Opinion: Trump’s defense rocked Michael Cohen. But they didn’t knock him out

Editor’s Note: Editor’s note: Norman Eisen is a CNN legal analyst and editor of “Trying Trump: A Guide to His First Election Interference Criminal Trial.” He served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee for the first impeachment and trial of then-President Donald Trump. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

After a rocky start for former President Donald Trump’s counsel on Tuesday, the continuation of testimony from the Manhattan criminal trial’s star witness Thursday substantially improved in their favor. We finally saw stretches of the defense’s cross-examination of Michael Cohen that were powerful and effective.

Lead defense counsel Todd Blanche turned around his earlier failures, repeatedly pressing Trump’s former fixer over his prior lies — and arguing that Cohen was lying on the stand again today.

Like in a heavyweight boxing match, blows were landed and the defense scored points — but in my view, Cohen stayed on his feet. He was rocked by one blow on the chin but there was no knockout punch.

After a wasted half-hour of ineffective questioning about trivia such as whether the press may have been informed by the prosecution about the filing of the indictment before Cohen was, Blanche finally got to where I would have started the day: Cohen’s many prior lies under oath.

Again and again, the defense lawyer pummeled Cohen about the fact that in those instances he had raised his right hand and taken an oath to tell the truth (just like here in this court) and betrayed it. To Congress. To special counsel Robert Mueller. And to the federal judge who sentenced Cohen when he said he was guilty (but later said he wasn’t) of the crimes for which he was sentenced: his tax offenses and his false statements on his bank paperwork to get the hush money to pay Stormy Daniels, who alleges that she had a sexual encounter with Trump (which Trump denies). The $130,000 payment to the adult film actress in 2016 is at the core of the 34 felony counts of falsifying business documents faced by Trump.

Norman Eisen - Courtesy Norm Eisen
Norman Eisen - Courtesy Norm Eisen

But cross-examination is not just about the questioning; it’s also about the answers. And like a boxer holding his own — Ali withstanding the furious pummeling of a Foreman or a Frazier — Cohen refused to fall down even when rocked by hard hits.

On his guilty pleas, he explained that he felt coerced because prosecutors gave him 48 hours to plead or his wife would be included in his Southern District of New York indictment. When Blanche attempted to assert that Cohen had also lied when he said he took responsibility for the crimes, Cohen pushed back: “No, sir … I take responsibility, but I did not believe that it was … a crime I should have been charged with.”

After the climax of that sequence, Blanche meandered for over an hour before coming back with even greater force in a different line of questioning just before the lunch break — the most intense of the trial.

Trump’s defense lawyer circled back to what Cohen had testified on direct examination about an October 24, 2016, phone call he had with Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller. Cohen told the court Monday that the bodyguard handed his phone to the former president for an update on Daniels.

Blanche argued that in reality the call stuck to another topic — a tsunami of incoming harassing phone calls. Blanche revealed phone and text records that he said demonstrated that the harassment was indeed the sole topic despite Cohen’s claim that it also dealt with the Daniels matter.

The call was less than two minutes, and Blanche effectively questioned how there could have been time to discuss the harassing calls and pass the phone to Trump for the other conversation. It was a fair point, and once again the lawyer landed blows.

Cohen wavered, replying that he “believe[d]” he spoke to Trump. Like a punch landing, it staggered him — but he ultimately maintained his position about nature of the call. It happened. “That was a lie, you did not talk to President Trump — you talked to Keith Schiller, you can admit it,” Blanche said, voice raised. “No sir, I don’t know that it’s accurate,” Cohen responded, standing his ground.

I was watching the jury throughout the day, and in particular when the cross-examination was at its most intense, as on this point. Their scrutiny of Cohen and of Blanche was as intense as the questioning itself, at least at its hotter moments. Unlike prior points when their attitudes appeared more transparent — such as when Cohen candidly spoke directly to jurors Tuesday about his regrets for things he did out of loyalty to Trump — I could not read what they thought today.

Trials, like boxing matches, are about momentum — and the defense got some in that exchange. But no further punches landed on the chin in the afternoon as Cohen better withstood the onslaught. Moreover, my experience has been that juries don’t decide based upon one moment — they base their judgment on an overall view.

And we are not done with Cohen. The prosecution on direct examination and throughout the case has meticulously corroborated him. On Monday, cross-examination will finish. When the prosecution comes back on redirect, they will refresh that corroborating evidence once more.

Today was not sufficient to reverse the proof beyond a reasonable doubt that has been established over the weeks of the case in chief. The defense needed a knockout punch because they were behind on points and didn’t get one. But it is a closer case.

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