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Now: Cohen Back On Stand After Admitting He Stole From Trump Org. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired May 20, 2024 - 12:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And also Keith Schiller handed the phone to Trump and Michael Cohen told Trump that the Stormy Daniels matter was settled. Why is that significant?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So, to me, 1 minute and 36 seconds, if you are in the television business, that is a long time. If we all stopped talking for 1 minute and 36 seconds, there would be some very unhappy people in the control room.

DANA BASH, CNN HOST: I'm not so sure about that.

TAPPER: Depends which one of us. Yes.

GANGEL: But if you think about Michael Cohen's voice, and his speed, the way he speaks, I can see him getting a lot done in 1 minute and 36 seconds. He can talk about two things, and I'm not sure how much time Donald Trump would want to spend on the phone with him after he said, everything's OK, boss.

TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's a good point. And I'm still struck by the fact that, I mean, for all of Michael Cohen's closest to Donald Trump, he still couldn't call him directly. He still went through a Keith Schiller. So I think you're right. I mean, 1 minute 36 Trump could have hung up.

There are many politicians, Harry Reid, of course, famous among them, sort of ends a call very quickly without saying goodbye. So I think that time, it seems short. But actually, as you said, it's not like he was telling him for the first time this, it was essentially just, you know, closing up loose ends.

BASH: But there were other moments -- I totally agree with you -- there were other moments that they have shown, even today, where Michael Cohen did talk directly to Donald Trump. And so that begs the question of whether or not the story about the real reason why Michael Cohen called, which was to try to get Keith Schiller, who was, yes, Donald Trump's bodyguard, but he also did security to get his help on this 14-year-old prankster who called him.

And whether he -- it turned out that he was with Donald Trump at the time and he used the opportunity to do some business about Stormy Daniels.

TAPPER: So right now what's going on in court is Susan Hoffinger, the prosecuting attorney, is trying to help Michael Cohen in terms of his credibility. She said, as Kaitlan read, "And I know it may feel like you're on trial here after cross examination, but are you actually on trial?" Michael Cohen says, "No, ma'am."

"Is the situation here different from the situation you were in in 2018?" That refers to the tax charges that Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to back in 2018. "Yes," Cohen says. Cohen says my life was on the line, my liberty. And here I'm just a non-party subpoenaed witness.

Hoffinger asks if Cohen had a retainer agreement when he worked for the Trump organization. "You're an employee, it's not necessary," Cohen said. Did $420,000, the payment made, this is the issue at the case, did Donald Trump falsify business records to pay Stormy Daniels, or to pay back Michael Cohen for paying off Stormy Daniels for the hush money payment?

Did $420,000 have anything to do with legal services? In 2017, Hoffinger asks. "No," Cohen says. Cohen again confirms he never put together a retainer agreement for Trump when he left the Trump organization and became Trump's personal attorney.

This is 2017, quote, "Because I never expected to get paid." That was the point there. This is all a repayment according to Cohen. When you submitted each of your 11 invoices to the Trump organization stating each was for services rendered pursuant to a retainer, that's $420,000 divided by 12, $35,000 a month. Was that true or false? Hoffinger asks. "False," Cohen says.

Cohen again says he never retained Costello and never paid him any money.

So right now, Laura Coates, what they're doing here is underlying, stop listing to all this other stuff. Michael Cohen's not on trial. The question is, were these business records falsified? That's all that matters.

LAURA COATES, CNN ANCHOR: And what's interesting, and the challenge for this jury, is that you're not going to have just one count to unpack. The question before the jury is not going to be, do you believe them that 420,000 was paid to Michael Cohen as a reimbursement for trying to give a hush money payment and try to avoid transparency in campaign finance?

It's 34 separate counts. And the 34 separate counts late to the accumulation of $420,000 that had been divided by 12. Now that's important here because Todd Blanche tried to make a lot of different inroads and suggest that there was padding, that there was falsified invoices from Cohen to Trump that represented him getting, you know, him being hustled.

But the jury has to now figure out of those 34 accounts, of the invoices, of the checks of the entries in the ledger, well, which ones represent the actual payments made to Stormy Daniels as part of the hush money and which were the padding for Michael Cohen.

They have to focus it on the idea of money was paid but now this added element of the hustle of what was stolen adds a different layer for this jury and can they unpack it in a way through instruction or otherwise, that's going to be a challenge.

TAPPER: I really have no idea what the jury's going to do. I mean --


TAPPER: I really want to make it clear because I think that the prosecution has done a decent job of saying this payment happened, and here's the evidence of it. And the defense has done a decent job of saying you can't believe anything that the chief witness says.


HONIG: Yes. A lot of times when we cover these trials, when you hear that a jury has come back with a verdict, you have a pretty good sense of what it is. When the Derek Chauvin jury came back with a verdict, we knew what it was. I mean it -- right? We didn't say it on air, but it was quite -- we didn't know from behind the scenes. It was just obvious.

If and when they're -- we're now just about done with the presentation of evidence. If we got a note right away saying, we have a verdict, I would have no idea what it is. What the D.A. is doing right now is refocusing the jury because a lot of stuff comes out on cross.

A lot of it you don't like as a prosecutor and what she's asking Michael Cohen right now. The crux of this crime as charged is, you guys set it up so that this $420,000 reimbursement from Donald Trump to you, you tried to make it look like a legal fee as part of a retainer. But you all knew it was really to cover Stormy Daniels. Isn't that right?

TAPPER: Not all of it, but --

HONIG: Right, right.

TAPPER: -- a chunk of it.

HONIG: But a chunk of it. And Michael Cohen is saying, yes, this was not an attorney fee. I did not do legal work. I did not have a written retainer agreement. This was the fraud. That's what she's trying to do. The problem though -- and this gets back to the $60,000 that we had sort of clearly come through today was stolen.

You know, Ron Kuby, who I really respect, I practiced with and against him in New York City, said, well, so what? The guy, we already knew the guy's a liar, so what, he's a thief too. But this isn't some tangential theft. Because the core prosecution argument is Donald Trump knew what that $420,000 was for. He understood what that money was really intended for.

But it turns out, no, he did not. Because he sure as heck did not know that Michael Cohen was stealing from him in part of that $420,000. That's why it's such an important revelation.

TIM PARLATORE, CNN LEGAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. One thing that I look at is, why did he do the invoices the way that he did? I mean, there is no requirement to be specific in legal invoice. He could just put expense reimbursement and then they wouldn't have had to worry about the tax.

And one thing that got kind of buried here is that he didn't report these payments on his tax returns or pay taxes on it. So we're not talking about 60,000 that he took. We're talking about 270,000 that Michael Cohen pocketed out of this.

Only 150,000 went to reimburse, you know, the, you know, that company and --

TAPPER: Red Finch and Stormy Daniels, yes.

PARLATORE: So $270,000 he pocketed. And, you know, one of the things, you know, to Laura's point about which one of these business records, you know, represents that versus the money that went to Michael Cohen, that's one of the, you know, kind of unique aspects of the New York State criminal system where they cut it out amongst each check being a separate count.

You know, in the federal system, it just be a single kind of wire fraud and it'd be the entire thing. And the jury can say, yes, guilty of wire fraud, not guilty of $420,000 just guilty of $150,000. But --

TAPPER: Let me just ask you, if Donald Trump, if with the benefit of hindsight.


TAPPER: If Donald Trump had just paid Michael -- let's just assume what Michael Cohen is saying is true, OK, for the sake of this argument. If Donald Trump had just written him a check for $150,000, right, $130,000 for Stormy Daniels, $20,000 for Red Finch, so let's just say even like --


TAPPER: -- $50,000 because he doesn't know Donald -- he doesn't know Michael Cohen's fleecing from him, so writes him a check for $180,000 as a repayment.


TAPPER: Michael Cohen wouldn't have had to pay taxes on it, it would have been less money, right?

PARLATORE: Correct, it would have been his expense reimbursement.

TAPPER: So, doesn't that make the argument that Donald Trump knew, because why on earth would he spend so much more money, you know, doesn't that make it more credible? Because forget Donald Trump being thrifty. Nobody wants to spend $420,000 if you only need to spend $180,000, right?

So, doesn't that buttress the argument that Donald Trump was in on the scheme because otherwise, why would he spend so much more? Oh, it's to hide it. I'm just saying, it's -- I'm just making an argument, I'm not saying I believe it, but --


TAPPER: -- as an argument.

PARLATORE: And I would say, I would look at it the other way, where Michael Cohen is the one who's advising him, as his attorney, and saying, hey sir, you don't have a law license, I do, this is how we have to do it. And, you know, he could have very simply just put it in his expense reimbursement, Donald Trump would have paid $150,000, he could have saved $270,000.

The fact that he paid that much more based on this, you know, the ruse of, you know, the increased invoice based on the roost that he was going to report on his taxes, that actually shows to me that Michael Cohen is misleading Trump as to what's really going on here.

TAPPER: But remember, Michael Cohen paid this money through an LLC in Delaware --


TAPPER: -- and we still -- do we know whether or not he claims he told Donald Trump. I don't think that's ever been introduced his testimony.

HONIG: I don't think he informed Donald Trump. He had to open this essential consultants LLC in order to make the original payment by Stormy. I don't think there's any evidence. Trump knew that


Kaitlan Collins, back to you in New York.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Jake. Obviously, we are watching Michael Cohen now explaining that embarrassing moment where his attorney submitted cases that he had sent to him in a briefing emotion, and they were actually generated by AI, by barred. They weren't real cases and real precedent that he was looking at there.


That was just part of this entire saga that brought us to where we are today. Now that Michael Cohen has spent several hours on the witness stand.

We also have retired New York Supreme Court Judge Diane Kiesel back with us. And Judge, what do -- I wonder, just as you've seen the prosecution trying to redirect their questions with Michael Cohen, trying to rehabilitate his image with the jury for the damage that was done when the defense was questioning him. What do you make of of how they've done in just the brief, maybe, you know, 30 minutes or so, so far that they've had him back on the stand?

DIANE KIESEL, FORMER NEW YORK SUPREME COURT JUDGE: Well, I think it's very important for the prosecution not to completely revisit the entire defense cross-examination. We have already gotten hints that the juries may have had enough today. They've got to focus on the crucial elements.

And I think Susan Hoffinger has tried to do that, and she appears to have been successful. She focused on what this whole Red Finch business was about, and why Michael Cohen chose to pad that bill. She got him to admit with no hesitation that indeed he did do that.

So the question becomes, is that going to be enough for the jury to discount what's in those invoices? She's just trying to zero in on where her case might be the most harmed.

COLLINS: Yes. And right now she has moved on to that phone call at 8:02 p.m. to Keith Schiller's phone. I believe this is the call from October 24th, 2016. That was the call where initially Michael Cohen testified that he was conveying to Trump via this phone call that the Stormy Daniels matter was being handled by him, as he talked about seeking Trump's approval in those last final steps before he ultimately sent the $130,000 to her attorney.

But this was the moment last week where the defense was able to show text messages from Michael Cohen to Keith Schiller and from Michael Cohen and this alleged prankster, who was saying he was just 14 years old, trying to get the Secret Service to deal with them.

Right now, Hoffinger is just trying to admit into evidence a photo of Trump and Keith Schiller, but the defense is objecting here. They're now at another sidebar. How does the prosecution clean up a moment like that one?

KIESEL: Well, look, these are the two most serious moments in terms of negating Michael Cohen's credibility, right? The phone call about the teenager and the padding the bill. So she's very wise to be trying to go and hit both of these moments.

I think, you know, we live in a world where we multitask, right? There's no reason, again, assuming Michael Cohen is telling the truth, and I don't have any idea whether he is or not, but if he's telling the truth, that indeed he did mention the Stormy Daniels business in this phone call, you know, the phone call may have had dual purposes, right?

He's talking about the phone call and nonetheless texting that other matters came up as well. You know, what more can she do with this if you think about it? I think it's just very important, though, for her to get in and get out as quickly as she can, hit the points where she thinks she is most harmed by his testimony and sit down.

COLLINS: You know, one overarching theme from how the defense has handled the witnesses when they have cross-examined them, it's just trying to kind of portray everyone around Donald Trump is shady. I mean, they talked about the motives that Stormy Daniels had that were financial and reputational.

And they talked about Michael Cohen, the exact same thing, you know, talking about the show that he was shopping around, the idea that he was potentially considering running for Congress. I mean, I wonder how a jury could potentially look at this argument that everyone around the defendant was acting shady, but the defendant himself. Was it aware or wasn't involved in any of that shady behavior?

And I should note the judge just told the jury they're about to break early for lunch today. So we do believe that this redirect by the prosecution will continue. But I just wonder what you make of that effort overall by the Trump team.

KIESEL: Well, it can work in two directions, right? On the one hand, Donald Trump is an innocent victim of a bunch of vipers who are surrounding him, who take advantage of his, what, good nature, or his naivete, or one could look at it from the other direction, which is, you know, who do you surround yourself with if you're shady?

Other shady people, right? So I definitely think that's one where both sides are going to have to emphasize their version of events in summation, because it can go either way.

COLLINS: It certainly can. And we don't know which way the jury is leaning. They are exiting the courtroom for this break. We will see how the afternoon plays out.

Judge Kiesel, thank you for that.


It has been quite a dramatic morning inside court as the judge's told the jury they're taking an early lunch break. We are closely watching all of this and following it. Much more of CNN's special live coverage next.


TAPPER: 16 hours. Michael Cohen's marathon testimony will continue once the defendant, the judge, the jury, and the witness all return from a lunch break happening right now inside 100 Center Street in Manhattan. You're watching CNN special live coverage of Donald Trump's hush money cover up trial.


A stunner from the stand today, courtesy of a straightforward question from Todd Blanche, the lead Trump defense attorney. Quote, "You stole from the Trump organization, right?", Blanche asked. Cohen's answer, "Yes, sir."

It is obviously a historical moment and a momentous one. But we should not conclude that -- conclude from that that this is necessarily going to result in Donald Trump being convicted.

ZELENY: As we've said from the very beginning, the political fallout, if there is any, is completely unknown. An acquittal may make this -- his base move on. It may anger Democrats. We just don't know. We've said for weeks we should just take a pause.

One thing as we talked to voters around the country, they're not paying attention. Most of them are not to the ins and outs of all this. Opponents of the former president are perhaps and perhaps his bases. But a lot of people are living their lives in the country.

So the fallout of this, the verdict, obviously, we'll have to measure what impact it does. It makes June a very important month in this presidential campaign. We know, of course, the debate is at the end of the month. But what happens in the beginning? Should there be a verdict likely in June? We will just have to see.

But we do not know. We should be very clear that this will have any impact on the presidential campaign. If it does, we don't know what that impact is.

TAPPER: And right now, the attorneys are arguing whether -- over some photographs that seemed to come from that date in October where Michael Cohen said he called Keith Schiller to gripe about some prank calls he was getting and then Schiller handed the phone to Trump. And according to Cohen he told him -- he told Donald Trump that the deal was done.

It's October 24th. One of the photos prosecutors want to introduce is from a C-SPAN feed from October 24th. Blanche argues it's inadmissible as evidence because prosecutors did not follow the rules of evidence by issuing a subpoena to C-SPAN, as prosecutors did for other material earlier in the trial. Steinglass who is with the prosecution, says the photo shows that Schiller and Trump walked off the stage together at 7:57 p.m. ahead of the 8:02 p.m. phone call in question.

BASH: Well, I'm just wondering if this is one of those examples that you were talking about where you object to something because you wanted to be on record that you're objecting for an appeal, or this is something that they really -- I mean, obviously they're objecting. They really wanted out.

But the question of whether or not they're going to be successful now might not be as important as that about an appeal, since it seems as though, this conversation, this alleged conversation that Cohen had with Trump, the Keith Schiller's phone could be the critical one to determining whether or not, you know.

TAPPER: So Josh Steinglass, the attorney for the prosecution says that they're entitled to establish and I realize it's not wholly responsive to what happened on that phone call. Prosecution is saying they want to just show this photograph so the jury can see that Keith Schiller was with Donald Trump five minutes before this phone call supposedly happened.

And there are phone records showing that it happened in a lasted 93 seconds.

COATES: This is all about opening the door, really. BASH: Right.

TAPPER: Opening the door to what?

COATES: So if you are on, you have an order of things. There's a direct examination of the witness and there's a cross. And there's an objective for a redirect. But when you have a redirect, it's about things that were brought up during the cross-examination.

And have they opened the door in the cross to have you have a second bite of the apple. Or you can't just have an initial one to redirect. So by asking the question, and what Blanche is saying is, look, I was not arguing that there was no phone call. I was arguing that the nature and substance of the phone call was about a totally different topic.

About that 14-year-old, I think, who was harassing, not about the some -- about Stormy Daniels. And so, the arguing instead, Steinglass and the prosecutor are saying, no, no, that opens a door to us being able to introduce this photo to suggest and buttress our argument that, in fact, actually happened. And that's what this fight is about.

TAPPER: And that really, I mean, it also just is Blanche says it's not admissible, he leans on this technicality about authenticating the photos, pulled offs, C-Span's website. He says C-SPAN's record custodian did not authenticate information on the website, only what was in the archive. Says a paralegal from the D.A.'s office cannot properly authenticate the photos and testifying that they found the photos on the website.

And this just really also gets into the petty back and forth --


TAPPER: -- when it comes to, I just have to say, the defense, and this is perfectly within their bounds, but they are just refusing to stipulate anything at all.

HONIG: Yes, they're being difficult. Look, I'm sure this is not some sort of counterfeit C-SPAN clip. I'm sure it's legitimate. If prosecutors are forced to, they will get -- bring back the C-SPAN guy. Remember he testified earlier and say, yes, that's an actual clip of something that actually happened.

What this goes to, the big controversial phone call here happened at 8:02 p. m. on October 24th.


On direct, Michael Cohen says, that's where I called Keith Schiller, he handed the phone over or put it on speaker so I could speak with Trump and I told Trump stormy situation taken care of. On cross- examination, it turned out that all the text before and after that had to do with a different topic altogether.

TAPPER: This prank caller. HONIG: The prank caller, right. And so Trump's team's argument is that you didn't really talk to Keith -- to Donald Trump. You only talked to Keith Schiller. And what the D.A. is trying to show here as well, but they were together. Trump and Schiller --

TAPPER: Right.

HONIG: -- were physically together five minutes before this call happens. But as Laura said, it doesn't really go to the crux of the matter, it's just a minor point in the prosecution's favor.

TAPPER: Yes. It's a little bit more clean up --


TAPPER: -- that the prosecution is trying to do because of some of the damaging hits that were landed by the defense in the cross-examination of Michael Cohen.

CNN special live coverage is going to continue with more updates from 100 Center Street. We're going to squeeze in a quick break. We'll be right back.