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Michael Cohen's Testimony Under Scrutiny; The Defense Argued That The Call Was Not About Stormy Daniels; The Prosecution Needs To Rehabilitate Cohen's Testimony; Cohen's Potential Motivations To Lie; Trump Appeared Pleased With The Defense's Cross-Examination. Aired 2- 2:30p ET

Aired May 16, 2024 - 14:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Welcome back to our special live coverage of former President Trump's hush money criminal trial. I'm Brianna Keiler in Washington. And any moment now, the prosecution's star witness, Michael Cohen, returns to the stand. The defense has been aggressively grilling Trump's former fixer, hammering him about all the times that he has lied under oath. The defense also focusing on Michael Cohen's motivations to testify against his former boss, attempting to paint him as a disgruntled former employee, angry about not getting a job in the Trump White House. Let's turn now to CNN senior legal analyst Ellie Honig. And also, Ellie, this call with Keith Schiller, where Michael Cohen said that, he spoke to Donald Trump. It's supposed to be a key phone call, and now it is very much in question. Take us through what happened today.

ELLIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yeah, Brianna, a remarkable moment just played out in court. Let's try to walk through exactly why this matters so much. Now, Michael Cohen testified on his direct exam, when being questioned by prosecutors, that he had a crucial phone call on October 24th, 2016, about two weeks before the election, with Donald Trump. He said he called Keith Schiller's cell phone, who put him through or put him on speaker. He said he didn't remember, but he was talking to both Trump and Schiller. And Cohen testified, this was the call where he told them crucial information about the payments to Stormy Daniels. Let's look back at Michael Cohen's actual testimony. He was asked, what was the purpose for this October 24th call? And Michael Cohen said, to discuss the Stormy Daniels matter and the resolution of it.

That goes to really the heart of this case. And then the DA asked, and did you have an understanding about whether, during that conversation, you resolved that, meaning the Stormy Daniels matter, you were moving forward to fund the deal, meaning the payments to Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen answered yes. Okay, crucial piece of the prosecution's case. What happened just now though is the defense lawyer walked Michael Cohen through the text records and the phone records to create a really important timeline. Todd Blanch showed Michael Cohen that throughout that day leading up to the call, October 24th, Cohen was texting Keith Schiller about something completely different. Michael Cohen had been getting harassed by texts from a 14-year-old. Cohen was upset. He threatened to get the Secret Service involved. At 7:48 p.m., about 14 minutes before the call, call, Cohen texts Keith Schiller again about this teenager who was pranking him. At 8:02, Schiller tells Cohen, call me. And then they have this call, which is only 96 seconds long, where Cohen says, I told them all about Stormy Daniels.

And then right after the call, Cohen sent Schiller the number of the 14-year-old. And so the defense argument is, this call was not about Stormy Daniels. It was about the 14-year-old. Just look at this. Well, Michael Cohen found himself in a bit of a box at that point. What was it about? And Michael Cohen said, well, actually both. He testified part of it was the 14-year-old. But I know that Keith was with Mr. Trump at the time, and there was more potentially than this. The problem is, Michael Cohen said nothing about the 14-year-old during his direct testimony, nor did he say so during his grand jury testimony. So prosecutors are going to have to go back and come back from this really important moment.

A couple other highlights from this morning. Michael Cohen was grilled about his motivations. There was prior testimony from Keith Davidson, prosecution witness, that Michael Cohen was devastated when Trump became president. Cohen thought he would become attorney general, according to Keith Davidson, maybe get an official position in the White House. He got no such thing. He did get to go visit Trump and get a ceremonial photograph. But the argument prosecutors made is, you were bitter. You were angry. Cohen denied that, but other witnesses have said that that was the case. We also heard more from the Michael Cohen litany of insults thrown at Donald Trump. Hope he ends up in prison and the rest that we've become familiar with. I want this man to go down and rot inside another sort of juvenile prison cell. Insults. Finally, prosecutors tried to explain to the jury that when Michael Cohen lies, he has for a reason. Excuse me, defense lawyers tried to explain that.


Todd Blanche asked, you also answered a question. Do you recall that the reason why you lied, referring to one of the times Michael Cohen lied to Congress, was because the stakes affected you personally? And Cohen said yes. And then the defense lawyer followed that up by saying, does the outcome of this trial affect you personally? Cohen answered yes. So Brianna, the argument that the defense team is making is that Michael Cohen lies when it furthers his interests. His interests here are in a conviction for Donald Trump. So they attacked the core of his testimony. They attacked his credibility. The cross- examination will continue in a few minutes when we come back from lunch, but prosecutors have some work to do now.

KEILAR: Yeah, no doubt this is a wound they will have to tend to. Ellie, thank you for that. I want to go to CNN's Kristen Holmes and Paula Reid outside of the courthouse. Kristen, I suspect that former President Trump has very much enjoyed his lunch before court resumes.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, I would assume that as well. Just remember that this is exactly what Donald Trump wanted from Todd Blanch. They watched that cross-examination yesterday or two days ago, and we are told that he was complimentary of it, that he was happy with what Todd Blanche did. But this is really ultimately what he was hoping that he would do. One, catch him in a lie, and two, try to get underneath Michael Cohen's skin. And up until that exchange before lunch, it wasn't really clear whether or not he was doing that. Now, of course, there is the larger picture here, which is that the entire case hinges on Michael Cohen and whether or not the jury believes him since he is the only link. But there is also the idea that Todd Blanch has to appeal to his client, and his client is a demanding person. And one of the things we know that Donald Trump wanted was a very aggressive cross-examination. Now, while Todd Blanche really wasn't all that aggressive until the end there right before lunch. This is exactly the end game that Donald Trump was looking for in this kind of cross-examination.

KEILAR: Yeah, certainly. How significant, Paula, is this 90-second phone call to the prosecution's entire case?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: This is the most significant punch they have landed so far because Cohen's direct testimony that he had this conversation where he was keeping Trump in the loop on this hushed money payment, this was a really significant piece of evidence for the prosecution to support the idea that Trump understood what was going on in this alleged conspiracy throughout, all the way back to October 2016. So now the defense suggesting that this call may not have been about the hushed money and instead might have been about a 14-year-old pranker, well, that's certainly going to get the jury's attention.

Pretty much the best thing that prosecutors can do is try to rehabilitate Cohen by arguing that perhaps he discussed both and get him to testify to that. The other issue that the defense has raised is that this is the first time that Cohen has mentioned this, despite testifying many times about Trump, despite being interviewed many times by investigators. So this specific line of questioning, which we previewed in reporting last night, saying that they were going to challenge his recollection of a specific conversation that he alleged to have with Trump, this is one of the biggest blows the defense has landed so far.

KEILAR: Paula, if Cohen didn't tell the grand jury, if he hasn't mentioned this before, and then the prosecution, as you said, does, you know, they have to, right? They have to try to rehab him by exploring this a little bit more. But will his explanation be believable if it now has this feeling of him trying to explain something that he didn't recollect up until now?

REID: It's a huge problem. And in many ways, the prosecution might be better served by instead focusing on other things that Cohen testified to that have not been undercut by this cross-examination. But, Brianna, we're still a long way from the end of this, of this cross- examination. We know they're also going to look at this idea of these invoices that he was submitting. Were they truly falsified? They're going to argue that he was, in fact, doing legal services. They're going to remind people that Trump has, many people have testified how cheap he is and that he would be unlikely to gross up a payment to someone just out of the goodness of his heart. And instead, they're going to try to argue that he was doing legal services.

That is what he was being paid for. That is what he was submitting invoices for. They're also going to attack this idea of a retainer agreement. They're going to point out the fact that Michael Cohen had never had a formal retainer agreement in the entire time that he has represented Trump. So it shouldn't be significant now. So Michael Cohen has a long road here, and it could be a bloody one if they continue to land more punches like this.

KEILAR: And, Kristen, we are awaiting Donald Trump as he's walking out here, but just he's waving there at the cameras, a fist in the air. He seems pleased. And behind him, this is actually what I wanted to ask you about. We see Matt Gaetz. I don't know about others behind the president, but there's been a bit of a who's who in Republican politics there in the gallery watching the trial today, also on Tuesday and Monday. It's this show of support that we have seen this week.


HOLMES: Yeah, Brianna, it's really starting to look like an audition for a potential vice president, potential cabinet position, whether or not Donald Trump wins in November, of course, there. But we do know one thing. Donald Trump had been disappointed. He had even been angry about his lack of support, not only inside the courtroom, but outside as well. There's a little area outside the courthouse where pro-Trump protesters could go. And there's really never been more than a handful of people. And, of course, as we know, Donald Trump has said, which is not true, that they couldn't get in, that these protesters couldn't get into the city, they couldn't get close to the courthouse. But, in fact, the courthouse has made an actual space for pro-Trump protesters. They just haven't shown up. So since then, we have seen a litany of lawmakers, of Republicans who are vying to be some sort of loyal soldier to the former president showing up in court behind him.

Not only that, but also kind of taking on the role of a mouthpiece for the former president. There is one thing that they don't have the restriction of that Donald Trump does, which is that gag order. They can say whatever they want about these various witnesses. That is what Donald Trump wants to be doing. He wants to be attacking Michael Cohen relentlessly, attacking Stormy Daniels. Now what we're hearing is these lawmakers do his bidding for him. And I do want to be clear here, this really is a two-way street. Donald Trump is getting what he wants out of this, which is a show of force. All of these supporters in the courtroom. And on the other side, these Republicans are getting to show their loyalty to someone who very well could be president of the United States come November.

KEILAR: Yeah, and Trump, look, he can live vicariously through them. We have heard them even take aim at the judge's daughter, which is someone who Donald Trump is under gag order to not go after, after he had done that before. Kristin and Paula, thank you so much for that. Court resuming here in a matter of minutes. We are getting ready for that. Donald Trump, as you saw, just returned to the courtroom. Michael Cohen is going to be back on the stand any second for more cross-examination. And we'll have all the updates when we come back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


KEILAR: And we're back now with our breaking news coverage of former President Trump's hush money trial. The judge is now back on the bench. We're getting reports from our reporters who are there inside. We're going to start seeing these updates as you are now on the left side of your screen. And we're back now with our panel of experts. Prosecutors now are asking the judge to clarify the record over questions about the unsealing of the Trump indictment. But just as we restart this, I do want to say.


AUDIE CORNISH, CNN ANCHOR: Is that relevant, though, to the grand jury in Cohen?


KEILAR: Is that really--


HONIG: This relates to an ineffective line of cross-examination from the morning when Trump's team was cross-examining Cohen, basically saying the DA's office gave you a heads up. That this indictment had dropped even before it came out publicly.


KEILAR: You were cozy. You were too cozy.


CORNISH: Yeah, you were too cozy.

HONIG: And Cohen said, no, I learned from the paper. It's kind of a neither here nor there.

KEILAR: Okay, but so here we are. We are coming back. Donald Trump has had a lovely lunch. You can tell as he walked in. Audie, I think it was pretty obvious--


CORNISH: You've been watching this very closely.

KEILAR:--in his body language. Well, he literally--


CORNISH: You can tell from the post-lunch strut where this is going.

KEILAR: He walked-he did. He strutted in. He had his Republican House friends behind him. And he gave sort of like a fist bump. Fist in the air to show that he's feeling strong. I thought that was pretty obvious. And he has reason to sort of feel that way. What are you expecting here?

CORNISH: Well, also coming a long way from, I think, week one, where there was some reporting that he had expressed displeasure with Todd Blanche and how the defense strategy was proceeding. So I think to have a very sort of active, striking moment is the kind of thing that we know sort of from his personality that he appreciates.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Which he was paying attention to.

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And even setting aside the legal relevance of it, it's the kind of behavior and the kind of cross- examination that people are used to seeing on television. The splashy moment where the defense attorney is wiping his brow and wrinkling his eyes when he's incredulous at the things that are being said. And I think for a defendant, that might be appealing.

HONIG: Just to recap, just in a couple sentences, what just happened. Michael Cohen said, The key phone call I made to Donald Trump about Stormy Daniels happened on October 24, 2016. Now it looks quite clear. From the text that lead up to that phone call, it was about a 14-year- old kid who was harassing him over text. Maybe--


CORNISH: Well, that's the implication from Trump's attorney--


HONIG: Right.

CORNISH:-- In the way he laid out the question.

HONIG: And the texts squarely support that. Now Cohen is saying something that he's never said before, which is, Oh, actually we talked about both things, which is a new story. It's a problem.

KEILAR: It would be more believable if he had said it before.

HONIG: Yes, yes.

KEILAR: But this is the first time that he's explaining it. That's really the problem for him. Michael Cohen, back in the witness box now. We're going to start hearing more from him as Todd Blanche continues his questioning. I wonder which direction you think Todd Blanche is going to go. If we're going to be revisiting this as the jury now comes back into the court.

BORGER: I don't think he goes backwards because he had such success with this. They kind of tied it up with a nice little bow. So maybe he continues to talk about Michael Cohen's relationship with the truth. But I think to go back to this right now, I just wouldn't expect it.

[14:20:09] KEILAR: I think that's a very good point. But I also wonder, what if he had lunch with his client? He said, that was great. Give me seconds.

WILLIAMS: At a certain point, again, this is hard to do when your client is the former leader of the free world. But at a certain point, a defense attorney has to say, look, we are winning. Quit while you're ahead. And this is on the record now. And the further we go, ends up risking overdoing it, gilding the lily, as the expression goes. Now, in terms of Cohen having said it before, absolutely, it would have been far better for him had either the prosecution gotten it out or had he said it before the grand jury when he had an opportunity to raise that one little sentence.

KEILAR: Blanche at the podium wished a good afternoon to Mr. Cohen. Cohen's voice barely audible as he said, good afternoon, Mr. Blanche. He must know that this wasn't great.

HONIG: Yeah. First of all, people are probably wondering, could the prosecutors have spoken with Cohen during the lunch break? You're allowed, but boy, for their sake, I hope they did not.

KEILAR: Tell us more about that.

HONIG: Well, you're allowed to talk to a witness during the break. Sometimes you do if it looks like a witness, you know, is thirsty. Did you need water? Did you get lunch? Are you OK? Do you feel OK? But if they asked him anything about his testimony, Todd, I bet you Todd Blanche will ask, did you meet, did you speak with anyone during the lunch break? That's a very common post lunch break question. I suspect the prosecutors are smart enough that they didn't talk to him about this just yet. The thing you say to your client, by the way, to the point Elliot was making, if Donald Trump's saying more, more. You say, I promise you when I'm giving my closing next week or soon, I am going to do a song and dance about this. This will be the centerpiece of my closing. Save it to then. If you go back to it now, all you can do is give Cohen a chance to wriggle out, to come up with a different story, to water it down.

CORNISH: There was talk earlier that the prosecution might want to, when they get their chance, to keep him on as long as possible. Is there not the same incentive for the defense to run out the clock, so to speak, to kind of keep cross-examining Michael Cohen so that this is the last thing people hear.

WILLIAMS: No, I think so. The problem is that that means an hour and a half more of cross-examination where they may not have that much more material because they've gotten a lot of the credibility stuff out already.



KEILAR: All right. Let's let's take a quick break because things are about to get rolling here. We want to get in a quick break and we'll be right back with much more of our special coverage ahead. We go back to New York as the cross-examination of Michael Cohen resumes.



ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome back to CNN special coverage of Donald Trump's hush money criminal trial. I'm Erin Burnett here in New York outside the courtroom. Michael Cohen right now is formally back under cross-examination. Kristen Holmes and Paula Reid are here as they have been analyzing this. And Paula, right now, text exchange is being shown to the jury, a text exchange between Michael Cohen and a 14-year-old prankster. But this has now become not a sideshow but very central to the entire situation today.

REID: This is incredibly significant. Now, clearly the defendant doesn't think so because he appears to have his eyes closed as the testimony is getting back underway. But this has been one of the best moments for his defense so far because what they've done is they have managed to raise questions about whether Cohen testified truthfully about a call he allegedly had with then-candidate Trump in October 2016. He testified that he called him to update him on the Stormy Daniels hush money payment, but defense attorneys have unearthed receipts suggesting that this may actually have been a call to Keith Schiller to discuss a 14-year-old prankster who was harassing him. Now, they're seeing these text messages. I'm waiting for them to pop up on the screen, but we can see them first, where Cohen is threatening this 14-year-old and threatening to have the Secret Service go after him.

Now, Cohen is telling him that this number, the prankster's number, has just been sent to the Secret Service because of your ongoing continuous harassment to both myself and the organization. Now, you see that right here. And then, if you are a minor, I suggest you notify your parent or guardian. The text from Cohen continued. Now, the minor goes on to apologize profusely, say it was a friend. Now, harassing a 14-year-old about prank calls, not why we're here, but what matters is the timeline. And these were the text messages that Cohen was firing off right before he and Keith Schiller connected. Now, the teenager says, I didn't do it. I'm 14. Please don't do this.

BURNETT: He thought sensibly about calling the Secret Service.

REID: Yes, exactly. It doesn't reflect well on his character, but the reason this matters is defense attorneys are lining up these text messages one after another and then showing that Cohen then texts Keith Schiller, asking what he should do about the prankster. Then they get on the call, and Michael Cohen and prosecutors are asking the jury to believe that next call was about Stormy Daniels and not about the prankster.

BURNETT: Right, but that timeline, of course, Kristen, at most, it certainly raises a question--



BURNETT: --when you look at it as to what that call was really about.

HOLMES: Right, and we talk about the prosecution, and we talk about how they painted this call. Michael Cohen said that because of his loyalties to the former president that anything he knew about what was going on with Stormy Daniels, he had to immediately contact the former president to let him know, keep him apprised. And, of course, that goes to the messaging that the prosecution laid out in all of their witnesses, that Donald Trump was a micromanager and Michael Cohen was just following directions to keep loyal to him.



HOLMES: Now you have a situation in which he is texting Keith Schiller about the prankster that he's talking to for 90 seconds, the 90 seconds that's supposed to be about Stormy Daniels. Then after the call, he's texting him the prankster's number.


HOLMES: So in that conversation, the urgency about the Stormy Daniels part is supposed to be in there, along with the fact that there was a conversation.