Klasfeld’s reporting is part of Just Security’s Trump Trials Clearinghouse.

The first time that Manhattan prosecutors met Michael Cohen inside a federal prison to enlist his cooperation, the former fixer for then-President Donald Trump had a familiar question on his mind: What’s in it for me?

The meeting took place at a federal prison in Otisville, N.Y., on August 27, 2019, some three months into Cohen’s three-year prison sentence for what a federal judge described as a “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct.” 

For months, Cohen had reassured the courts and the public that he committed his crimes for Trump, but he had now turned over a new and public-spirited leaf. No person had been closer or more central to Trump’s alleged efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, through what prosecutors describe as a conspiracy to falsify business records to cover up scandals that could have derailed the campaign in its final month. Cohen knew he had valuable information, and just beginning to feel the sting of a long term of incarceration, he openly acknowledged that he strategized to his personal advantage.

“Do you recall, one of the things you wanted to talk to the prosecutors about when you were in Otisville was what the benefit was to you for meeting with them, right?” Trump’s lead attorney Todd Blanche asked Cohen on the former fixer’s first day of cross-examination. 

“I did ask that,” Cohen replied flatly. 

That initial meeting, more nakedly transactional than previously reported, proved to be the start of a years-long and rocky relationship. Cohen reportedly met some 25 times with Manhattan prosecutors over the course of a nearly half-decade road to trial, and District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s former deputy Mark Pomerantz claimed that concerns about Cohen’s credibility drove his former boss to hold off on pursuing another case about Trump’s business records. (Pomerantz also said he believed a jury would believe Cohen.) The challenge arises from the fact that among other things, Cohen is a convicted perjurer, and some of the crimes he pleaded guilty to have no relationship to Trump. Cohen openly loathes Trump, blames him for his three-year sentence, and has made millions denigrating his former boss in books, podcasts, and anti-Trump merch. On his final day on the stand this Monday, he reaffirmed his view that “revenge against President Trump is a dish that is best served cold.”

But at some point of their investigation, in Strangelove-ian fashion, prosecutors learned to stop worrying and love — or at least, live with — bomb-thrower Michael Cohen enough to make him their final witness. His first week of testimony reflected this journey, showcasing a temperamentally transformed Michael Cohen, with all the baggage of his history and personas that the public knows and recognizes. The jury has now seen, more than 17 hours of testimony later, that he made it to the end with this new identity relatively intact. In one of the many paradoxes of Trump’s criminal case, prosecutors have marshaled Cohen’s character flaws that would be devastating to other witnesses as corroborating evidence of their case.

After three days of at times bumbling and at times bruising cross-examination, Blanche has made sure jurors know that Cohen is a convicted liar who stole from his former boss and portrayed him as someone who cannot be trusted to advance anything beyond his self-interest. Unfortunately for Trump’s defense, this portrayal does not always help the former president, and Cohen maintained a steady cool throughout the rattling off of his admitted many misdeeds. 

Accentuate the Negative

Shedding the loudmouth, profane, pugilistic, and at times juvenile street-fighter of his personal brand, Cohen wore a conservative business suit on the witness stand to deliver steady and measured testimony. After the first day, he maintained consistent eye contact with the jury, developing a visible rapport with jurors. In stark contrast to his shock-jock broadcasts, Cohen remained soft spoken and never appeared to become rattled, even in the face of invasive questioning by Trump’s lawyer about his private conversations with his daughter. 

Assistant DA Susan Hoffinger used the buttoned-down Cohen to full effect, turning the witness into a guide to the prosecution’s evidence. Each of the 34 counts of falsifying business records against Trump relates to one of the former president’s reimbursements to Cohen. There are 11 signed checks, stapled to 11 of Cohen’s invoices, and 12 ledger entries, all marked as retainers instead of paybacks for hush money. Cohen identified the records and attested to their inaccuracies. Prosecutors corroborated Cohen’s account tying those payments to Trump with Cohen’s emails, text messages, call logs, encrypted chats, and recorded conversations with several other figures in the trial, including a surreptitiously recorded conversation with the former president himself. 

The now-disbarred Cohen acknowledged that taping his former client was unethical, but that did not make the evidence any less admissible — or less damaging to Trump. On the tape, Trump could be heard being fully apprised about the $150,000 payment to former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal, in order to silence their alleged affair. Trump can be heard in one garbled snippet of tape saying, “Pay with cash,” and being told by Cohen to opt for a more official route with a paper trial. Cohen also name checks Allen Weisselberg twice as deeply involved in helping structure the scheme. Though not directly related to the allegedly falsified records, the evidence showed Trump’s awareness of what prosecutors describe as the broader conspiracy. After listening to that tape, jurors are left to wonder why there would be any reason for the loyal Weisselberg and Cohen to hide the Stormy Daniels arrangement from their boss. And now near the endpoint of the trial with all the evidence before the jury, the defense has yet to provide a clear counter-explanation, but they will presumably try to present one in their summation.

Perhaps the most powerful piece of evidence against Trump, because it points directly to the charges at issue in the case, came from an absent witness: the Trump Organization’s jailed former CFO Allen Weisselberg, who jotted down handwritten notes laying out the specific system for reimbursing Cohen and grossing up his income for false tax purposes – all on the very front of a bank statement for Cohen’s shell company that paid Daniels through her attorney. Cohen became the second witness to identify Weisselberg’s handwriting on that piece of paper, which contradicts one of the defense’s key promises made to jurors during opening statements. 

“The $35,000 a month was not a payback to Mr. Cohen for the money that he gave to Ms. Daniels,” Blanche told jurors when trial began on April 22, 2024, in a remark now contradicted by testimony, handwritten notes, and even Trump’s own sworn statements entered into the record.

Cohen’s admission that he stole at least $30,000 from the Trump Organization, before that amount was grossed up for his taxes, heightened the disconnect in Blanche’s opening statement. The theft of the money only makes sense if jurors accept that Cohen falsely claimed a reimbursement that he wasn’t entitled to from RedFinch, an IT firm he hired to rig online polls for Trump before his candidacy. Cohen paid only $20,000 of that $50,000 expense — unseemly enough, in a “small, brown paper bag” filled with cash to RedFinch’s owner John Gauger — but the ex-Trump fixer falsely claimed he paid for the entire thing.

“So you stole from the Trump Organization, right?” Blanche asked Cohen. 

“Yes, sir,” Cohen answered, simply, before explaining later in the day that he felt angry and entitled to the money because Trump slashed his bonus. 

But Cohen’s account of his unprosecuted theft from Trump hinges upon a proposition the defense does not accept: That Cohen received reimbursements for campaign-related and other expenses, not compensation for valid legal expenses. In so doing, Cohen arguably cheated both his employer and the tech firm in a way that corroborates the state’s theory of the case.

Attacking Cohen’s Credibility — and His Evidence

Cohen’s testimony about stealing from the Trump Organization illustrates clearly why dirtying him up may not be enough for the defense. In the face of the evidence corroborating his story, Trump’s lawyers needed to sow enough doubt for the jury to distrust not only Cohen’s word, but any piece of evidence that would appear to back up his account. Blanche appeared to land a blow in that effort toward the end of Cohen’s first week of testimony, by challenging his account of his conversation with Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller on the night of Oct. 24, 2016. 

Cohen claimed, without equivocation, that he called Schiller to speak to Trump about the “Stormy Daniels matter,” but that testimony now appears to be false — or, at minimum, only half-true. 

During cross-examination, Trump’s attorney confronted Cohen with two sets of text messages, both dated Oct. 24, 2016. One exchange appeared to show Cohen threatening to report a 14-year-old prankster to the Secret Service for a string of harassing phone calls. In another, Cohen told Schiller about the teenager to resolve the matter, and Schiller told Cohen to call him at the very minute of their phone conversation. Referring to Cohen’s testimony that the call was about Daniels, Blanche nearly shouted to the jury: “That was a lie, you were actually talking to Mr. Schiller about the fact that you were getting harassing phone calls from a 14 year old, correct?”

Cohen tried to split the difference: “Part of it was the 14 year old, but I know that Keith was with Mr. Trump at the time and there was more than potentially just this.”

Trump’s attorneys may have created doubt about Cohen’s chat with Schiller on Oct. 24, 2016, but that was far from the most important call at issue at trial. Indeed, the prosecution’s case could have been made without any reference to it.

Two days later on Oct. 26, 2016, Cohen directly called Trump twice shortly before going to First Republic Bank to funnel a $130,000 home equity loan through his shell company to Daniels’ lawyer, according to evidence seen by the jury. Only Cohen and Trump are privy to what happened during those calls, and to date, only Cohen has given his account of that conversation. The defense’s message to the jury with Cohen is clear: If you cannot trust his account of this fairly significant phone call, can you trust his testimony about any of them? 

That was, by far, the most effective moment of Blanche’s cross, a fact made even more clear by the prosecution’s efforts to rehabilitate Cohen on redirect. Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger dug up archival footage from C-SPAN to show that Schiller and Trump were standing next to each other right around the time that Cohen called the bodyguard on Oct. 24, 2016, evidence that Cohen’s claim that he used Schiller to talk to Trump about Daniels was plausible. But Cohen’s text messages with Schiller make clear that Cohen placed the call because of the 14-year-old prankster. Trump’s defense wants jurors to believe the roughly 90-second phone call between Cohen and Schiller was too short to split between both topics, but Cohen’s recorded conversation with Trump about paying off Karen McDougal lasted less than half that amount of time.

Whether Cohen eventually moved on to another topic with the person then-standing right next to Schiller is ultimately unknowable, and that’s what makes the jury’s trust in what Cohen says so important. 

Why Cohen’s Credibility Matters

Trump’s trial strategy highlights why Cohen’s credibility matters and why prosecutors and defense attorneys invested so much time bolstering and tearing him down in a trial with 20 witnesses called by the district attorney’s office.

Prosecutors and Cohen’s personal attorney E. Danya Perry may have paved the way for his courtroom transformation, but no amount of preparation could airbrush away his personal history. And Cohen could not, and did not, pin all of Blanche’s attack lines on the former president. Still, some of the blame on Trump was warranted. Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York acknowledged that Cohen committed some of his crimes, like the campaign finance violation at the heart of Trump’s criminal case, for Trump’s benefit and at his “direction.” 

Cohen also lied to Congress about Trump’s financial interests in Russia through a since-abandoned plan to build a billion-dollar skyscraper in Moscow, a project Trump considered far longer into the election year than his campaign had previously acknowledged. Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller memorialized Trump’s pressure campaign to stop Cohen from cooperating with prosecutors in his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, finding the then-president’s conduct met the standards for obstruction of justice.

Cohen unquestionably committed both of these criminal deceptions for Trump, including in congressional testimony prepared as part of a defense agreement with the then-president’s attorney. In calling him a convicted perjurer, Trump’s attorneys and allies tend to obscure the details of his perjury convictions. Some of Cohen’s other lies were his alone, like engaging in roughly $1.3 million in tax evasion related to his taxi medallion business and bank fraud through home equity loans to finance his debts, crimes for which he remains unrepentant. (In one line of questioning, Blanche had Cohen concede that he lied to his wife about the loans.)

Beyond Cohen’s rap sheet, the ex-Trump fixer had made millions denigrating his former boss in two books, more than 200 podcasts and countless TV appearances. Cohen acknowledged that prosecutors tried, without success, to make him stop talking about the case before trial, and he defended his First Amendment right to ignore them. That refusal to take the prosecutor’s advice has taken some toll. 

Trump’s legal team played a tape of a loud, angry Cohen gloating about Trump’s indictment on one of his podcasts, in what may have been a jarring juxtaposition for jurors who spent days listening to a calm, professional witness. Those flashes of Cohen’s persona usually played out during cross examination through quotations alone. Trump’s attorney began his questioning by pointing out that the witness called him a “crying little s***” on TikTok days earlier — in a stunt that earned Blanche a rebuke from the judge for “making this about yourself.” After that false start, Blanche continued to quote  Cohen liberally, showing Cohen nursing grudges against  Trump, federal prosecutors and the judge who incarcerated him. 

With these expected weaknesses, legal analysts took it as received wisdom before trial began that prosecutors would sandwich Cohen’s testimony somewhere in the middle of their case. Bragg would lay the groundwork for his testimony through other major witnesses like tabloid mogul David Pecker, adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Trump White House communications director Hope Hicks. Cohen, despite being frequently described as the star witness, was rarely expected to close the curtain on the first criminal trial of a former president of the United States. Instead, Cohen batted clean up on the district attorney’s case, in every sense of the phrase, and the witnesses that preceded him substantially buoyed his testimony. 

Michael Cohen’s Past and Present 

In Hicks’ most damaging testimony against Trump, she also helped insulate Cohen from one of his biggest liabilities.

“President Trump was saying he spoke to Michael, and that Michael had paid this woman to protect him from a false allegation, um, and that — you know Michael felt like it was his job to protect him, and that’s what he was doing,” Hicks said during her testimony, just before and after the transcript recorded her getting emotional. “And he did it out of the kindness of his own heart.”

For Hicks, Trump’s story seemed implausible: “I didn’t know Michael to be an especially charitable person — um, or selfless person,” she said.

That is also not the Cohen the jury has gotten to know during Blanche’s cross examination, despite years of personal rebranding and an unmistakable bond he struck with the panel. 

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Cohen looked into the jurors’ eyes frequently when describing his former admiration for Trump, the triumphs of his career, and the agony of his downfall. He ended his narration with a soaring speech about speaking to his family about being led astray by his misplaced loyalties to his former boss: the former President of the United States.

“I regret doing things for him that I should not have: lying, bullying people in order to effectuate a goal,” Cohen told jurors during the closing lines of his direct examination, maintaining eye contact with them. “I don’t regret working at the Trump Organization, ’cause, as I expressed before, some very interesting, great times. But, to a — to keep the loyalty and to do the things that he had asked me to do, I violated my moral compass. And I suffered the penalty, as has my family.”

Ever since that time in his life, Cohen has embarked on what he described as a “Redemption Tour,” a personal brand he burnishes in the name of his books Disloyal and Revenge, his podcast Mea Culpa, and countless TV appearances. Cohen also presented himself as a changed man to the Senate, where he apologized for his previous lies for Trump, then put another (unprosecuted) inaccuracy in the congressional record. “I have never asked for, nor would I accept, a pardon from President Trump,” Cohen told the Senate in 2019, before correcting the statement to note he had done just that. Trump’s legal team drew out that errata on cross-examination, as well.

Trump’s legal team may have dulled some of the luster from Cohen’s tale of reformation, but the prodigious amount of evidence Manhattan prosecutors built their case around largely stems from or relates to his role in the alleged scheme. Cohen has served as much as a guide to the broader body of evidence in the case as he is a witness offering his specific testimony. And for better or for worse, some of his biggest vulnerabilities as a witness appear to align more with the prosecution’s theory of the case than the defense’s — though both narratives are there for the jurors to decide. After nearly five years, Cohen has won the trust of prosecutors, amid considerable turbulence. From their apparent rapport with the witness, many of the jurors also appear to have bonded to a significant degree with Cohen, but of course, they will deliver their final and more decisive judgment with Trump’s verdict.


Image: Michael Cohen and his attorney Danya Perry leave his apartment building on his way to Manhattan criminal court in New York on May 20, 2024 (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)