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Michael Cohen Nearing End of Testimony. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired May 20, 2024 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to CNN's special coverage of former President Trump's hush money criminal trial. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington, along with Abby Phillip, who's out -- just outside the courthouse in New York.

Today, Michael Cohen, Trump's former fixer and lawyer, is back on the witness stand. Prosecutors appear to have some work to do during their redirect of Cohen after he made a truly stunning admission during cross-examination today.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche was able to get Cohen to admit to stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the Trump Organization.

Abby, you were inside court today. Explain how it all went down.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: That's right, Wolf.

Earlier in the trial, during the direct examination, Cohen had actually said this, that he had pocketed money from the Trump Organization that was meant for a technology company. But, today, while he was being pressed by the defense attorney Todd Blanche, Cohen agreed that it was theft, essentially.

Blanche said -- quote -- "So you stole from the Trump Organization?"

Cohen then answered: "Yes, sir."

With me now, CNN chief legal affairs correspondent Paula Reid. Also with us, CNN national correspondent Kristen Holmes.

Court just took a break for lunch. They were just having a little bit of a sidebar with the judge about a few different issues before -- after the jury left the room.

But this was really -- of all the moments this morning, as someone who was sitting in -- I was in the overflow room today. This was probably the one moment when something happened that everybody's ears perked up, right?

And to Michael Cohen's credit, he didn't try to sugarcoat it. But what do you think ultimately is the significance of this revelation that he received $100,000, essentially, from the Trump Organization and only gave $20,000 of it to the person or the entity that it was intended for?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: The blame here really lies with the prosecution, because, on direct, as you just noted, they did -- they walked up to the line. They acknowledged that he did take some money off the top, and this $50,000.

But they didn't follow up with the important question, which is, how much did you take? He took tens of thousands of dollars. You might have expected that, yes, maybe he took a couple grand, but to take $30,000 and then to allow Todd Blanche on cross-examination to get Cohen to admit that he stole from the Trump Organization, that allowed Todd Blanche to land a punch that the prosecutors really could have staved off if they had gotten out ahead of this.

Now, when they had a chance to go back to Cohen, he had a chance to explain it. He said -- quote -- "I was angered because of the reduction in the bonus." He was upset about the amount of his bonus that year. "And so I just felt like it was almost like self-help. I wasn't going to let him have the benefit of this way as well. I wasn't going to correct the conversation I was having with Allen Weisselberg," which is talking about when they sketched out those notes about how he would be paid $420,000.

"I had not only protected him," Trump, "to the best that I could, but I had also laid out the money to Red Finch a year-and-a-half earlier and had -- again, $130,000, to have my bonus cut by two-thirds was very upsetting, to say the least."

So, not exactly perfect English there, but what Cohen seems to be saying is that he felt he was entitled to steal this money from the Trump Organization. Not a great moment for prosecutors. They should have gotten out ahead of this. Whether this will sink their case, I mean, it just depends how the jury sees this.

PHILLIP: Yes, I mean, it depends on how the jury sees that and in -- and also the fact that Michael Cohen is not on -- he's not actually the defendant here. Donald Trump is.

But I want to just take a moment, Kristen, because I wondered, and I think a lot of people wondered, what on earth is Red Finch and what were they doing? And we got an answer to that today. And the answer is, in some ways, it's very Trumpian, but it has to do with a poll.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and it turns out that they actually didn't -- it was a CNBC poll, and they didn't end up running the poll.

And this was all about what it was going to say and making sure that everything was favorable to the former president. I think -- I do just want to touch on one thing here, because I know that, during this redirect, we have seen over and over again that Michael Cohen -- we hear the prosecutors say, Michael Cohen, you're not on trial.

But the one thing to point out here is the fact that he is the only linking witness that actually links Donald Trump to a crime. So the fact that he's not on trial, yes, that is obviously true. But, at the same time, the jury is going to make their decision based on whether or not they believe Michael Cohen.


I cannot tell you the number of judges I have spoken to who have said that, after a jury has found someone not guilty based on a faulty witness, when they were asked about it, it was because they could not trust -- their judge asked them. They said they could not trust this witness.

So, while the prosecution is technically right that Michael Cohen is not on trial, it is him that could determine the direction this case goes.

PHILLIP: Just one other thing on this, and the reason I think the question of what is Red Finch and what they were doing is important is because it actually goes to a broader issue, which is that Michael Cohen is a shady person, OK, and he's doing shady things on behalf of Donald Trump.

One of the interesting things about the Red Finch thing is that Cohen testifies that Trump didn't want to pay them at all. They did this work for him. The poll was discarded for whatever reason by CNBC, and Trump didn't want to pay them at all.

REID: Yes, he wasn't happy with how he was faring in the poll, so, therefore, he did not want to pay them. And, initially, Cohen suggested that's why he only gave them $20,000, but, under more questioning from Todd Blanche, then he admitted that in fact he stole it.

And he seems to again feel that he was entitled. This seems incredibly problematic, not just because he's saying that he stole from the Trump Organization, but this number, the amount that he was reimbursed, this is central to the allegedly falsified business records.

And when you look at that math, one of the only pieces of information that we have from the other person who was allegedly engaged in this conspiracy, Allen Weisselberg, and this math matters. And if it's Michael Cohen who gave false information about how this money should come back to him, I mean, that doesn't help the prosecution.

Well, what they needed from Cohen was credible testimony that Trump was directing all of this. And, instead, Cohen undermined himself. This could potentially be a real problem for prosecutors.

PHILLIP: Yes, I want to go Kara Scannell. She just got out of the courthouse as well.

Kara, you were inside of the courtroom where all of this was unfolding. Tell us what your big takeaways were from this morning of testimony. At times, Todd Blanche was really slow going, a little meandering, until he got to this one moment in the testimony.

How did that go down?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Abby, so, I mean, a lot of the cross-examination was a bit meandering.

And they were, though, trying to focus in on Cohen's memory of a variety of things, including the one phone call in October of 2016, not the one that was the big blockbuster moment, but another one where Cohen had spoke with Donald Trump twice before he had gone to the bank and opened up the bank account in order to transfer the money, the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels' lawyer.

And what Todd Blanche did in that moment was go through all the other things that Michael Cohen had on his plate, other things that he could have possibly been speaking with Donald Trump about at that time, again, to try to sow some doubt in the minds of the jury of what Cohen's recollection was on all of these phone calls.

And part of the reason gets to what the prosecution is now trying to address on redirect. And just before we broke for lunch, prosecutors are trying to get in photos taken from October 24, 2016, at a rally of Keith Schiller and Donald Trump.

And that's because that does go to this moment that happened on Thursday, where Michael Cohen was shown text messages with Keith Schiller, the bodyguard, just before he got on the phone with Schiller, who Cohen had testified when asked by prosecutors that that's when he told Donald Trump that things were resolved with Stormy Daniels, they were moving ahead.

And then, on cross-examination, he was shakier and was now confronted with these text messages that showed that Cohen was texting the bodyguard about a prankster who was calling and harassing him.

So, the prosecutors want to get to this point now once we have returned from lunch. And they want to introduce photos from a campaign rally that were taken at 7:57 that show Keith Schiller and Donald Trump exiting the stage.

And so they're hoping to get that in so that they can argue that he -- Keith Schiller was with Donald Trump. But even one of the prosecutors acknowledged that doesn't completely address the bigger question here about the content of that phone call and whether Cohen did in fact speak with Donald Trump.

But they're trying to repair some of what Cohen had got tangled up with last week on cross-examination and going to the issues of his memory and the strength of his memory to try to restore his credibility to the jury.

PHILLIP: Yes, I mean, that is a critical moment from the cross- examination and a critical moment in the timeline that Michael Cohen has laid out about when and how he communicated with Trump about this payment to Stormy Daniels.

Kara Scannell, thank you very much.

Paula and Kristen, you guys will stay with me -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Abby, thank you. Let's bring in our panel of legal and political experts.

And, Elie, let me start with you. What do you make of the redirect so far? Are they doing an effective job cleaning up some of Michael Cohen's testimony, acknowledging, admitting that he actually stole money from the Trump Organization?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, they are doing some measure of cleanup. That's what you have to do on redirect.


And I do think they're succeeding, to some extent, in refocusing the jury on the fact that the charges here are about falsification of business records. You filled in Donald Trump on what was happening here, according to Michael Cohen. And, therefore, he's guilty. And they even asked Michael Cohen at one point, you're not the one on trial here, right?

I mean, that's a standard thing you ask. And he said, no, Donald Trump is the one on trial.

I think the revelation, though, this morning about the theft of $30,000, which was doubled because they covered his taxes, so $60,000, it came out in a glancing, unclear way on direct. It came out like a bomb earlier today.

I don't know how much they can do to fix that. It just -- at a certain point, it is the fact Michael Cohen did steal this money. And what makes that really so important, Wolf, is it's not as if Michael Cohen was just stealing on the side. That'd be bad enough. The problem is, he was stealing from the exact reimbursement at issue in this case.

So the prosecution's core argument is, Donald Trump knew what that $420,000 was all about. He was totally read in on it. Turns out Michael Cohen was stealing from him within that $420,000.

BLITZER: Does Michael Cohen's acknowledgment, admission that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from the Trump Organization potentially opened him up to further criminal, criminal prosecution?

HONIG: It's a great question. The answer is not anymore, because the statute of limitations has run out.

But it's a very fair question to ask, gee, folks, of the jury, they gave him a free pass. He committed larceny. It's a higher degree of felony than what Donald Trump is charged with. Yet they gave Michael Cohen a free pass, even though he's now admitted that he stole what amounts to $60,000.

It goes to his credibility. It goes to his relationship with the DA.

BLITZER: You know, Elliot Williams is with us as well.

Elliot, Todd Blanche, the attorney representing the former president, ended his testimony today questioning Cohen's motives. And there was this exchange. I want to read it to you.

Question: "Because, if President Trump is convicted, that would benefit you personally and financially, right?"

Cohen: "No, sir. It's better if he's not for me, because it gives me more to talk about in the future."

How do you expect prosecutors to respond in their redirect?


And it is -- and Elie was touching on this a little bit. It is not always in the interest of prosecutors to keep hammering a point when it comes to trying to rehabilitate a witness' credibility. They had 17 hours, or however many it was, with him on the stand, where they built up his credibility, opened the door to some of the questions that we have been talking about today.

They don't really benefit by getting into an extended back-and-forth with another hour of questioning to try to rebut everything that the defense put on. They can clean it up in their closing statement, maybe ask a question or two to this extent, because, look, the defense has already made the argument that -- or at least alleging that Michael Cohen seeks to benefit financially and has an interest in seeing the president taken down, but that's nothing new to the jury at this point.

And so, for prosecutors to keep beating it, it just doesn't -- it could actually tire and wear the jury out.

BLITZER: Interesting.

Gloria, prosecutors have made the case that Trump, as we all know, seems to be meticulous, meticulous with his business and personal finances. Does this testimony from Cohen undercut that narrative?


I mean, I kept thinking all during this exchange how upset Donald Trump must be, because he's a micromanager and he's cheap, and, certainly, nobody likes to have any money stolen from their business.

And the question that I have is, when Donald Trump found out about this -- and I'm sure he knew about it before today's testimony -- I'm sure his lawyers informed him about it. There was some reporting that he shook his head today. And he must be furious about this, because nobody steals $30,000 or $60,000 from Donald Trump.

I mean, if you buy the prosecution's argument that he knew about the Stormy Daniels payment, this might have been one payment that he did not know about. And he could be furious about it, because it was thievery, and from his own attorney, whom he apparently trusted.

BLITZER: And Jeff Zeleny is with us as well.

Jeff, as we all know, Cohen had a lot of credibility problems long before his testimony in this trial. What does that say to you about Trump's decision to keep hiring him for years?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I mean, he was an essential part of the pre-president version of Donald Trump.

I mean, for years he worked for him. There's a long list of people -- some are in jail, some are thrown to the side -- who worked for Donald Trump before he was in the White House, while he was in the White House and after, who are not savory characters.

So I think this is not that big of a surprise. The question is, how does the jury see all this? And we simply do not know. The stealing, this morning, to me, that rang slightly different. I mean, one, it was the surprise of it that.

We all knew -- and what Gloria said, it is interesting to know if Donald Trump knew that, because he's been more engaged during this portion of the trial than any other, because he has such a personal animus and relationship with Donald Trump. And money is at the center of -- I mean, he likes money more than virtually anything else, perhaps power as well.


So I think that he seems to be guiding his attorneys through this. But, look, at the end of the day, we do not know how Michael Cohen's credibility is going to impact this. I mean, it is going to be a challenge. It's probably the biggest challenge for prosecutors, without a doubt.

BORGER: You could argue that the jury knew who Michael Cohen was before this was revealed.

And the question is, how much impact does this particular incident have? I mean, he said, look, I thought I was deserving of this, so I just took it, which...

HONIG: Self-help, he called it.

BORGER: ... which sounds like a 5-year-old's explanation about why he took the extra piece of candy, right? I mean, I was deserving of it, and self-help, yes.

HONIG: That's what he said.

BORGER: That's a new definition.


BORGER: So -- so we don't know how the jury is going to react to this, whether they will say, oh, more of the same, or, well, well, maybe the Stormy Daniels story isn't as he told it.

ZELENY: Or a juror. It takes one juror to react in a different way.

BORGER: It just takes one, exactly.

BLITZER: He also said that he deserved this money because his bonus had been cut.

BORGER: Right. Self-help, right.

BLITZER: And, as a result, he deserved it. It was very important.

All right, everybody, stand by.

A lot more coming up, much more of our special coverage of the hush money criminal trial of Donald Trump, including reaction from a judge who is in the courtroom watching all of this play out.

Plus, we have new details coming into CNN about the sudden death of Iran's president, killed alongside other top Iranian officials in a helicopter crash.



BLITZER: We're back with our breaking news coverage of Donald Trump's hush money criminal trial.

Court is in a break right now for lunch. When it comes back, the prosecution will continue trying to rehabilitate its star witness, Michael Cohen, after the defense spent hours hammering his credibility during cross-examination.

With us now, retired New York criminal court Judge George Grasso. He's a retired Queens County Supreme Court judge in New York as well. He was inside court during the course of this morning.

Judge, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

As you know, earlier, Trump's attorney, Todd Blanche, got Cohen to admit on the stand, under oath, of course, that he stole money from the Trump Organization. Talk to us a little bit about that moment. How significant is that for the defense?

GEORGE GRASSO, FORMER QUEENS COUNTY, NEW YORK, SUPREME COURT JUDGE: Well, here's my take on that, Wolf, and it's always good to be with you.

I actually think it fell pretty flat for Todd Blanche, and I think Cohen turns it around to the net benefit of his credibility, in the sense that everybody already knows who Michael Cohen is and who Donald Trump is. And these guys are not aboveboard dealers.

Cohen was not defensive at all. He explained it that he originally had told Trump and Weisselberg that it was a $50,000 contract. They didn't pay. He made Trump look very bad when he was talking about this poll, the most famous businessmen, and Trump wanted this Red Finch to work to manipulate I.P. addresses and things like that. And then, when it came time to sit down with Weisselberg on the final

payouts, Cohen felt like -- he said he's already testified in front of the jury that he felt he was shortchanged on his bonus, that he thought this was a good time to make up for the bonus. He was the one who took care of Red Finch. He thought he did Trump a favor.

I mean, objectively, is it honest? Is it ethical? No. But is it consistent with Michael Cohen's character and the way he did business? Yes. So, on balance, I don't think they hurt Michael Cohen's credibility at all.

And I think, as a sideline, it just showed how devious Donald Trump could be in manipulating data and the truth to the general public. So, I thought it was a very flat moment for the defense on that point.

BLITZER: So, let me ask you this, Judge.

What more, if anything, do you think prosecutors need to do to clean up this on redirect?

GRASSO: Well, breaking news, we're in the middle of it right now.

The DA was going back into that infamous now -- for the prosecution, infamous October 24 8:02 p.m. phone call with Keith Schiller and, according to Michael Cohen, Donald Trump, where this 14-year-old got interjected into the conversation.

So, as we speak, the judge is considering ruling on whether or not C- SPAN footage that apparently show Keith Schiller and Donald Trump together at a rally at, I believe, 7:57 p.m. on October 24 will be shown to the jury to establish they were together.

So this is a step forward that they are taking and showing that the DA knows they have worked to do on that particular conversation. We're all waiting with bated breath to see how the judge rules and where it goes. And I will be able to discuss more of that with you likely later on "THE SITUATION ROOM."

BLITZER: All right, good. We will look forward to that as well.

Judge Merchan, who's overseeing this trial, of course, he expects closing arguments to begin, what, next Tuesday. There won't be a trial on Friday or Monday because of the Memorial Day holiday.


What do you make of that?

GRASSO: Well, I don't know. I think, possibly, closing arguments could begin tomorrow.

Well, he's going to have to charge the jury. So -- and then we have got Thursday. So -- but then we have got a four-day weekend. So there's a lot of balls in the air. So how it's going to act -- how the plane is going to actually land, we don't know. But we are getting close, Wolf. If it doesn't get to the jury sometime on Thursday, it's definitely

going to be getting to the jury next Tuesday, and we will have closing arguments, and then charging. And it's all coming together. But I think we're pretty close to closing arguments. I really do.

BLITZER: Yes, I think you're absolutely right.

Judge Grasso, thanks so much for joining us. See you later as well.

Just ahead: How is Trump's camp reacting to what has unfolded in that courtroom today? I will speak with his former communications director at the White House after a quick break.