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An expert's takeaways from day 1 of Michael Cohen's testimony

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Former President Trump's personal attorney and fixer took the stand today in New York. This is in the trial over hush money that Trump allegedly paid to Stormy Daniels, the adult film star. Michael Cohen was one of the most anticipated witnesses in this case. For more on the importance of today's testimony, we're going to bring in now attorney Andrew Weissmann. He's co-author of the book "The Trump Indictments." He was also a lead prosecutor in the Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ANDREW WEISSMANN: Nice to be here.

CHANG: Nice to have you. OK, so even though this is the first time that Michael Cohen has testified in this trial, the jury obviously has already heard a lot about him and his involvement in this case. What would you say were the key things you were listening for directly from Cohen today?

WEISSMANN: Well, I think it was sort of on two different planes. As somebody who used to be a prosecutor and a defense lawyer, I was very focused obviously on the proof and sort of so many direct conversations that he had with Donald Trump. I mean, it's things that I think we knew from other witnesses must have happened. But there's a difference between something that's proved by circumstantial evidence and then hearing it directly from the person who was really...

CHANG: Right.

WEISSMANN: ...Inside the tent. But there was also something which I was - didn't quite expect, even having done a lot of trials, which was the personal dynamic of understanding just how much love and respect and how much Michael Cohen's sort of whole life and seemed like his whole sort of - at least his work life, his reason for being was really tied up in his relationship to Donald Trump. And that, I think, came out very loud and clear during the testimony where, at one point, he was asked, how did you feel when Donald Trump would sort of compliment you on, you know, something you had done for him? And he said, I felt like I was on top of the world.

CHANG: Wow.

WEISSMANN: And it was really - had that - it was such a touching moment of understanding how far and how broken that relationship now is.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, you know, even though Michael Cohen is a central figure in this whole alleged arrangement to pay Daniels, you have argued that calling Cohen as a witness in this case might not have been all that necessary. Can you explain why?

WEISSMANN: Sure. I mean, I think what I was trying to say in a New York Times op-ed that I wrote for today...

CHANG: Right.

WEISSMANN: ...Is that I think it was surprising to me just how strong the case was and all of the different people who had testified. David Pecker, the head of the National Enquirer, talked about direct conversations in the scheme that he had with Donald Trump as the other principal. Hope Hicks had very damaging testimony.

And then there were notes that were taken by the CFO, the chief financial officer, and the controller at the Trump organization that sort of detailed the payment - the sort of - the cover-up - or alleged cover-up scheme. So there was just a lot of evidence that had come in. There was a real edifice to both corroborate Michael Cohen, but also to sort of independently prove the charged crimes. So either you really...

CHANG: So then why call him at all? Like, what do you think prosecutors are trying to do here by calling Cohen to the stand?

WEISSMANN: I think that, a lot of times, a jury, even if they sort of know what's going on and it's established through some direct and a lot of circumstantial evidence, hearing it from somebody who was there on the inside, even if it's a very flawed witness, can be invaluable. And a lot of times what I've seen in trials is a jury comes back and convicts and then says, with respect to that problematic witness, we either didn't need him or didn't believe him even though what they're really saying is, yeah, we believed him; it just sort of was unnecessary. We sort of knew already. But I think it would be hard, when you have somebody who's an insider, to just not let the jury see what that person has to say...

CHANG: Right.

WEISSMANN: ...About so many key events.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you, though - do you think Cohen delivered value for the prosecution so far? I know he still has another day of testimony - because he is someone with obvious credibility problems, right? This is a man who claims he lied to a federal judge. He's been in prison. What do you think? Was this a value add?

WEISSMANN: I do. Of course, I was in the courtroom. I heard him on direct examination. I found a lot of what he had to say - it made a lot of sense. Frankly, I haven't heard an alternative narrative that accounts for all of the other evidence in the case, which - you know, people say trials are about alternate narratives, and there so far hasn't been an alternative that's been offered to explain all of the evidence, whether it comes from Michael Cohen or from many other witnesses and documents. But cross-examination hasn't started yet, and so it still remains to be seen whether this was sort of a net positive, and, of course, we don't - none of us know, you know, how it's being assessed by a jury.

CHANG: Attorney Andrew Weissmann, law professor at NYU. Thank you so much for joining us again.

WEISSMANN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Katia Riddle
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.