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CNN Live Event/Special

Michael Cohen Admits To Theft; Stormy Daniels Payment; The Defense May Call Robert Costello; Cohen Acted At Trump's Direction; Key Phone Call Dispute; Evidence Admissibility. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 20, 2024 - 14:00   ET



ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: Welcome to CNN's special live coverage of former President Donald Trump's hush money criminal trial I'm Abby Phillip outside of the courthouse in New York City. Wolf Blitzer is in Washington and we are just moments away from court getting back into session following a lunch break We're expecting Michael Cohen and Trump's former fixer to return to the witness stand for the prosecution's redirect Now it follows a blistering defense cross- examination that ended earlier today Trump's attorneys grilled Cohen in total for more Than eight hours over the course of three days. Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Truly amazing stuff that's going on right now some truly stunning moments in the courtroom to be sure earlier today. Cohen admitting to stashing tens of thousands of dollars from Trump back in 2016 that was intended to go to a Technology company. Trump attorney Todd Blanche asking him directly and I'm quoting now. So you stole from the Trump organization Cohen replying quote yes, sir. CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Ellie Honig is joining us right now. He's over at the magic wall for us. Ellie walk us through all of this right now. What do you see as the most important moments to come out of today's testimony so far?

ELLIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yeah Wolf, that was a riveting morning of testimony and the most important point as you just mentioned is where Michael Cohen admitted squarely that he had stolen money from the Trump organization. Now let's understand why that was so important. The core payoff at issue here was a two-part payoff. Michael Cohen first paid a $130 000 essentially out of his own pocket to Stormy Daniels right before the 2016 election to ensure her silence. After that Donald Trump and the Trump organization reimbursed Michael Cohen a total of $420 000 and that is really the heart of the charges in this case. Now if we look at the way the $420 000 that was used to reimburse Michael Cohen was structured, here's what we see. A $130 000 of that money paid back Michael Cohen for the Stormy Daniels payments. Another $50,000 went to pay Michael Cohen back for this company Redfinch. We're gonna come back to that in a second.

They then doubled it and gave Michael Cohen a hundred eighty thousand dollars to cover his income taxes on those two payments. And then there was a sixty thousand dollar payment to Michael Cohen that adds up to 420, take my word for it. What we learned this morning, however, was that out of this fifty thousand dollars to Redfinch Michael Cohen actually only paid Redfinch 20,000. He pocketed and kept for himself $30 000 of it. So the testimony now has been clarified. Here's how Michael Cohen talked about that transaction on his direct testimony last week. He was asked by the prosecutor and why did you then ask for $50 000 back? Cohen said because that's what was owed and I didn't feel Mr. Trump deserved the benefit of the difference. This morning on cross-examination we saw it put in a much more direct much more clear way. He was asked you did steal from the Trump organization based on the expected reimbursement from Redfinch and Michael Cohen admitted. Yes, sir he did steal from Donald Trump's organization on the key transaction at issue in this case.

A couple other important areas that were touched on this morning. Michael Cohen was asked a series of questions about Robert Costello a lawyer who did some legal work for Michael Cohen, apparently has some contradictory information to what Cohen testified about. It seems the defense may be setting the stage to call Mr. Costello as a defense witness. It seems that's up in the air right now. Prosecutor- now on redirect when the prosecutors got to requestion Michael Cohen. They showed him a letter that he had written to the FEC the Federal Election Commission in 2018 where Michael Cohen wrote the payment to Ms. Clifford Stormy Daniels was lawful and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone. And Michael Cohen testified to the prosecutor that was a lie and I told that lie in order to protect Donald Trump in 2018. And on that note the prosecutor really tried to bring the jury back to the heart of the matter. The prosecutor on redirect asked Michael Cohen I know it may feel like you're on trial here after a cross-examination. But are you actually on trial here and Michael Cohen said no ma'am. Now Wolf where we left off and we're about to pick up In a few minutes is really a bit of a cliffhanger. This goes back to the big revelation last week about this crucial October 24th 2016 phone call. Cohen had testified on direct that he called over to Keith Schiller and Donald Trump at 8:02 p.m that night to tell the them the Stormy deal was taken care of.


But then Donald Trump's team showed Michael Cohen a series of texts leading up to and right after that call suggesting that the actual purpose of the call was to talk about some 14-year-old kid who was sending Michael Cohen harassing text messages. So when we pick up the prosecutor, the ADA, Susan Hoffinger, she was starting to ask Michael Cohen about this call. She's got to do- a really important moment here as she tries to sort of rehabilitate him and clarify what did and did not happen on that call Wolf. We'll see that coverage resume in just a few minutes.

BLITZER: We'll be watching together with you. Ellie Honig. Excellent explanation. Thanks very much. Abby, back to you.

PHILLIP: All right, well, if we're going to pick up where Ellie just left off, CNN's Paula Reid and Kristen Holmes are back with me now. I want to play actually the video that was being talked about by the judge and counsel. Just before going to the lunch break, this is a video of Trump and prosecution believes Keith Schiller at a Trump rally at around the time when this key phone call was supposed to have happened. The prosecution, they want to admit this video into evidence or a picture of the scene into evidence. And that's going to be a crucial moment. Paula, a couple of things about this. One, there's a dispute here about whether this is in fact Keith Schiller, whether they can prove it. Do they need to bring in another witness in order to positively identify him? And then secondly, why would the prosecution want to establish that Keith Schiller and Donald Trump were together at that particular moment?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, one of the biggest blows that Blanche landed during his cross examination of Michael Cohen, is getting Cohen to concede that it's possible that the conversation that he had testified that he had with Trump about the hush money payment that night, may have actually only been about a prank caller. Now, they did get him to say that, yeah, maybe I could have talked about both. But what this video would suggest is that Trump and Keith Schiller were in proximity that night. So it would have been possible that Schiller could have quickly gotten Trump on the phone. Cohen could have briefly mentioned the hush money payment and therefore not been caught in a lie. Now, Todd Blanche fought against the admission of that video as hard as he has fought against the admission of anything so far in this trial. It's not much, but again, it would potentially undermine one of his big successes on cross.

PHILLIP: Yeah, I mean, that would be a crucial point. And, Kristen, I know you know Keith Schiller was always with Donald Trump. And secondly, it's not atypical. If you want to talk to Donald Trump, you've got to call somebody else who is around him. So that would be key to sort of bolstering Michael Cohen's testimony that maybe it was about multiple things that they talked about in that phone call.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I certainly think that this video would be some form of redemption for Michael Cohen. And again, we have no idea that Michael Cohen would have actually talked to Donald Trump or talked with Keith Schiller and Donald Trump about the hush money payment, but just the idea that they were actually together, given what we know, given we know that Michael Cohen had texted Keith Schiller right before about this 14-year-old prankster. And again, as you said, this is really Todd Blanche's big punch that he landed. And as you noted, Abby, most people who are around Donald Trump were used to getting phone calls on his behalf. It was Molly Westerhout, who we heard from, Hope Hicks, Keith Schiller, anyone who was in his vicinity. That's usually who you would call if you were trying to get in touch with. And so it's not out of the realm of possibility. This would give a little bit more protection to Michael Cohen after that punch landed from Todd Blanche last week.

PHILLIP: And it's potentially not over yet, right? I mean, we still have to see what kind of case the defense puts on if they decide to do so. And one of the things that they did in the questioning of Michael Cohen today, was bring up this issue of Bob Costello, who was sort of, kind of, not really- and actually, Donald Trump is walking back into court right now. Just to note, he did not stop to say anything or address the cameras. He's going straight into the court. We're expecting court to resume in just a couple of minutes. And obviously, we will be getting those alerts on the left of your screen there. Prosecutors are also back in the courtroom. But Bob Costello, Paula, is a figure who is looming a little bit over this. They got some questions in about him today, about the relationship between him and Michael Cohen. I have to admit, it's a little bit complicated. And the big question for the defense is going to be, do they open that can of worms when they have the opportunity to? Or did they do enough today to kind of seed some doubts about Michael Cohen's account?

REID: So, we've been following this for about a week now. Midway through last week, Bob Costello is absolutely not going to be called. I was told on multiple sources. Then he testified before Congress. And Kristen and I learned that the former president was very impressed. And there was outreach from his legal team about the possibility of testifying. But as of right now, it does not seem likely that Bob Costello is going to take the stand. Instead, what you saw Todd Blanche do is get out what they needed that was relevant to undercutting Michael Cohen's testimony and his credibility from Cohen directly, without having to put Costello on the stand.


Because Bob Costello, he is a longtime Trump ally. He has represented Rudy Giuliani for years. He was called before the grand jury in this case. He was the only defense witness. It was a little confusing why the defense wasn't going to call him here. But as of now, it doesn't look like they need to because they have done enough to undercut Michael Cohen's credibility and anything else that Costello would have offered about his time advising Michael Cohen. They were able to elicit from Cohen himself. So at this point, I would expect that the defense case may only be one really short election witness. His name is Brad Smith. He'll be on there for about 10 minutes.

PHILLIP: And earlier this morning, there was a lengthy conversation with the judge about that very witness, really limiting the scope of the testimony that he would be able to give. A. Big blow to the defense in that case as well. Kristen and Paula, stay with me. We've got a lot more to come. The trial is set to resume in just a couple of minutes. We'll take you right there. Stay with us.



BLITZER: Welcome back to CNN. Special live coverage of the hush money criminal trial of Donald Trump. The prosecution has begun to try to repair the damage from the cross-examination of star witness Michael Cohen. Today, the defense got Cohen to admit he stole more than $30,000 from the Trump organization after his bonus was cut. My panel is back with me right now. Ellie, let's talk about testimony expected to resume any moment now. What do prosecutors need to do?

HONIG: Well, they have to undo some damage, and they have to get the jury to focus back on the indictment, back on the charges. I don't think, look, you can't eliminate all the damage that was done by a couple of the moments we've seen. They can't change the fact that Michael Cohen stole money from the Trump organization on the key transaction. They can't change the fact that there are texts that undermine a key portion of Michael Cohens testimony anout that October 24th call, and that's where they're going to pick up, Wolf. But I think they've started to claw back a little bit, and I think the most important points that the prosecution scored on redirect this morning was just when they asked Michael Cohen, and it's a standard sort of prosecutor gambit, but just who's on trial here, you or Donald Trump? Donald Trump. So you want the jury's focus sort of shifting away from that witness box and back over to the defense table.

BLITZER: What do you think?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So I think prosecutors have to keep it short, and it's really just a couple of questions. Number one, do you remember speaking with Donald Trump and or Keith Schiller about the Stormy Daniels case? Yes. And just give the one-word answer. Did you believe when you carried out the actions you did that you were acting at the direction and with the full knowledge of Donald Trump? That's a compound question. You wouldn't ask it that way. But the answer is also yes to both of those. No further questions. Again, it's not worth bickering with the defense through the witness. Just get out there what their case is and fix it in their closing argument and say, look, no witness is perfect. He has some credibility questions. However, much of what he has said has been corroborated and supported by the documents, full stop.

BLITZER: How do you think, Gloria, Trump's defense team is gearing up to present their case?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I think they've already presented their case, and what they have to do is take all the strings and tie it together in a nice little bow. And they have to show that Michael Cohen, while not the perfect witness, was corroborated time and time again, that he was corroborated by David Pecker, that he was corroborated by the banker, that he was corroborated, you know, by even by Hope Hicks in a way so that what they have to do is say, look, you know, the guy's not perfect, but we didn't hire him. Donald Trump hired him and also show that Donald Trump was a micromanager and knew about most things, although maybe not the extra bonus for Michael Cohen. But knew about most things that were going on within his organization. And this was something so big and so important that it would have been absurd for Michael Cohen not to be talking to Donald Trump about it, that it would be completely unbelievable for Donald Trump candidate for president, not to know about this, particularly in the days after the Access Hollywood tape.

BLITZER: What do you think Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Look, I mean, as we're watching what's happening in the courtroom as we speak, the judges are rereading if he's going to allow that photograph into evidence or not, seeing how C-SPAN verifies the video. There's no doubt the video is accurate because we played our own video there. And that's from a network pool feed from the week before the election. So I think that takes us back to the important moment here. This was October 24th. You can see the video there. This was after a rally in Tampa, Florida. So if the judge decides to allow this, it shows that they were at the same place. And Michael Cohen could have been speaking on the phone with Donald Trump as well in that very brief phone call. So that's why this is important. We're basically in cleanup right now of everything we've heard so far. But we're also nearing the end of this. So I think, again, going back to the retired judge you had on this morning and spoke with this afternoon, he said it landed flat in the courtroom. So the jury may not realize that this is a big deal that he stole. There have been so many allegations and things so I'm not sure. I was struck by his comment that it landed flat--


BLITZER: Yeah me too.

ZELENY: -- in the courtroom.


So that is one of the reasons, perhaps, the prosecution is not going to dwell on this. They want to move on. And he's leaning back at the former president with his eyes closed. Perhaps a good time to take a break and sleep.

BLITZER: The judge, Merchan, continues to read the transcript as Trump is leaning back, closing his eyes.

WILLIAMS: The defense doesn't have to agree to allowing this evidence in to stipulate to its admission into court. But, you know, but a couple of things, as Jeff said, we've already had testimony authenticating or walking through how C-SPAN verifies the information it does. So it's not there isn't much to be gained from bickering back and forth over the admissibility of this photograph. Now, it gives prosecutors a small win, quite frankly, that everything that they can successfully introduce, like, yeah, it plants in the jury's head that they did something, minor. But, you know, this is the kind of thing that they could probably just agree.

BLITZER: Why not call Keith Schiller to testify.

WILLIAMS: Because I don't think anybody knows what he's going to say, number one. If prosecutors call him, he may not actually be a helpful prosecution witness.

BLITZER: We're just getting this in from our folks inside the courtroom. He's not allowing the district attorney's office to bring in the photos as they are seeking to now, through a paralegal.

HONIG: That's interesting.

BLITZER: Whatever that is.

HONIG: Well, so the problem with the photographs is as a prosecutor, you have to authenticate them. So if you're going to say these are photographs or videos taken from C-SPAN, you need someone who can say, yeah, that's actually what was on C-SPAN.

ZELENY: But it's the paralegal who obviously watched all this video.

BORGER: Right.

HONIG: Right.

ZELENY: We saw the paralegal testifying last week, I think, to look through the text message.

HONIG: Right.


BLITZER: And so he's not allowing the C-SPAN video to be admitted as evidence.

HONIG: Right.

BLITZER: And Trump pointed to something in front of his attorney, Blunt Steinglass. Steinglass said they may recall the C-SPAN archivist to testify. Judge Merchan asked for a timeline.

HONIG: So this video, this that we just saw of Donald Trump and Keith Schiller together, that will get to the jury. It's just a question of do they have to drag this guy from C-SPAN back into the courtroom to say, yes, I'm with C-SPAN. Yes, that's a video that we aired. Yes, that's from October 24th. That'll happen. But the judge is saying, OK, well, look, I can't make the defense agree to this. So prosecutors, you may need to call this guy back. And it sounds like they will if they need to.

WILLIAMS: I'm all for defense attorneys you know, holding their ground on evidence. This is-we'll see the transcript later today and see exactly how this played out. This seems to be kind of silly because they could agree to because there's no dispute, realistically, that the C-SPAN video is what it says is. And we've had testimony earlier in the trial regarding how C-SPAN does this. So if there's no problem, if it's not offensive, prejudicial, hearsay, whatever else, you just let it into court.


ZELENY: They've made a decision not to speculate to anything.


BLITZER: And we're just getting this in as well. Joshua Steinglass, one of the prosecutors, said that they will move quickly on all of this. And they're going to maybe decide to call this witness from C- SPAN.

BORGER: Well, they obviously think it's important enough because what they what it what it does is it says, you know, Michael Cohen may have had the opportunity to speak with Donald Trump and tell him that the Stormy Daniels transaction had been accomplished. And they obviously believe that's important.

BLITZER: Judge Merchan responded, I know I have the authority. I know it's discretionary. HONIG: So he's saying, but I'm going to make you go through the motions anyway.

BLITZER: Yeah. Which is the right thing for a judge to do.

HONIG: I think so. I mean, I think if you're Judge Merchan, you don't want to cut any corners here.

BLITZER: You don't want to do anything that potentially could have an appeal go forward after a verdict.

WILLIAMS: Particularly if it's pro-prosecution. I mean, he can rule things in favor of the defense. Ruling for the prosecution is always fraught with peril.

HONIG: OK. And then we just got a note saying Blanche is opposed, saying both sides may rest their cases today, which, A, tells me the defense is anticipating few, if any, witnesses, maybe just this election fraud expert. And that what Blanche is saying is this book is about to be closed. And we're not going to hold off on closing it until they can get the C-SPAN guy back in. If they didn't have a break, that's their fault.


BLITZER: The Trump attorney says we have a few witnesses here. There is a likelihood that we will rest today.

WILLIAMS: They have two hours and seven minutes left before the end of their day. When he says there's a likelihood that we will rest today, he's going to ask, if he's bringing anybody up, he'll ask a few questions and send the witnesses home.

BORGER: And have, say, Bob Costello up to say that Michael Cohen cannot be trusted, period.

ZELENY: I'm not sure that he will be a witness.


ZELENY: It sounds to me like it's more of a technical witness--


BORGER: Could be

ZELENY--just like the election expert. What they don't want, though, is to have to wait for the C-SPAN expert to come in, which he's obviously not waiting in the wings. So that would be a delay thing.

WILLIAMS: Two hours is not a long time at all in court years. And so I'm anticipating, as Jeff is saying, it's not that many people. Or that substantive. It remains to be seen. But if they truly think they can finish today, it's not going to be anything.

HONIG: The DA's office probably has a detective car waiting at C-SPAN headquarters in New York. I mean that. That's what I would do if I was--


ZELENY: But it's not down the street here in Washington, that's the problem


BLITZER: C-SPAN headquarters in New York.

HONIG: If they had some sort of New York office I would have a detective waiting to get this guy down.

BORGER: You could have him testify via zoom.

BLITZER: We have a lot going on right now. We're going to stay on top of all the developments from inside the courtroom. We'll speak with a judge about the case and how it's going for prosecutors and the defense team. Lots of news going on, we'll be right back.