And Kristen there's these moments where they have a sidebar in the court. You can't actually hear what the defense and the prosecution and the judge are discussing. And you're not allowed to use your binoculars to look at them. I tried to do it, and they have told multiple you can't do that because they're having a sidebar moment. And in that moment, we've now learned from the transcript what the prosecution was saying to Justice Merchan, the judge here, was that Michael Cohen is their last witness. And then Todd Blanche responded and said he expects the cross-examination of Michael Cohen to not only go for this afternoon, but until the end of day on Thursday, it shows just how long they plan on keeping Michael Cohen on the stand.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, I mean, this is one thing that we've been talking about, and all of Trump's legal advisors say the same thing. They plan on completely taking Michael Cohen apart if they can. They have been going through his book, which is called Revenge. Basically, he's talking about revenge with Donald Trump. They've gone through his podcast, his social media posts. We saw a little bit of a preview with this, with Stormy Daniels talking about, do you hate Donald Trump? Those are going to be the kinds of questions that they ask of Michael Cohen. The other part of this is going to be whether or not he financially benefited in the last seven years from his dislike of Donald Trump or from taking Donald Trump on. One of the things that we know is he appeared to be making money even just off of his TikToks during this trial. The little button that said you can donate here if you want to help me, while he was delivering these kind of speeches, ranting about various things. This has been a core part of Michael Cohen's brand. And you can imagine that Todd Blanche has been really going through everything, not just, social media, but really just his testimony with a fine-tooth comb, making sure that he crosses all of his T's, dots all of his I's, as he proceeds to attack Michael Cohen.

COLLINS: And what does it say, Paula, that Michael Cohen is the last witness? Because there was a question of whether or not they'd call someone else.

REID: Yeah

COLLINS: Michael Cohen, they're saying, this is it. This is the last one for us. And then the defense will have their moment.

REID: It's something that even Trump world sources right now, who are pretty objective about this case, are texting me saying, oh my God, how is it possible that the prosecutors don't have someone else that they can sandwich around Cohen to button this up. Is this what you were going to leave the last part of the prosecution's case in the jurors' minds? It was always expected that they wouldn't end with Cohen, that he would come three quarters of the way in. So the fact that prosecutors are not even going to call their summary witness after Cohen, that is a surprise. It speaks to their confidence in Cohen's performance here. But they also, there is no other witness lined up to call. It's a decision. Will it pay dividends? We'll see after the verdict.

COLLINS: Trump had a noticeable reaction that was very different to Michael Cohen than it has been to Stormy Daniels.


When Stormy Daniels was on the stand, he was actually paying attention. His eyes weren't closed for really long periods of time. When Michael Cohen was on the stand, his eyes were basically closed the entire time. And there was a moment where he kind of shook his head and talked to one of his attorneys after Michael Cohen said that he made $4 million after Donald Trump became president and he was his personal attorney outside the White House. That was another moment where the prosecution was trying to get ahead of Michael Cohen making money off of this. But he made the point that Stormy Daniels did. And I should note, Donald Trump is walking inside the courtroom right now. There is an attorney right behind him who's going to be the one questioning Michael Cohen when he gets back on the stand. But it seemed to make the point that he was trying to make what Stormy Daniels said. Yes, I've benefited from my relationship with Donald Trump, but it's also cost me a lot.

HOLMES: Yeah, I will tell you, there's not much that makes Donald Trump more mad than people he doesn't like or doesn't get along with making money off of his name, which, of course, I'm sure you know as well. I think what's been interesting is that Donald Trump has really tried to keep his composure during this testimony in a way that he wasn't able to with Stormy Daniels, in a way that he's been briefed is critically important during this testimony. His lawyers have told him they do not want it to look as though Michael Cohen is getting underneath his skin because they believe that that will empower him. They want to rattle Michael Cohen. If Michael Cohen is getting under Donald Trump's skin, that doesn't rattle Michael Cohen. That would just encourage him. So this is something they have told him. Now, it seems up until this point, he's actually listened to them, keeping his eyes closed, keeping disengaged, not cursing under his breath and elbowing his attorneys.


COLLINS: Stormy Daniels--

HOLMES:--the way we saw with Stormy Daniels.

COLLINS:--attorney, told us last night she could hear Trump, she couldn't hear him cursing, but she could hear him responding to her testimony. Just remarkable that from the witness stand, it's not that far from where Donald Trump is sitting. And right now we are expecting Michael Cohen to get back on that witness stand any moment. You just saw Trump return to the courtroom. Prosecutors have also just returned. That means the judge, the jury and the witness, Michael Cohen, are next. Stay with CNN's special live coverage back in moments.



BLITZER: Welcome back to CNN's special live coverage of Donald Trump's hush money criminal trial. Our legal and political experts are back with me right now. Dana, let me start with you. Where do you think Trump's defense team is going to start right now with the cross- examination?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: The jugular? No, I mean, I don't know. The attorneys can obviously talk about the various strategies and which way they think that the attorneys are going to go, but we do know that of all of the witnesses that have been up there, the only one that comes close to the kind of witness that the defendant, the former president, wants to just kind of go at in the hardest way possible is Stormy Daniels. That doesn't even come close to how he feels about Michael Cohen, and it's fine. It's funny because when the prosecution was delivering their case, particularly earlier today, they gave a hint as to the state of mind that Trump was in based on the message that Robert Castello, who was Giuliani's attorney, sent and other people. And also the tweet that Donald Trump sent, warning about how Trump would feel about Michael Cohen if Cohen turned on Trump. So now we have, not that we actually needed to see what happened real time and Trumps feeling real time. But now we really have the evidence, and the jury has the evidence in their minds about Trump's absolute fact that he is clearly seething at what is happening.

BLITZER: And that's an important point. Ellie, did the prosecution do enough to convince the jury that Trump actually broke the law by falsifying documents?

HONIG: Yes, if the jury believes Michael Cohen, I think they did bridge that gap, and the key pieces of testimony we just talked about this, are where Michael Cohen says, I met with Donald Trump. I explained to him how this retainer setup was going to work. Trump knew what I was talking about, and he agreed to it. So it's all going to come down to credibility, and I'm sort of eagerly watching our feed here to see how they open up the cross-examination of Michael Cohen. I think the first place they go, as Dana said, the jugular. The jugular is credibility here. I think they have plenty to work with in terms of his prior lies, his prior guilty pleas, other lies he's told.

BLITZER: It's interesting, as this cross-examination is about to begin, again, Trump was flipping through the stack of papers and chatting with his attorney, Emile Beauvais, as Cohen walked by. Everybody stand by. I want to go back to Kaitlan. Kaitlan, you have a special interview I want you to share with our viewers.

COLLINS: Yeah, Wolf, of course, we have seen an entourage of Donald Trump's allies in court with him today. Joining me now is one of those who was there, one of Donald Trump's supporters. That is the governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum, who also ran for the Republican nomination, I should note. Governor, I saw you in court earlier today. I was a few rows back. You had a better seat than me. Just tell me, this is your first in court, I believe. What did you make of your few hours that you were in there?

GOV. DOUG BURGUM, (R) NORTH DAKOTA: Well, Caitlin, I think it's good to see firsthand what the American public believes, which is this trial is really politically motivated, and I think that's showing up in the American people in the polls that are coming out, with President Trump leading by wider margins than he's ever led in any of his presidential races. Because I think they see right through this thing when you've got a judge that donated to Joe Biden.


When you've got prosecutors that supported Joe Biden. When you've got the judge's family members that are benefiting financially as Democrat operatives. And then when you've got, as you just said on the lead-in, this whole trial rests on the credibility of someone who spent three hours this morning describing in great detail how he lied to a grand jury, how he lied to a Congress, and how he lied in court cases. And so this is a, you know, it's just a tough thing. I mean, prosecution's got a tough job to try to build their case on someone who's a serial perjurer.

COLLINS: You know, the one thing that sitting there listening to Michael Cohen testify, which is, of course, who you're referring to, I mean, Donald Trump hired Michael Cohen. So for everything that you just said, I mean, that is the person that Donald Trump chose to be his personal attorney.

BURGUM: Well, I think, yes, that's true that he did hire him. But I think that you'll-when the cross-examination you're going to come out. You heard a glimpse of it this morning that Michael Cohen leveraged the title that he had. He wasn't even doing work for President Trump. And he was signing up clients left and right at $4 million in revenue, leveraged that. I mean, so that I think for most people, that just comes across as someone who is, again, trying to make money off of the president's celebrity or the president's position and not someone that really ever maybe had his best interests in mind. COLLINS: You just noted that the judge has been a Democratic donor. I

believe it was to the tune of $35. And then you also mentioned his daughter and her political work. That was something also that the former president repeatedly attacked him for and attacked her for on social media until his gag order that he's under right now was expanded to include members of the judge's family and also members of the prosecution's family. Did Donald Trump ask you to come out and criticize the judge's daughter?

BURGUM: No, not whatsoever. And I'm here completely as a volunteer. I'm here because I care about the future of this country and where it's going. But I think it's fine if someone wants to be a Democratic operative and make millions of dollars. But it's sort of been a simple thing. I mean, there's, you know, hundreds and hundreds of judges in Manhattan. Just recuse yourself. If you're a judge who's got a family member that's making money off of controversies like this, I think the public and justice would be better served. I mean, it would be a simple thing. Just recuse yourself. There's no issue with someone being--


COLLINS: But Governor, he asked--

BURGUM:--a Democrat operative. The issue is --

COLLINS: Governor he asked whether or not he should recuse himself from this after Trump and the legal team made a motion for him to do so. And he was told that he did not need to recuse himself, that he didn't have any conflict of interest that prevented him from overseeing this trial. I mean, you were inside that court this morning. Did he seem fair to you?

BURGUM: I think that it was we saw a prosecution this morning, one question after another leading the witness. And I think anybody that was there could see that was, you know, well scripted and well rehearsed. I think everybody feels like people that know Michael Cohen are seeing a different Michael Cohen. But it's not really what's going on. I'm standing here on the street and I'm looking at this massive press in both directions going out there and I'm thinking to myself, wow, does the outcome of this case affect any Americans that are facing, you know, Joe Biden's inflation that are, you know, trying to figure out how to put, you know, food on the table and gas in their car or pay their electricity bill and no. And that's why, you know, it doesn't help solve the issue with China. It doesn't help solve the issue with the wars that are the proxy wars we're in with Russia and Iran. And those are the issues that people are really mad about. They're mad about it, they care about it and the voters who are voting in these polls are showing that. And yet the world's attention is on a paperwork trial that at its best, you know, in the world where I came from business, you know, this would have been a non-material classification error. At best, it might have been, you know, tried at a misdemeanor. But even still today, there's been no real connection to a crime that's happened. And without a crime, there's no felonies and there's no wrongdoing. And so without that, people just have to say, hey, this seems very, very political. And if this really mattered--


COLLINS: But Governor

BURGUM:--why are they bringing this case now versus seven years ago when these payments were made.

COLLINS: I'm glad that you cited your history because you do have a long history in the world of business. That was a big credential when you when you ran in this Republican race. I mean, at the heart of this is falsifying business records. And I assume that you do not agree that falsifying business records is OK, that that is illegal. Do you acknowledge that?

BURGUM: Well, I acknowledge that non-disclosure agreements, which are at the heart of this thing, they're common and they're legal. And what's at dispute is if you're paying legal expenses and you call them legal expenses, is that a misclassification?


So even that's at a dispute right now. And if it were, if it was to somebody other than Donald Trump, this case would have never been brought because a misclassification like that, that has no harm to any citizen in New York at best, like I said, would have been a misdemeanor and at worst would have been never charged. So it is just seems amazing to me that somehow they've been able to transform this with magic into 34 felonies. I've never seen that in my business career.

COLLINS: Well, Michael Cohen testified that this was these are false business records, that he wasn't paid any retainer because he wasn't doing any legal services. So there was nothing for him to be paid for. He said it was just reimbursement for hush money that he paid to a porn star, which he said he did so to protect Donald Trump's chances of winning the 2016 election Governor. That's really what's at the heart of this. I think in all, after being in that room today and the jury was seated there to your right, don't you believe this case should be left up to those 12 jurors inside the room to decide whether or not Donald Trump is guilty or not guilty?

BURGUM: Well, it will be left up to those 12 jurors, but I think you could ask the American public if Joe Biden was on trial in the reddest county in America, had a gag order and couldn't talk about it, had a judge that had donated to President Trump. And had prosecutors that were all Republicans and, you know, were fans and supporters of President Trump. I think, you know, the media that's lined up along the street out here would be like, wow, it's going to be very tough for Joe Biden to get a fair trial in that very red county where when you do jury selection in a county that's 90, 92 percent blue like Manhattan is, you know, you have to ask question. But it'll be I'm sure however, this turns out, you know, people will appeal. The lawfare will continue and the American public will suffer because this is at the end. At the heart of this whole thing is about politics. It's not actually about a meaty legal decision that affected Americans. And so I think we're just going to- it'll be interesting--


COLLINS: But Governor, would you--

BURGUM:-- to where this plays out. I think it's showing and it's showing in the polling that this lawfare is not working. The American people aren't buying it.

COLLINS: You're describing this all as political. And of course, you know, we've seen instances where judges that Trump appointed are overseeing his cases and we have not seen complaints from Trump's team then. So I think that that table could turn both ways. But, Governor, at the heart of this, it is the falsification of business records. And I just want to ask you one more time. Do you agree that that is that that's not legal, that it's not just a paperwork issue or a misclassification issue, that falsifying business records is indeed illegal?

BURGUM: Well, I don't think that's been proven yet, and there hasn't really been clearly identified what the crime is, because as you saw this morning, Kaitlan, these are called legal expenses and they were paid to his attorney. And so I think they're going to have to prove and they paid that attorney $420 000 and he paid $130 000 out the other end for a legal, commonplace nondisclosure agreement. You know, I think we'll find out in cross-examination what happened to the dollars in between that today. But so it's not- you're making an a an assertion that hasn't even been proven yet in this trial.

COLLINS: Well Michael Cohen testified to it. We'll see what happens here as cross-examination. Trump's attorneys are now up. Governor Doug Burgum, thank you for joining us.

BURGUM: Thank you, Kaitlan.

COLLINS: And Wolf, obviously, that is a supporter of the former president. He is someone who is in the running to be vice president. That is why you're seeing him here in the courtroom today, along with other people who have also either sought that position or cabinet roles and other political supporters of Donald Trump's who are in that courtroom with him as the cross-examination of Michael Cohen is now getting underway. Wolf.

BLITZER: Very dramatic indeed. All right, Kaitlan, thanks very much. I'm going to get back to our panel of experts. We now see the cross- examination of Michael Cohen is underway, and it's very significant because it started very tough. Todd Blanche, the Trump attorney, going after Michael Cohen right away from the beginning, asking about things that Michael Cohen posted on TikTok and Twitter.

HONIG: Remarkable exchange. So the first thing Todd Blanche asked Michael Cohen is, you and I have never met. Michael Cohen said, correct, we've never met. Blanche then asked, you went on TikTok and called me, and I'm quoting here, you went on TikTok and called me a crying little shit. At that point, there was an objection. The lawyers went to the sidebar, and the judge sustained, upheld the objection. And I think the reason why is Michael Cohen's feelings towards the lawyer are really irrelevant. And so that objection was sustained, meaning wiped the question off the books. And then Todd Blanche came back and said, OK, you posted on TikTok that, quote, Trump belongs in a effing cage like an animal. Now, that's OK, because that goes to Michael Cohen's bias against Donald Trump. That matters here. So we went right to this issue of, you have this sort of all-consuming personal hate.