Donald Trump’s first criminal trial is rapidly approaching in New York — and both his attorneys and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office are girding themselves for the man who could be standing between Trump and the first-ever criminal conviction of an American president: Michael Cohen.
The hush money case, which revolves around Trump’s alleged payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, represents the culmination of a years-long saga of scandal, secrets, and betrayal between Trump and Cohen, his former longtime attorney.
Though Trump’s own lawyers have warned him that he is likely to be convicted in the case, legal experts, including some former prosecutors in Bragg’s own office, believe that Bragg’s criminal case may be the weakest one the former president faces. The case, to an extent, rests on the claim that Trump falsified business records to make an illegal federal campaign contribution, and the Justice Department has never brought such a charge. But attorneys for both the city of New York and the former president have signaled that they’re prepared for the trial to be a fight over the credibility of Cohen, one of the key witnesses.
On the government’s side, Manhattan prosecutors have devoted a significant amount of time to strategizing about how to respond to a variety of potential creative maneuvers that Trump’s legal team may try to spring on Cohen, two sources familiar with the situation tell Rolling Stone. The preparation has included detailed reviews of sensitive documents and communications, and a close study of how Trump’s lawyers went after Cohen when he took the stand in Trump’s civil fraud trial in October.
Team Trump has also been doing its Cohen-related homework in recent months. According to two other people familiar with the matter, Trump’s legal advisers have reviewed a wealth of internal documents, public records, notes on Cohen’s behavior at the fraud trial, and even Cohen’s own podcasts to try to pinpoint any under-scrutinized vulnerabilities they could exploit when he takes the stand. The former president, for his part, has repeatedly said in private that he hopes these trials provide ample opportunity for his team to denigrate and attack Cohen, including to his face, the sources say.
The process of facing off against his former boss’s attorneys, and the likelihood of further attacks on his character now, has left Cohen less than enthusiastic about the prospect of testifying in the case.
“Truth be told, I really don’t want to be a witness again,” he said in an episode of his Mea Culpa podcast earlier this month. “It’s not a fun experience at all.”
On his podcast, Cohen said that he’d appreciate the upcoming criminal trial having a more restrained courtroom decorum than there was in Trump’s New York civil fraud trial: “My hope is that in that case Judge [Juan] Merchan puts an end to the bullshit that went on, even with the accusations and the attacks and the complete ignoring of legitimate facts.”
He might not be so lucky.
Both sides appear to recognize that Cohen’s credibility — harmed by a 2018 perjury conviction related to his testimony before Congress about Trump’s Russian investments — will be a key battlefront.
Prosecutors have sought to avoid relying solely on Cohen’s testimony to prove their case, two sources familiar with the matter say. They have also tried to buttress the former Trump fixer’s testimony by interviewing former senior Trump officials and others in search of corroborating evidence and anecdotes to try to prove that the then-future-president oversaw the Stormy Daniels cover-up in a bid to protect his 2016 election prospects.
During his appearance as a witness in Trump’s New York civil fraud trial, Trump attorney Alina Habba repeatedly raised Cohen’s perjury case under cross-examination and called him a “liar.”
While the tactics in the upcoming criminal trial may be broadly similar to Trump’s defense in his civil case, the criminal defense team led by Trump attorneys Susan Necheles and Todd Blanche is grappling with arguably much greater stakes.
Last year, some of Trump’s attorneys and political advisers had warned him that he should prepare himself to lose to Bragg and look to a vigorous appeal, as Rolling Stone previously reported. This internal prognosis is largely based on the premise — and popular MAGA talking point — that there is no way that Trump could ever get a fair trial with a New York City jury pool. Still, several of Trump’s legal counselors and political aides have also told the former president that Cohen may be such a flawed key witness that if they can break him on the stand, they can potentially blow up Bragg’s case at trial, the two sources recount.
It is no surprise that emotions are running hot on both sides of the coming Manhattan trial, for a case — one involving sex, lies, scandal, a high-stakes and close presidential election, and an alleged criminal conspiracy to bury the salacious truth — that perfectly befits the tabloid-obsessed Trump.
Cohen once pitched himself as the ultimate Trump stalwart, swaggering that he’d “take a bullet” for Trump; now, he likens the former president and 2024 Republican frontrunner to a “mob boss” who deserves to be sentenced to house arrest. In years past, Trump fostered, as a source close to the ex-president puts it, a “twisted father-son type relationship” with Cohen, and trusted the lawyer to handle some of his most confidential dirt and operations. Nowadays, Trump loathes Cohen for being a “fucking rat” — according to multiple people who’ve heard Trump use these words — who turned on him during the course of multiple criminal investigations.
If the Manhattan trial were to result in Trump’s criminal conviction, it could have a great impact on the direction of the country. For several months, there has been a consistent polling trend — both in internal Republican data and public 2024-related surveys run by high-quality pollsters — showing that a substantial share of swing voters in battleground states say that if Trump were criminally convicted this year, it would stop them from voting for him.
This trend in the polling data has held strong for long enough that even some of Trump’s closest advisers, including ones working at the upper ranks of his presidential campaign, have grown increasingly anxious about the possibility of a conviction — and have warned Trump about the potential for toxic fallout.
“[Late last year], I mentioned to [Donald Trump] how the polls were saying a conviction would hammer him with some of the voters he needs to keep in his column to win,” a source who often speaks to the former president about 2024 told Rolling Stone early this month. “I said it was something to take very seriously, but not necessarily a death blow … But in my own thoughts, I kept thinking, ‘It’d be a fucking disaster.’ But we’ll find out, I guess. Hopefully, people are lying to the pollsters.”
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