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Cohen Back On Stand After Admitting He Stole From Trump Org; Defense Calls Its First Witness In Trump Hush Money Trial. Aired 3- 3:30p ET

Aired May 20, 2024 - 15:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our special coverage of former President Trump's hush money criminal trial. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Abby Phillip is outside the court in New York for us.

Right now, Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen is back on the witness stand. Prosecutors are trying to clean up some of the damage to their star witness' credibility after Cohen admitted earlier today to stealing tens of thousands of dollars from The Trump Organization.

Abby, you're following some of these breaking details. You're just outside the court. Update our viewers.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: That's right, Wolf. The court just resumed after taking a quick break. They were having a bit of a technical issue, but now they are back in action. The prosecution, they are in redirect right now and they just played for Michael Cohen a video clip of Michael Cohen talking to Keith Davidson. He's the lawyer for Stormy Daniels and for Karen McDougal.

And in that video clip, it's actually quite lengthy, but the part that they are trying to, it seems, highlight is where he says, "I can't even say how many times he said to me, I hate the fact that we did it. My comment to him was every person that we've spoken to tells you it was the right move."

He, in that clip, is Donald Trump, and this is what Michael Cohen just testified to. And he's talking here about the payments that Keith Davidson made on behalf of Trump or, I'm sorry, that Michael Cohen made on behalf of Trump for the Stormy Daniels agreement. Why do you think, Paula, that this might be coming up here, frankly, again, because it's not the first time we are hearing this piece of evidence?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: And again, they can't bring up anything new in redirect, so this is something that came up when Keith Davidson previously testified, and they're showing that, at least according to this, Trump had some regret that this money was paid. And then Cohen goes on to talk about the fallout that this had on him, the fact that his entire life was turned upside down, he lost his law license, his business, his financial security. And this is actually, I'm just reading live updates from inside the court, I may be getting - no, actually, on par with the sidestream for once, redirect is over. So that's how the prosecutors chose to end their redirect of Cohen, to remind the jurors of the fallout that Trump had regret and the fallout for Michael Cohen from making this hush money payment.

And Todd Blanche, the attorney for Donald Trump, is back at the podium, we'll be seeing exactly what he'll be saying shortly. But one of the other things that happened a little earlier in the redirect was Susan Hoffinger, the prosecutor, asking once again to Michael Cohen, would you have done anything, would you have paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels if Donald Trump had not explicitly authorized it. And Michael Cohen said no.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And you really saw that during the defense's cross-examination, they were trying to paint a picture of someone who would have done it without being directed by Donald Trump, that this was someone who at the time was fiercely loyal, would have done anything for Donald Trump. Donald Trump didn't actually have to tell him to do anything.

Now, I do want to note again, because I cannot stress how important this is, the entire link between Donald Trump and this case rests on Michael Cohen. And that's why you've seen so much in the cross- examination here of him by Todd Blanche, them trying to undermine him, to discredit him, and that's now what they're trying to do on redirect, is to re-credit him. That's why they're going to end on this kind of emotional testimony from Michael Cohen, saying his entire life was ruined by this.

That is also why you saw, on the other side, the defense ending their examination with you would lie to someone you were loyal with. You would lie on the stand, essentially. And so this is just the key witness here. It's really been interesting to see how they both try to paint him as a completely different person.

PHILLIP: Yes, and to your point, Todd Blanche saying to Michael Cohen, you lost your law license. Is that President Trump's fault? Michael Cohen replies, in part. This is about maybe, in a way, who is the dirtier of the characters here that were being presented to this jury. The defense is basically saying Michael Cohen is responsible for Michael Cohen's own misdeeds.


REID: Because often when Michael Cohen has lied throughout this saga, he has said, I did so in service to either candidate Trump, President Trump, former President Trump, whoever it is. He says that I did it to help him. But when you really parse out the specific things that he has pleaded guilty to, they also include some things that had nothing to do with Trump, including issues that he had with the IRS, issues that he had related to his taxi medallion business.

So that's the point that Blanche is making here. They're saying, look, like, you lost your law license because of Trump. No, a large part of that is what you did. This has been a common theme throughout their cross-examination. Not surprising they're revisiting it here.

PHILLIP: Yes, they're talking about the tax crimes, as you just said, the false statements Cohen made to the bank, which he did of his own accord by taking out that home equity line of credit to make this payment. And not only that, but they were painting a picture earlier today of a man who has a lot of business dealings that really were occupying a lot of his time in October of 2016.

One of the things that they're trying to do here is paint Michael Cohen as somebody who has a lot of problems of his own. Blanche saying here - he's confirming with Cohen that if you are convicted of any felony in New York, you automatically lose your law license. Cohen still blames Trump for losing his.

Paula and Kristen, stay with me. We're still getting a lot of updates from inside of the courtroom. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right. Abby, thank you.

Redirect is now over and Trump attorney Todd Blanche is now back to questioning Michael Cohen. I want to bring in our panel of experts to discuss. First of all, Elie, walk us through where we are right now.

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: So now Todd Blanche is engaging in re-cross of Michael Cohen. The way it goes is direct, you get questioned by the prosecutor, cross, you get questioned by the defense. Then, Susan Hoffinger, the prosecutor, just did a redirect and now there's re-cross.

I would not be doing re-cross. If I was the defense lawyer here, as soon as Susan Hoffinger finished her redirect, I would have said no further questions. Get them off the stand. We're in the really deep in the weeds here.

BLITZER: Elliot, how significant is this photo of this screenshot of this C-SPAN video that was taking place just a few days, maybe a couple of weeks, if that - before the November 8th 2016 presidential election?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, if it's fascinating that there was ...

BLITZER: There we see the screenshot.

WILLIAMS: Yes. It's fascinating that there was so much back and forth about this photo. One, because there's nothing that controversial about the photograph - its admissibility, so the parties could have agreed to get it in as they actually did. And number two, nothing really changes the defense's central argument that Michael Cohen spoke about something other than Stormy Daniels, spoke about this fight with this 14-year-old kid. Whether Donald Trump was photographed with Keith Schiller prior to that doesn't really change the defense's argument.

Now, what - and Elie and I were talking about this in the break, how this helps prosecutors is that prosecutors can now almost make this a "Perry Mason" got you moment of sorts, saying, well, look, we have the photograph of them standing together. Therefore, the defense's argument isn't as strong as you thought it was.

Now, again, it doesn't negate or change the defense's argument. It doesn't change what the record of text messages that cast doubt on what Michael Cohen might have spoken about. But it's still a valuable piece of evidence that prosecutors can sort of claim a small victory on.

HONIG: Yes. The defense argument attacking Michael Cohen was not, you only talk to Keith Schiller and not Donald Trump. The argument is what you talk to them about was the 14-year-old kid and not the hush money payment to Stormy Daniels. And again, it's worth noting - I mean, so prosecutors say, aha, Keith Schiller was with Donald Trump, so he must have talked about both. But that's not really the point of the defense argument.

The bigger point also the defense makes is you, Michael Cohen, never told - breathed the word of any of this to the grand jury or on your direct testimony. So it takes a little bit of the sting out, but 10 percent of the sting out.

WILLIAMS: And the point remains, who cares about the photograph? And not that the jury would have seen any of this playing out. They were sent out of the room. But that entire back and forth didn't really benefit either party in a meaningful way. Because whether it comes in, and this is sort of the point that both of us were making, whether it comes in doesn't really change the defense's hand in one way or another. Because even if Trump and Schiller were together prior to that conversation, it doesn't change what the defense claims was talked about on the call.

BLITZER: And it's interesting, Gloria, because just a little while ago the Trump attorney, Todd Blanche, said that they could call former Cohen lawyer, Bob Costello, a paralegal campaign expert, but they're still undecided.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Bob Costello has a relationship with Michael Cohen that is not good. According to Michael Cohen, Costello, who also represented Rudy Giuliani, is now suing - and Steve Bannon is now suing both of those for unpaid legal bills. But that Costello at one point contacted him and said, you're in good graces. You know, you are loved.


And that meant that you're loved by the boss, which would be Donald Trump, and tried to sort of get him in the fold to make sure that he didn't flip. And that was Michael Cohen's read of it. We'll see what Bob Costello has to say about that. He may have a different read of it.

What was also interesting to me is that Todd Blanche keeps drilling down on Cohen's life and the turn that it took, that he lost his law license. Cohen said his life was turned upside down and that he blames Trump in part for it. And that even though, you know, there was a problem with the taxi medallions and the taxes and all the rest, he still is blaming Donald Trump for it. And that is something that the defense is saying, you know, you did this to yourself. This isn't this isn't correct. You're blaming Trump for your own faults and you shouldn't be doing that.

WILLIAMS: It's worth noting. So right here - and I'm curious to see what the next update we get is, Wolf, given that the defense is now returning to this photograph. Blanche asked Cohen if his testimony stands that in the 90 second phone call Cohen talked to Schiller. "Yes, sir," Cohen says.

You know, I'm curious where the defense goes with this, because, again, they're going down a rabbit hole that they probably don't need to because they have a theory as to the - at least according to them, the implausibility that Cohen would have talked exclusively about Stormy Daniels, despite the fact that he was texting about this fight with a 14 year old in the minutes leading up to that.

So why they've revisited it, it's not clear. We'll just see where they go.

BLITZER: I thought it was interesting, Jeff, that Todd Blanche, the Trump attorney, also said today that the defense could rest their case today, later today. Is it looking less and less likely, I assume it is, that Donald Trump himself might be called to testify?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORREPONDENT: It absolutely is looking less likely. It was never very likely, but that was also hanging - it was always hanging over there as a possibility. But this morning in the transcript that we got from earlier this morning that was flagged by our Kara Scannell, who's inside the courtroom, the former president's name was not mentioned when his lawyers were up at a sidebar having a conversation with the judge. It's still not completely ruled out. The door isn't totally shut, but it's pretty much shut.


ZELENY: And look, we knew this was going to be the case. We've seen in so many cases where Donald Trump has said, I'm going to testify. I want to get my story out. His lawyers knew it was a bad idea. The question here is, again, this is very puzzling that they're going back down this road with Michael Cohen. One thing you don't want to do, as you guys have repeatedly said, is waste the jurors' time.

So they wonder - we're sort of going over this old ground again. Blanche is asking Michael Cohen if he lied to Congress. They've already been over his lies, but I guess they want to leave that in the mind of jurors that Michael Cohen is a liar. We know he's a liar, so this is - I find this very interesting, don't you guys?


WILLIAMS: They will have every opportunity to have an unobstructed ...

ZELENY: In closing.

WILLIAMS: ... three hours in front of the jury to tie this all together in argument. You don't gain a ton, sorry.

BLITZER: One thing we can report, the prosecution has rested. Our folks inside have just heard that, so the prosecution has rested. That's significant.

HONIG: If I can, that's a big moment in a trial and this is very much like you'd see in a movie. You get to, as the prosecutor, stand up and say, Your Honor, at this point, the prosecution rests. That means they are done putting on their case. If, by the way, the defense says we rest now, it's over. We're going to close. I mean, the judges said closings won't happen until next week. But this means the prosecution believes it has met its burden of proof. They're done. Here we see Cohen is off the witness stand.

And so the next step will be, does the defense have any case to put on? Now we're going to get the question about - the answer to the question about, will they call Robert Costello, will they call this election expert, will they call Donald Trump.

I mean, Jeff is right, they're not - it's clear now they're not calling Donald Trump. They haven't formally said that. But just given the time frame, he's not taking this step.

BLITZER: Trump used to say, I have nothing to hide. I'm more than happy to go and testify.

BORGER: Right. And anyone who pleads the defense is guilty and all that kind of stuff, forget about all of that. I mean, he said he was going to testify in the Mueller case. It's not going to happen. No lawyer in his or her right mind, correct me if I'm wrong ...


HONIG: You're right.

BORGER: ... would allow him to testify in this case or in any case, by the way.

BLITZER: Gloria, hold on a second. We just lost your mic. But we will get that fixed ...


BLITZER: ... and we'll get back to you.

ZELENY: We are seeing - I mean, interestingly, again, this is a candidate for president and a former president. It's history-making. That's why we're talking about it. But Trump did not look at Michael Cohen as he left the witness box for the last time.

Just the extraordinary nature of their relationship, as Gloria knows better than anyone. You've chronicled this for so long. That is going to - this case is going to rise or fall on Michael Cohen, and just their relationship, there's really no parallel to Michael Cohen and Donald Trump's life.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens.

BORGER: Do I have my mic?

BLITZER: No, you don't have a mic.

BORGER: Oh, okay.


BLITZER: We'll get that fixed. Everybody stand by. We'll have much more of our special coverage of the hush money criminal trial of Donald Trump after a quick break.



PHILLIP: And welcome back to CNN's special live coverage as the first criminal trial of a former president enters its final stages. We are in day 19 of this case, and the prosecution has now rested its case. The defense has also just now called its first witness. His name is Daniel Sitko. He is a paralegal at the defense attorney Todd Blanche's law firm.


And Daniel is there really for one basic technical reason, which is to talk about the phone calls between Michael Cohen and Bob Costello. We were just talking about him in the last few hours.

This paralegal basically has logged phone calls between these two men. And this was an issue, Paula, earlier in the cross-examination of Michael Cohen, a lot of phone calls and conversations between Michael Cohen and Bob Costello, despite the fact that some of the emails between the two men might suggest that maybe Michael Cohen wanted to keep him at arm's length. They talked for a long time, Michael Cohen admitted on the witness stand.

And now it also looks like perhaps the defense might decide to just bring Costello on as a witness.

REID: Yes, which Kristen and I first reported that possibility late last week. And the thing is that Bob Costello and Michael Cohen don't agree about the nature of their professional relationship. Bob Costello says he was an attorney to Michael Cohen, that he helped advise him while he became under scrutiny by the Justice Department.

At one point over the past few years, Michael Cohen even had to waive attorney-client privilege, suggesting that there were privileged communications. Cohen tried to downplay how often they spoke, but it was revealed on cross-examination that they actually spoke, it looks like, about 75 times.

Michael Cohen insists that there was no retainer agreement, therefore Costello was never formally his attorney. But they had a lot of conversations. And during those conversations, Costello learned a lot. He has testified both during the grand jury in this case, before there was indictment. He was the only defense witness called.

And now it appears he could be called again. And the purpose for calling him is to undercut Cohen's credibility.

PHILLIP: Why would things have changed, Kristen, between last week and this week about whether or not they wanted to call Bob Costello to the witness stand?

HOLMES: Well, there were a couple of things. One was this congressional testimony that Costello was a part of, in which he essentially went after Michael Cohen, saying he was a liar. He's also done a series of interviews recently on one of Donald Trump's favorite networks, Fox News, in which he talked about how Michael Cohen directly told him at one point that it was his idea that he had to protect Donald Trump, and that's likely what you're going to hear now.

For but the prosecution, if Bob Costello is called, now the prosecution tried to kind of get out in front of this. They talked to Michael Cohen when they were first originally questioning him, saying, you know, what did you think of Bob Costello, you had Michael Cohen really trying to downplay it, saying at one point he thought he was sketchy. He was trying to hold his relationship with Rudy Giuliani and former president or then-president Donald Trump over Michael Cohen's head.

But again, then it was revealed that they spoke - here he goes - as the record shows that there were 75 calls between Cohen and Costello, answered and unanswered in April, May and June of 2018. So they're entering all of this, the call logs, into evidence after Michael Cohen tried to downplay their relationship.

PHILLIP: And we also have with us Bryan Lanza. He was the deputy communications director for the Trump 2016 campaign.

Bryan, the defense now has the floor. So far, they spent a lot of time beating up on Michael Cohen, the star witness for the prosecution. What do you think was their biggest victory in that process, if there was one?

BRYAN LANZA, DEPUTY COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, TRUMP 2016 CAMPAIGN: First of all, thank you for having me, Abby. Listen, I think the reason they hammered down on Cohen is that the only reason this is any type of felony or any type of crime is Cohen controls their relationship or the conversation that took place. He's saying it took place and it's about President Trump, Trump's saying it's not.

So it all hangs on Michael Cohen. And the reality is, you know, this is a man who stretches the lengths of credibility. He's clearly out for revenge. He's clearly lying. He's clearly making money about it. So I think you always have to attack Michael Cohen. Attacking anything else that doesn't make sense, because the only thing that makes this an actual case is Michael Cohen's words against everything else. And I think that's the challenge that the prosecution has, and that's been the ease of the defense, because almost every door you open up, you find a Michael Cohen lie. Almost every door you open up, you find a Michael Cohen venture to make money off of this prosecution. And so, you know, it's almost to target - too rich of a target, but you still have to narrow it down and hit the high notes that are going to work the most.

PHILLIP: In the courtroom today, I watched as Donald Trump turned to Michael Cohen after really not looking at him, having his eyes closed, but he turned to Michael Cohen at a key moment when the defense elicited something of an acknowledgment from Cohen that perhaps he was eager to see Trump convicted in this case. Why do you think that Trump is particularly interested in that line of questioning when it comes to Michael Cohen?

LANZA: It goes to motives. You know, I think we've all talked about, you know, why would a prosecution put in a witness like Michael Cohen with so much credibility at stake, right, with so much behind his word? And some of the attorneys on the television have said, you know, it's very similar to when a prosecution puts on a mobster who has flipped, sort of a mob rat, for lack of any better words, you know.

And I would say the difference between a mob rat and Michael Cohen is, you know, rat is doing it - two reasons, this mob rat would be doing it.


One, to protect his family and to reduce his jail sentence. None of those are motivations for Michael Cohen. He's already served time and he's actually not protecting his family. You know, the only motivation for Michael at this point is financial and revenge, and he's made that point abundantly clear. And so that's why you highlight those things. I mean, that's the difference of where Michael Cohen as a witness is different than any other type of witness that comes forward is he actually has a financial benefit from sending Donald Trump to jail.

Whereas a mob informant or whatever you want in words doesn't have that motivation to lie or to do anything because there's a checks and balance on him. Whereas Michael, he'll lie under oath, so there is really no check with him.

PHILLIP: Bryan Lanza, thank you very much.

LANZA: Thank you.

PHILLIP: And for more on our special coverage of the Trump hush money trial, we'll be right back after a quick break.