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Now: Trump Defense Cross-Examines Michael Cohen; Fiery Exchange Kicks Off Defense Cross-Examination Of Cohen. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired May 14, 2024 - 15:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: It's been an explosive last hour of testimony in the hush money criminal trial of former President Donald Trump. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington with Kaitlan Collins outside the New York courthouse. Thanks very much for joining us. CNN special live coverage, moments into this powerful cross-examination, Donald Trump's attorneys attempted to shred the credibility of the prosecutor's star witness, Trump's former fixer and attorney, Michael Cohen. Kaitlan, over to you.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN HOST: Yes, Wolf. And, of course, as you know, Cohen has been seen as the linchpin for the District Attorney's case here, being able to directly connect Trump to the payments that were made to silence the allegations of an affair with Stormy Daniels that surfaced late right before the election in 2016.

We are watching all of this as Michael Cohen is now in the hot seat with Trump's attorneys questioning him. CNN's Chief Legal Affairs Correspondent, Paula Reid, and CNN's National Correspondent, Kristen Holmes, are both here with me as we are all watching all of this. And right now, Todd Blanche is asking Michael Cohen about one that he lived in a Trump building, the building with Trump's name on it, and still does, and also asking him, your job wasn't just representing President Trump, you also represented his family at times. Michael Cohen said, I have, yes.

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: So this is likely going to come up a little bit later. One of the arguments that defense attorneys will make on behalf of their client is that Cohen was still doing legal work during the time he was falsely invoicing for this retainer. They're going to argue that this retainer was very generic. And in fact, at this time, he was doing work, including work for Melania Trump.

Now, there was a reference earlier, I'm sure you heard it when you were in court, to a contract that he reviewed for Melania during 2017 related to ...

COLLINS: (INAUDIBLE) Madame Tussauds.

REID: ... Madame Tussauds, so I'm not sure if that is going to factor into their case, but that's why he's asking about the fact that he represented not only Trump, but other people.

COLLINS: So you think that they could be getting into, because Michael Cohen was saying all the payments he got in 2017, the 11 checks that we went through one by one by one, that they were all not payments for legal services, because he said he hadn't done any legal work, that it was just for the hush money. But then he said he did do some legal work in 2018, and that he just didn't bill Trump for it, because he didn't think he would get paid for it, essentially.

REID: They're going to argue that he was doing legal work, not necessarily for the president at that time, but for members of his family. And that is why he was getting paid, so that it's not accurate to say that they were completely falsified, claims that this was part of a retainer. That is one of the many arguments they're going to make on behalf of their client.

COLLINS: What do you make of Trump's demeanor as this is all going on? He's not leaning over and watching closely, as some thought he might, especially during the cross-examination. At one point, his chin was kind of resting on his chest for a bit. There are moments where he has certainly slept in court. There are moments - more moments, where he's kind of just been tuning it all out.

But he's not as glued to the screen kind of as he was when Stormy Daniels was in that same seat.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Actually, one of our court reporters said that Suzanne Necheles was trying to get him to kind of communicate with him, and that he wasn't paying attention to her. He was staring at her. And finally, she whispered something in his ear to get his attention.

I think that this goes to exactly what they have asked him to do during this. I don't think that it is likely he is falling asleep during Michael Cohen's testimony. He knows how important it is. And part of it, he wants to hear. He wants to hear what Michael Cohen says. And remember what he wants from Todd Blanche. He wants to see Todd Blanche rip Michael Cohen apart.

COLLINS: And Michael Cohen just testified that he read "Art of the Deal" twice, that it was safe to say he did admire Trump. And now Todd Blanche is asking Michael Cohen if he was obsessed with Trump. Michael Cohen said, I don't know if I would characterize the word obsessed. I admired him tremendously. Where are they going with this, Paula?

REID: So they're clearly trying to antagonize Cohen and suggest that he is obsessed. Now, Blanche reads back words that Cohen has said, including that all Trump wants to do is, quote, "make the country great again," so trying to make him look like a hypocrite.

Now, we know that this relationship dissolved for reasons that were quite clear on direct examination.


Cohen came under criminal investigation. He was under enormous pressure. He eventually decided to break with the president. And then the president appeared to retaliate against him publicly. But he says, at the time, you weren't lying when you thought he was going to make America great again, Blanche asks. At that time, I was knee-deep into the cult of Donald Trump, yes.

So Cohen getting a little sassy on the stand there. They're starting to spar.

COLLINS: It feels very Stormy Daniels' vibes, where when she was pushing back on Susan Necheles during her cross-examination, she would say, well, you benefited a lot from your making money off this relationship, this affair that you had with Donald Trump. And she would respond and say, well, I've also lost a lot as well.

REID: And both can be true. What they were trying to get at here is rapid fire, establish that Cohen not only hates the defendant, he hates anyone associated with him. He's publicly said that he wants to see him behind bars. He has a vested interest in the outcome of this case and then got him to talk about how he is making money.

Now, he says it's not a lot of money that he's making from his merch store, so we've only gotten to the merch store. We haven't gotten to the book deals and they've only touched on the broadcast. So this is going to be a long, very intense next day and a half.

COLLINS: And he's saying you were telling the truth then about - essentially saying, well, you're telling the truth when you were working for Donald Trump then. Michael Cohen testified quite at length that he lied on Donald Trump's behalf a lot. I mean, he testified that for the Congress. He testified that yesterday. He testified it again today that he was doing this in order to benefit Donald Trump when he told these lies.

HOLMES: Right. He says, that's how I felt, Cohen says. I was expressing my feelings. So, yes, it would be the truth. We talk about Michael Cohen lying. I mean, that's going to be at the heart of all of this. I think the prosecution did a good job of presenting a measured Michael Cohen who told the story, which at time was could have been sympathetic to jurors about how he built this relationship with Donald Trump, how he all of a sudden his office, his home were searched by the FBI. Then he was isolated from this person that he cared about trying to figure out how to stay in his good graces and that's what led to this.

Now you're going to see the other side of this, which is them pointing out the fact that Michael Cohen has lied a number of times, not always just to benefit Donald Trump, but also to benefit himself at times.

COLLINS: Can we talk about, though, how Donald Trump appears to be dozing off at times during what is - it gets warm in that courtroom. It gets tedious at points.


COLLINS: But, I mean, and Sen. J.D. Vance, who was in there yesterday, was saying it's easy to fall asleep in there because it's a courtroom. It's kind of boring at times. I mean, this is arguably one of the most important parts, if not the most important part for the defense of this entire trial.

It's interesting because the same - he did the same thing when the accountants from his organization were testifying. I was in there. It was arguably deadly boring. They were going through all of these just documents just to enter them into evidence. I don't know this for a fact, but I think it's fair to suggest he could be doing it to antagonize Michael Cohen. What is Michael Cohen - what does he wanted more than anything in the world for decades? The approval of Donald Trump and here to suggest that he's not even as important as Stormy Daniels and he won't even look at him. I mean, a few things are likely to annoy Michael Cohen as much as that.

HOLMES: Well, you know more than anyone that Michael Cohen is someone who actually does get under his skin. That is somebody who riles him up. He doesn't like talking about Michael Cohen at all. The fact he's sitting in this courtroom staring at Michael Cohen and not staring at him, he has his eyes closed as is the reporting. But the fact that he has to listen to him, that is not comfortable for the former president.

And again, his lawyers have asked him, have begged him not to have any reaction to Michael Cohen because they believe that that will urge Michael Cohen on. And remember what they want to do is actually get under Michael Cohen's skin and have him be the one reacting.

COLLINS: Yes. And right now Todd Blanche is walking Michael Cohen through positive statements that he made about Donald Trump in 2015. Wolf, obviously this is notable because they've been in the same room at other times. Those when Michael Cohen testified in the civil fraud trial, but Michael Cohen and Donald Trump have not spoken directly since 2018, Wolf. And now his attorney is walking through all the nice things that Michael Cohen previously said about him before that break in their relationship.

BLITZER: Yes. He used to say a lot of nice things. I can personally testify since all the interviews I did with him, always very, very positive in those days, years ago about Donald Trump. I want to bring back our panel of experts to assess what is happening right now.

This cross-examination, Elie, has been very, very dramatic so far. And at one point, Todd Blanche, Trump's attorney, got Cohen to admit that he was making, what, almost a half a million dollars a year in salary from The Trump Organization. What's the point of bringing that up?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: So here's why that's relevant. One of the arguments Todd Blanche is trying to make here is that paying retainer fee, paying attorney's fees through those checks we've seen, $35,000 a month, totaling up to $420,000 per year, was not outrageous, was not conspicuous. It was not something that Donald Trump would have necessarily looked at and said, geez, there must be something else going on here.

He pointed out - Blanche pointed out, you were doing legal work for the family, as well as a little bit for Donald Trump, and your average salary anyway was $375,000 plus a bonus. So the point is that Blanche is arguing ...

BLITZER: The bonus was more than a hundred thousand dollars.


HONIG: Right. And so the point that Blanche is arguing is that paying him $420,000 over the course of a year isn't really that unusual.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And I just want to point out, in addition to the discussion about his salary, what's happening as we speak is that Todd Blanche is talking more about the positive things that Michael Cohen said for years ...

BLITZER: Right. And I know ...

BASH: As you said, he said to you and to many people very much publicly, the one that they're talking about right now, Blanche asks if he said in the 2017 Vanity Fair profile if he would take a bullet for Donald Trump, and he said yes. And the article, Cohen said, there was, quote, "No money in the world to write about the Trump family."

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Look, this is a man who was always looking for Donald Trump's approval. As he said in his earlier testimony, when something happened, he would run into Trump's office and tell him about it. And nothing felt as good as getting that attaboy from Donald Trump.

So I think what they're trying to do is say, here's how he was and look at what he's turned into.

BASH: That he had no intention of writing a book.

BORGER: That's right ...

BLITZER: At that time.

BORGER: ... at that time. At that time. And then he turned on Donald Trump with a vengeance. And then, the question is, why did he turn on Donald Trump with such a vengeance?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Here's - you said there was no money in the world to get you to disclose anything about the family. Cohen, okay. Blanche asks whether Cohen described Trump's family as a surrogate family. Correct.

So, again, he's talking about the flipped on Donald Trump, which speaks to personal bias there. I mean, I think that's where they're going. One thing to note, it's important to recognize that his story has been incredibly consistent during this trial, supported by the testimony of other witnesses, this document from Allen Weisselberg that laid out how he was paid in a number of checks. That's all great evidence and it's supported by Michael Cohen's testimony.

Again, the problem here is that the witness also has some of these credibility issues that go beyond merely being convicted of crimes. There's sort of these allegations of bias that the prosecutors or, pardon me, the defense attorney is starting to pick at a little bit like a scab almost.

HONIG: I'm not so moved by this whole line of you used to love the family, you used to be loyal to them.


HONIG: I don't know what that gets Todd Blanche and Trump's team. It doesn't score any points to me.

WILLIAMS: I think it calls the witness disingenuous.


WILLIAMS: It's just - should the Trump family believe that you liked them then but not now ...


WILLIAMS: Were you lying then and now ...

HONIG: The answer is I used to and now I don't.

WILLIAMS: I know, I know, I know ...


WILLIAMS: ... but I just think that's another angle. But yes, it's not their best.

BORGER: Or maybe when he discovered Trump wasn't going to defend him, he turned on him.

BLITZER: And Cohen confirms, he said in 2017, that he, quote, "missed President Trump." That was then. Now is a very different story indeed. You're making an important point, Elie, how he's flip-flopped over Donald Trump.

BORGER: Well, Trump was in the White House at that time. And of course, Michael Cohen didn't go to the White House with him, so ...

BLITZER: He wasn't invited.

BORGER: ... he missed him. And then he testified that he didn't have a lot of work either at that point. So he was a man without a home.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. We're only starting our special coverage of this cross-examination. Very, very powerful indeed. The defense is now asking Michael Cohen about his feelings toward Donald Trump when he worked for him as Trump's defense team looks to get at Cohen's motivations as a witness. More of our special coverage from the Trump hush money trial straight ahead.


[15:17:45] COLLINS: And we are back covering Donald Trump's - live coverage of

Donald Trump's hush money trial. As right now Michael Cohen is on the witness stand and is being cross-examined by Todd Blanche, Trump's lead attorney, about his past positive statements about the Trump family, including in 2017 when he said that he missed Donald Trump. And now they are moving into cooperation that Robert Mueller had - that Michael Cohen had, I should say, with the Special Counsel Robert Mueller at the time.

Kristen Holmes and Paula Reid are back here with me. And right now, Michael Cohen is confirming that at some point in August 2018, he decided he was going to meet with the special counsel's office and cooperate. He said, Paula, that initially when he met with them, he was still kind of deceptive in some of his answers. But he is talking now about which the prosecution got to this before they finished questioning him, all of his cooperation that he's had with the investigative bodies looking into Donald Trump and his orbit.

And suddenly Trump seems interested in this because our colleagues are reporting that Trump is leaning in to look at the screen as Blanche shows Cohen a document to confirm who was at that August 7th meeting, including an FBI agent and others, when he went back in to talk to Robert Mueller.

Well, for Cohen, this is just another entity that he has lied to, the special counsel's office. While he did go back and eventually agree to cooperate, he admitted that, yes, the first time he talked to them, he lied. Now, his defense is he lied to protect Trump. But these lies are really adding up over the entire narrative, something that jurors are just going to have to contend with when they go to deliberations.

COLLINS: And Michael Cohen, not only cooperated with Robert Mueller, he also talked about other investigations that he cooperated in. And obviously, the district attorney's office is their lead witness here and how many times they met with him. And then also talked about when it came to the civil fraud case, when he went and testified on Capitol Hill, as he did in five in a half hours before the House Oversight Committee. I mean, there is a lot of testimony from Michael Cohen once this deterioration between he and Donald Trump fully, you know, hit its mark.

HOLMES: Yes. And as they're talking about the financial gain that Michael Cohen had, I think they're going to circle back to it. It looks as though they ask questions, you said that - lawyers said, your life had been turned upside down since the release of the Steele dossier. Cohen says, yes.


We're going to go into his interview with Mueller when he decided that he was going to cooperate.

It seems as though they're going to try to paint him as duplicitous, but also as somebody who was there when he was making money off of it. And once he was separated from Donald Trump and out of the inner circle, that then he turned on Donald Trump and now is making money this way because it doesn't make sense to just go after him. You said the family was just like yours, that they were a surrogate family.

Now Blanche is walking Cohen through the Mueller interview where Cohen denied going to Prague one of the false allegations in the dossier. So here's we're going to go through this dossier right now and through the interview and how many times Michael Cohen might have been dishonest and then came back through.

COLLINS: And of course, the Steele dossier is what came out in 2016 that was compiled to hurt Donald Trump's candidacy, had some parts of it that were not true, including this was a big allegation at the time about Prague where Michael Cohen, I believe, tweeted and a denial of it said he was nowhere near Prague.

Cohen says he also told the special counsel's office that he never paid the Russians to hack anything. This is at that moment where Michael Cohen has testified also about Trump knowing about the release of the WikiLeaks' emails. All this happening at the same time in the 2016 election is when the Access Hollywood tape was coming out. Roger Stone giving them a heads up about that as he testified.

All of this is coming up inside this courtroom, just a complete throwback to everything that was happening. And then now Blanche is asking him, they asked you about the Trump Moscow project and you lied to them. This is when Michael Cohen said they weren't pursuing business in Russia. He later said they were, but he testified that he lied about that and he says to protect Donald Trump.

REID: Yes. And that's his defense of a lot of the lies that he is told to various entities. Now, he lied, of course, to Congress about the Moscow project. That is one of the things that he has pleaded guilty to, lying to - false statements to Congress.

Again, the jury has to trust Michael Cohen's account of the alleged falsifying of these documents. And what we are seeing a pattern of - two patterns, one, a disdain for the defendant and a propensity to lie to everyone. And he says it was on Trump's behalf, but not all of these are on Trump's behalf.

Now, Blanche is pushing Cohen asking, was it a lie? I don't know if I would characterize it as a lie. It was inaccurate. Now he's getting a little cute, right? This is semantic games.

COLLINS: I think he quickly said it was a lie.

REID: Yes.


REID: He seriously said it was a lie. He has also, again, put a guilty false statements to Congress about this same exact issue, just because he said it was to protect Trump doesn't mean the jury is going to say, okay, I get it. I understand why you lied about that and everything else.

COLLINS: And Blanche is asking him, well, how do you distinguish between a lie and an inaccuracy? Cohen says it wasn't truthful. You want to call it a lie. I'll call it a lie. So now he is conceding. I mean, how is that going to come off to a jury that's watching this?

He's getting a little snippy, that was that was expected. He's been trying to put Cohen on the defensive right now. Trump is looking toward Cohen now, leaning back, craning his neck to the right. So this interaction, where Cohen appears to be getting a little agitated so far, he has been pretty calm, pretty consistent on the stand, steady. But he and Todd definitely sparring back and forth and Trump is interested.

Blanche is now asking Cohen what he told the special counsel's team about the Access Hollywood tape.

COLLINS: We also have Bryan Lanza joining us, who was there during 2016 and served as the deputy communications director for the Trump campaign back then. He's now a partner at Mercury Public Affairs.

And Bryan Lanza, I mean, talk about a throwback as we were talking about everything that was happening in those final days before the 2016 campaign. I wonder what you make as someone who used to work on Donald Trump's behalf of the way that the defense, his attorneys here started out their line of questioning for Michael Cohen.

BRYAN LANZA, DEPUTY COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, TRUMP 2016 CAMPAIGN: First of all, thank you for having me. Listen, I think that the challenge that anybody has sort of attacking Michael is that just - he's such a target rich environment. And so you have to find the one that sort of gains credibility with the jury the most. And, you know, I mean, I, myself, having worked with Michael in 2016, even interacted with him through 2020, I never found him being a sort of an honest broker. I'm sure people here on this TV can sort of be a victim of many of Michael Cohen's lies.

So it's sort of hard to attack, but I think the best way to sort of make it look like it's a financial, it's revenge, it's personal and that sort of extends to Michael's character, where he has no problem lying to the FBI, to the IRS, to everything else. He's sort of a man that's desperate for money now as a result of his lies. And this just becomes an extension of a revenue stream for him that he desperately needs.

COLLINS: Well, I think - and what we were just talking about with Gov. Doug Burgum, who is a hopeful vice presidential candidate for Donald Trump, as they are trying to undermine Michael Cohen, obviously, that's clearly the tactic. And we understand why the defense is choosing that. But also, I mean, Donald Trump is the one who hired Michael Cohen and kept him around and had him as his personal attorney once he became president.

LANZA: Yes. I don't think that changes anything with the facts of the case. I mean, Donald Trump has used a lot of people as pawns in this chessboard.


I mean, you have many people who have sort of played that same role as Michael Cohen, which is fine. But I think the challenge to be home is sort of Michael sort of because of his sins, because of the punishment he's endured as a result of his own actions, he's looking to sort of lash out and blame somebody and he sees his vindication as trying to bring down Trump. And there's also an economic factor with him.

So I think that becomes clouded in, in whatever Michael does. I mean, the Michael Cohen I know, and I consider knowing him really well, I mean, he would lie in a confessional booth. So I mean, he's probably lying on the stand right now. It's just consistent with his character.

And the thing is, is when he lies, it's not that he's just lying for a little thing. He actually thinks he's smarter than us by - creating these lies, so it's even more sick.

COLLINS: When you worked with Michael Cohen and you were on the campaign, was it clear to you that Trump was a micromanager and someone that you did have to get his approval for even smaller decisions that were made, including public statements that were sent out to press and other matters related to the campaign?

LANZA: Yes. Listen, when I worked for Donald Trump in 2016 during the presidential campaign, what I found more interesting than anything else is how people bent over backwards to sort of endear himself, to prove himself, to do things for the president or then-candidate Trump to sort of endear himself with his inner circle with him.

I never sort of - I did communications. I did the TV part of the 2016 campaign, which is something that the president, then-candidate cared a lot about. I never really felt micromanaging. I felt once in a while he was telling me to go left or go right to sort of steer the ship. But it was never sort of a micromanager.

But I will say this, having been around The Trump Org for a number of years before and after the campaign, you do find a lot of people that will sort of bend themselves backwards to try to please the president and Michael seemed one of those. And that's probably why he was most disappointed. He didn't get anything serious in the administration, whereas everybody in the campaign, even back to the convention, knew that Michael Cohen would never get a job in the administration because he just wasn't a serious person.

COLLINS: Bryan Lanza, thank you for joining us.

And a reminder, we are watching all of this happening as Donald Trump's attorney is questioning Michael Cohen in court right now. Right now, he is pressing him on what he has said about his recollections of his conversations regarding the fallout of that Access Hollywood tape with Donald Trump and what he told the special counsel's office years ago, what he has said now on the stand. Cohen says, quote, "I was being again deceptive, where I said I might have, so I left the door open."

That was in his conversations with Robert Mueller's team. We are watching all of this very closely and we'll continue to bring you up to date with what's happening inside that courtroom. You're watching CNN's special live coverage.