Michael Cohen’s lies for Trump are an advantage for prosecutors

Let’s be clear: Michael Cohen is a great witness against Donald Trump in the latter’s ongoing Manhattan trial — and a terrible person to rely on for the prosecution’s case. As Trump’s onetime lawyer and “fixer,” Cohen was in the middle of the alleged scheme undergirding the case against the former president. At the same time, he’s also a known liar, having gone to federal prison in 2019 for, among other things, lying to Congress.

As Cohen himself said repeatedly under the people’s questioning, the lies were told in the interest of protecting his client, the man currently on trial.

Trump’s defense lawyer Todd Blanche tried to seize on this discrepancy during cross-examination Tuesday, albeit in a wildly scattershot fashion. “Questioning of Cohen has jumped around between lies, casting Cohen as jilted, as motivated to provide dirt to Trump to get out of prison early, and his podcast attacks,” NBC News’ Laura Jarrett reported from the courtroom over an hour into the cross-examination. “It’s all an effort to say he can’t be trusted, but it’s a sprawling effort.”

Blanche’s scattered efforts aside, this line of attack might work out well for the defense in most cases. After all, if Cohen is the prosecution’s best witness, poking holes in his credibility is an obvious strategy. But there’s just one problem: As Cohen himself said repeatedly under the people’s questioning, the lies were told in the interest of protecting his client, the man currently on trial.

Cohen was sentenced in 2018 after pleading guilty to a number of federal crimes, including, crucially, “causing an unlawful corporate contribution” to a candidate and “making an excessive campaign contribution.” Those two charges are key elements of the current allegations against Trump, who stands accused of falsifying business records to cover up the payments Cohen made to an adult film star ahead of the 2016 election. Cohen was reimbursed for $130,000 for the hush money payments, which were falsely logged as legal fees, after Trump was in office.

As for the charges of lying to Congress, Cohen was brought in to testify on Capitol Hill as part of the Russia investigation in 2017. He falsely told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Trump had no business ties in Russia as of the 2016 primaries, when in fact Cohen was pursuing Russian approval for a Trump Tower in Moscow as late as June that year. He also lied about not traveling to Moscow to pursue that project, when he had done so and suggested that Trump make the trip, as well.

His statements to the Senate committee didn’t match up with what he’d told Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation. He passed that information on to the FBI, which then seized Cohen’s documents, leading to the charges against him. (It’s worth noting that, unlike on Tuesday, Cohen wasn’t under oath when he lied to Congress — he was accordingly charged under the federal false statements statute, not the federal law governing perjury.)

Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for the various crimes he’d committed. By this point, he’d fallen out of favor with Trump for his “disloyalty” in pleading guilty and cooperating with law enforcement. Much as was the case Tuesday, at the time of his sentencing he told the judge that his “weakness can be characterized as a blind loyalty to Donald Trump, and I was weak for not having the strength to question and to refuse his demands.”

In 2019, BuzzFeed News published a story claiming that Trump had ordered Cohen to lie to Congress. It prompted a firestorm of drama that prompted the normally tight-lipped Mueller to issue a denial. But in further testimony to a House committee later that year, Cohen gave one of the sharpest views into how Trump operates:

“Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing,” Cohen told the House Oversight Committee in a public hearing. … “In his way, he was telling me to lie,” Cohen said.

The roundabout nature of that order from Trump is important for understanding not only how the former president operates broadly, but also the specific difficulty that the prosecutors have faced in this case. Much of the evidence that has been presented to the jury so far has been circumstantial or third-party testimony laying out the structure of the scheme, Trump’s motives and his likely awareness of the falsified records. Cohen is the prosecution’s only witness with direct knowledge of all the stages of the plot to silence Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal ahead of the election.

It was important, then, to establish with the jury that when Cohen lied, he didn’t do so pathologically or to save his own skin, as Trump’s defense lawyers have implied. It was with a specific goal in mind: protecting Trump. If anything, highlighting his willingness to lie ironically makes him more credible as a witness to the alleged scheme, as it makes clear the lengths he went to to protect his then-client.

If anything, highlighting his willingness to lie ironically makes him more credible as a witness to the alleged scheme, as it makes clear the lengths he went to to protect his then-client.

Accordingly, rather than shy away from Cohen’s history of lying, prosecutors chose to address it head-on. Asked why he lied to Congress, Cohen answered that it was “because I was staying on Trump’s message, and there was no Russia, Russia, Russia, and that was what was preferred.” Same for when the prosecutors asked about the false statement that Daniels put out in 2018 when The Wall Street Journal first broke the news of the hush payment. Prompted for a reason he’d helped put out a purposeful lie, Cohen answered, “In order to protect Mr. Trump.”

Still, Blanche went into cross-examination with a lot of material to pull from, which makes his meandering approach even more difficult to parse. For example, he had Cohen confirm that beyond being a lawyer, he’d made millions on taxi medallions. That may have been a way in to talking about the other charges Cohen pleaded guilty to in 2018, including tax evasion and lying to banks in order to obtain more favorable loans.

But if that’s the case, it’s not hard to see how Cohen could turn that back around on Trump. Just this year, the former president lost a civil fraud suit in New York and, according to a recent investigation from The New York Times and ProPublica, Trump reportedly bilked the IRS for millions in taxes. In all things, Cohen can argue, he was merely following in the footsteps of his boss — except, that is, his decision to finally come clean.