Home » Opinion | Where’s the Devastating Takedown of Michael Cohen That Trump Needs?

Opinion | Where’s the Devastating Takedown of Michael Cohen That Trump Needs?

May 14, 2024, 6:39 p.m. ET
Michael Cohen on the witness stand.Credit…Josh Cochran

For months, we’ve known that the cross-examination of Michael Cohen would be the decisive moment of Donald Trump’s New York felony trialthe day we learned whether his defense team could plant reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors.

On Tuesday it became clear that the team was struggling with its most important task.

Todd Blanche, Trump’s lead defense lawyer, was like a baseball pitcher assigned to start Game 7 of the World Series after only two or three wins in his major-league career. Though a seasoned former federal prosecutor, he has little experience as a defense attorney — and it showed.

We’re only about a third of the way through Blanche’s cross, but so far, he’s too meandering and pleasant for the sharp-toned, rat-a-tat style necessary for the role.

Blanche spent more than an hour showing that Cohen, like Stormy Daniels last week, despises Trump, and this line of inquiry was entertaining if not informative. When he quoted Cohen calling Trump a “boorish cartoon misogynist,” Cohen wielded the same mild and effective rejoinder he used twice earlier: “Sounds like something I would say.” My kids would like to see me in that T-shirt.

Blanche spent a long time depicting Cohen as a publicity hound cashing in on his decision to flip on Trump. Guilty as charged. But Cohen’s unwise decision to make sport of Trump in an orange jumpsuit (and worse) earlier in the trial, while angering both the prosecution and defense, doesn’t relate to the falsification of business records at issue in the case. And Cohen made it clear that he was merely responding in kind to Trump’s childish posts, a few of which jurors have seen more than once. All told, an annoying waste of the jury’s time.

Blanche had trouble finding a rhythm. For instance, he asked Cohen if he had appeared on MSNBC shows anchored by Ali Velshi and Joy Reid. When Cohen said yes, Blanche had no follow-up.

But his real problem is that he has so little to work with. Cohen delivered devastating direct testimony all day Monday and again Tuesday morning, and he has been careful and low-key on cross.

Instead of attacking the prosecution’s case head-on, Blanche has been handcuffed by a client nursing a perverse desire to see Cohen’s insults — and his own — aired in open court.

At around 4 p.m. Tuesday, shortly before court adjourned for the day, Blanche began delving into why other prosecutors have passed on this case. That could be promising for him. But after all the runs the prosecution has already scored, he’ll have to strike Cohen out with the bases loaded to get back into the game.

May 14, 2024, 3:14 p.m. ET
Michael Cohen on the witness stand.Credit…Josh Cochran

On a day when Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former fixer, testified about the price of loyalty to Trump, a group of Republicans, including House Speaker Mike Johnson, Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota and Vivek Ramaswamy, a former presidential candidate, showed up at the courthouse to demonstrate their loyalty to Trump.

Sitting in the courtroom on Tuesday on my first day at the trial, I kept wondering what they were thinking as they heard Cohen, seeming every bit the weary, reluctantly reformed TV gangster, testify about his mafia-like interactions with Trumpworld.

He described how, after his home and office were raided by the F.B.I., Trump encouraged him, both through a “really sketchy” lawyer and through his own Twitter posts, to, in Cohen’s words, “Stay in the fold, stay loyal, don’t flip.” He described how once he decided “not to lie for President Trump any longer,” the then-president publicly attacked him.

Cohen now seems like a man whose life has been essentially wrecked — he went to prison, lost his law license, had to sell his New York and Chicago taxi medallions and is still on supervised release. Though his implosion has been particularly severe, he is far from alone; many people who’ve served Trump, no matter how faithfully, have been ruined in various ways by the experience.

Nevertheless, as Trump runs for re-election, Republicans are climbing over one another to get as close to him as possible. Toward the end of his testimony for the prosecution, Cohen was asked about his regrets.

“To keep the loyalty and to do things that he had asked me to do, I violated my moral compass, and I suffered the penalty,” he said. I’d like to know if Johnson, hearing this, had even a flicker of foreboding.

May 14, 2024, 1:00 p.m. ET

Drowning deaths in the United States rose by more than 12 percent to an estimated 4,500 per year during the pandemic, according to grim new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase, from 4,000 per year in 2019, comes as this long-neglected public health crisis is slowly beginning to draw some attention from government policymakers.

“It’s moving in the wrong direction,” the C.D.C. director, Dr. Mandy Cohen, told The Times. The agency said more than half of Americans had never taken a swimming lesson.

The sobering data is an opportunity for President Biden and health officials to finally make drowning prevention a national priority.

Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 in the United States and the second leading cause of death by accidental injury for children 5 to 14. Tackling the issue has clear bipartisan appeal and would improve quality of life in every American community.

Despite the obvious need for action, federal, state and local governments in the United States have invested very little to prevent these deaths.

The rise in deaths has caught the eye of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose philanthropy told The Times this week it plans for the first time to direct millions of dollars to drowning prevention efforts within the United States to improve data collection and help fund swimming lessons in 10 states where drowning rates are highest: Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma and Texas.

The planned $17.6 million investment by Bloomberg Philanthropies is modest compared with the $104 million it is spending globally on preventing drownings. But the focus by Bloomberg, whose prominent public health campaigns helped ban smoking in bars and restaurants in New York, could help raise the profile of this issue. Executives at the philanthropy said they planned to work with the C.D.C.

Many Americans of even wealthy backgrounds have lost children to drowning. But drowning is also an issue of equity. Black people and Native Americans are at substantially increased risk of drowning. So are teenage boys. The C.D.C. report found that these trends have continued. In 2020, they said, Black Americans saw the greatest increase in fatal drownings.

Red Cross surveys suggest that a majority of Americans lack basic swimming abilities. With C.D.C. data showing the existence of more than 10 million private pools in the United States and fewer than 309,000 public ones, it’s clear that large numbers of Americans lack access to basic information about water safety, as well as safe places to learn to swim. Instead of a public health issue, drowning is treated as a private matter and swimming as a luxury. To save lives, this needs to change.

May 14, 2024, 5:04 a.m. ET
Credit…Terra Fondriest for The New York Times

What do American voters want? The latest New York Times/Siena polls of swing states offer some confusing evidence on this point. Some of the polling results suggest that Americans are in a revolutionary frame of mind: Asked whether the political and economic systems need major changes, 69 percent of respondents said those systems need major changes or should be entirely torn down.

On the other hand, when the pollsters gave voters a choice between a candidate who would bring the country back to normal and one who would bring major changes, 51 percent said they would prefer the back-to-normal candidate and only 40 percent would prefer the major-changes candidate.

So which is it? Is 2024 a change election in which people want someone who will shake things up, or is this a stability election in which people are going to vote for the candidate of order over the candidate of chaos?

Well, different voters want different things. But if I had to write a single sentence that reconciled these diverse findings, it would be this: The people who run America’s systems have led the country seriously astray; we need a president who will shake things up and lead the country back to normal.

When they hear “systems,” I assume voters are thinking of the network of institutions run by America’s elite — corporations, governing agencies, higher education, the news media and so on. If voters believe one thing about Donald Trump it’s that he’s against these systems and these systems are against him.

Voters clearly see President Biden implicated in these systems. The heart of his problem heaves into view when people are asked which candidate will bring about change. Seventy percent of voters said that Trump would bring about major changes or tear down the system entirely if elected. And 71 percent of voters said that little or nothing would change if Biden was re-elected.

In other words, the evidence suggests that the swing voter wants reactionary change, not revolutionary change. The mood suggested by the evidence is angry nostalgia. That would be my explanation for why Trump is so convincingly ahead in most of the swing states.

May 13, 2024, 3:50 p.m. ET
Clockwise from top left, Justice Juan Merchan, Donald Trump, the prosecutor Susan Hoffinger and Michael Cohen.Credit…Josh Cochran

When Michael Cohen took the stand for the first time in Donald Trump’s hush-money trial on Monday morning, he almost accidentally sat down without taking the oath. But after he raised his hand and swore to tell the truth, he seemed to do so.

In dry language, with his impulse-control problems nowhere in sight, he landed blow after blow on the former president.

Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, is willing to look like a stooge — pathetically eager for any praise from the boss — to implant in jurors’ minds that even in the absence of incriminating emails, he should be believed because of all the time he spent looking for Brownie points from Trump. When he did so, he was implicating Trump.

Cohen’s testimony about the Playboy model Karen McDougal, who says she had a nine-month affair with Trump, is important beyond Trump describing her to Cohen as “beautiful.” It cemented Trump’s attention to detail, which we’ve heard a lot about already. He constantly asked for updates on the hush money that American Media Inc., publisher of The National Enquirer, was paying at his direction to McDougal, replying, “Great!” or “Fantastic,” when Cohen delivered them.

Cohen’s tape of Trump discussing that deal landed hard when it was played, and not just because it was Trump’s voice talking about “150” — a clear reference to the $150,000 in hush money that Trump — through Cohen and A.M.I. — was originally going to pay McDougal. Trump’s micromanaging, which we’ve heard about for two weeks, came to life in a way that didn’t help him. And when Cohen dissected practically every moment of the call, there was no mistaking the meaning of the brief conversation.

When Cohen told Trump that Stormy Daniels was shopping her story, “Trump was really angry with me,” he said. Trump told Cohen: “‘I thought you had this under control, I thought you took care of this! … Just take care of it!’”

According to Cohen, Trump thought he would surely lose the 2016 election if the Daniels story came out. He testified that Trump said, “This is a disaster, a total disaster. Women will hate me,” and added that “guys, they think it’s cool” to have sex with a porn star, “but this is going to be a disaster for the campaign.” In combination with the fallout from the “Access Hollywood” tapes, they agreed, it would send his already low polling with women into a tailspin.

“Get control of it!” Trump barked, Cohen testified. “Just get past the election. If I win, it’ll have no relevance when I’m president. And if I lose, I don’t really care.”

Here the prosecutor, Susan Hoffinger, asked if Cohen inquired about Melania Trump. He said yes, and said Trump responded: “Don’t worry. How long do you think I’ll be on the market for? Not long.”

Wow. With Trump, every time you think he’s touched bottom, he crashes through the floor. Here he was already looking ahead to his third divorce.

Cohen is doing very well on direct examination. The test will come Tuesday afternoon, when cross-examination is likely to begin.

May 13, 2024, 2:10 p.m. ET

An already unbearable situation in Gaza is getting far worse, as hundreds of thousands of desperate Palestinian families flee an Israeli ground operation in Rafah, in southern Gaza. Aid groups say the so-called humanitarian zone near the sea, where people are being told to move, doesn’t have enough shelter, food, water or sanitation to support the people who are already there. Without a significant infusion of new aid, this place is at risk of total famine and social chaos.

One glimmer of good news came on Sunday, when Israel opened the Western Erez crossing in northern Gaza. But virtually no aid has got through to southern Gaza for nearly a week, aid groups say. The reality is that the Gaza Strip needs many, many more crossings.

“If you have only one entry point in, then it becomes extremely valuable, and every adverse actor can disrupt it for their own gain,” Dave Harden, a former U.S.A.I.D. mission director in the West Bank and Gaza, told me.

If there were a dozen access points, spread across every two or three kilometers, then no single crossing would become a choke point, vulnerable to attack. He said there’s no reason that Israel, which controls the security envelope around Gaza, could not open far more checkpoints.

“People complain that Hamas is stealing aid, but there would be no incentive to steal if there was enough food going in,” said Harden, adding that he shared a plan to open more than half a dozen more border crossings in Gaza with a branch of the Israeli military about six weeks ago.

But since then, the opposite has occurred. The main artery for humanitarian aid, Kerem Shalom, was shut down on May 5 after a Hamas rocket attack killed four Israeli soldiers. Then Israel seized the border crossing at Rafah, gaining full control over the vital entry and exit point for people and goods for the first time since 2005. Israeli officials have blamed Egypt for the halt in humanitarian goods through Rafah since last week. But for months aid groups have cited the onerous inspections of aid convoys, Israeli attacks on aid workers and protests by right-wing Israeli settlers who have destroyed or delayed truckloads of aid as the cause of famine in Gaza.

“The situation is absolutely desperate,” Sean Carroll, who leads Anera, an American aid organization that has operated in Gaza for decades, wrote in an email on Monday. His staff members have been forced to evacuate Rafah at a moment’s notice, just like the rest of the population, and were forced to leave vital supplies in a warehouse behind.

“They are trying to keep delivering but there’s not much to deliver,” he told me.

May 13, 2024, 10:31 a.m. ET

Donald Trump may be the presidential candidate whose midday snoozing has generated headlines and animated late-night comics, but President Biden is the one who needs to wake up.

He’s a whopping 12 points behind Trump among registered voters in Nevada, according to polls by The New York Times, Siena College and The Philadelphia Inquirer that were released on Monday morning. Biden won that state by nearly 2.5 points in 2020. He’s behind among registered voters in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan — in all of the six battleground states surveyed except Wisconsin. That’s not some wildly aberrant result. It echoes alarms sounded before. It speaks to stubborn troubles.

And it’s difficult for Democrats to believe. I know: I talk regularly with party leaders and party strategists and I’ve heard their incredulity. They mention abortion and how that should help Biden mightily. They mention the miserable optics of a certain Manhattan courtroom and a certain slouched defendant. They mention Jan. 6, 2021. They note Trump’s unhinged rants and autocratic musings and they say that surely, when the moment of decision arrives, a crucial share of Americans will note all of that, too, and come home to Biden.

From their lips to God’s ear. But with stakes this huge, I can’t help worrying that such hopefulness verges on magical thinking and is midwife to a confidence, even a complacency, that Biden cannot afford. He needs to step things up — to defend his record more vigorously, make the case for his second term more concretely, project more strength and more effectively communicate the most important difference between him and his opponent: Biden genuinely loves America, while Trump genuinely loves only himself.

The new polling shows that Democratic senators up for re-election are doing better than Biden, so his party affiliation isn’t his doom. That’s the lesson, too, of the favor enjoyed by Democratic governors in red and purple states. Look, for prime example, at Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania.

But Biden seems to get the blame for the war in Gaza. For the high cost of living, too. Regarding the economy, he has a story to tell — infrastructure investment, the CHIPS Act, low unemployment — and must tell it better, with an eye not on his liberal base, but on the minorities and young people who are drifting away from him. That’s the moral of the latest numbers: Take no voter for granted. And there’s not a second to waste.

May 13, 2024, 5:03 a.m. ET
Merchandise for sale at a Trump rally in Wildwood, N.J., on Saturday.Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

Every Monday morning on The Point, we kick off the week with a tipsheet on the latest in the presidential campaign. Here’s what we’re looking at this week:

The next two weeks are critical for Donald Trump. He is leading President Biden in most polls in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and other swing states that will decide the 2024 election. But on Monday, the star witness in Trump’s criminal trial — Michael Cohen, his former lawyer — will begin telling a Manhattan jury that he gave $130,000 to the porn star Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence about a sexual encounter with Trump. And based on the pace of the trial, the case could go to the jury as soon as next week.

Cohen is the linchpin to any conviction, acquittal or hung jury for Trump. More than any other witness in the case, he will put words in Trump’s mouth for jurors — telling them how the former president directed the payment to Daniels. Expect the cross-examination to be withering, but in the end, Trump’s lawyers may be hard-pressed to contain or thwart the damaging Cohen testimony without strong witnesses who can rebut it.

The trial matters because some voters say a conviction could change their thinking about Trump — a man who for years has shaken off scandals like Teflon. Failure to convict, in turn, could boost the martyr message that he’s been campaigning on at rallies like his big one in New Jersey on Saturday.

I just did a focus group with Trump voters from 2020 about how they see him now, which will be published on Tuesday. Most of these voters want to support him again because they think the economy will do better under him. But these voters volunteered how much they dislike Trump’s chaotic and inappropriate behavior, and several of them are looking at R.F.K. Jr. as a third-party candidate. What happens in the trial could steer some of these Trump voters away from him.

Biden had a successful fund-raising weekend on the West Coast, but it’s Israel’s military actions in Gaza and the cease-fire talks that will loom over both his week and the biggest event on his schedule: his commencement address at Morehouse College next Sunday. Many voters are unhappy with Biden’s approach to Gaza and general handling of the war, and he came in for some criticism over his latest move on U.S. weapons to Israel.

This isn’t an easy time for Mr. Biden to set foot on a college campus, but he’s been an admired figure at many historically Black colleges like Morehouse — and he and his campaign need to improve his standing with both Black voters and Georgia voters, where he is lagging Trump in polls. No single event will turn it around for Biden, but I think this will be one of his highest-stakes speeches of the spring.

May 10, 2024, 6:09 p.m. ET
Donald Trump’s lawyer Emil Bove, two witnesses, a Trump post and reporters in court.Credit…Josh Cochran

For months, we’ve heard that the prosecution’s entire case in Donald Trump’s New York felony trial boils down to one man: Michael Cohen.

It turns out that it doesn’t — as long as Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, behaves himself on the witness stand beginning early next week.

For three weeks, I’ve sat in the courtroom and watched prosecutors carefully set the table for the feast of Cohen’s testimony against his longtime boss. Knowing that Cohen is a disreputable witness, they’ll basically argue that you don’t have to like the chef to swallow the food he serves.

The arc of the prosecution’s narrative has taken the jury from the “catch and kill” scheme (a coherent prelude to the crime) to the validation of highly incriminating records to the debunking of arguments for the defense. It all adds up to an effective precorroboration of Cohen’s likely testimony.

Stormy Daniels had no connection to the falsification of business records, the fundamental charge against Donald Trump. But by establishing that she did, indeed, have sex with Trump, her testimony provided important proof of motive. It’s increasingly clear to the jury that Trump coughed up the hush money to save his 2016 campaign after it was sent reeling by the “Access Hollywood”tape. He knew that a credible story of sex with a porn star would sink him. So he broke the law.

The defense has responded mostly by grasping at straws. It tried to make the hush money look like an extortion scheme, with the former president in his favorite position as victim — a difficult maneuver, considering that Trump has spent years in the same tawdry milieu.

On Monday and Friday, the defense attorney Emil Bove used technojargon and innuendo to suggest, without a shred of proof, that a key piece of evidence — a Sept. 9, 2016, call in which Trump and Cohen discussed hush money for the Playboy model Karen McDougal — was somehow tampered with by Cohen, the F.B.I. or some other sinister force and that it might not have been Cohen on the call. The idea was to use a nanosecond gap in the call and a change in phone ownership to capture the imagination of even a single conspiracy-minded juror. It takes only one to create a hung jury.

But Bove’s cross-examination crashed when a young prosecution witness explained that when people (in this case, Cohen) buy new phones, they usually keep their old numbers.

Is that all they’ve got? No, the defense is betting on the offensiveness of Cohen, who has been ignoring repeated pleas from prosecutors to keep his mouth shut in the days before he takes the stand. (Justice Juan Merchan strongly suggested he do so.)

If Cohen can straighten up and fly right, riding on a trove of evidence and surviving cross-examination, a conviction is well within sight.

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