Key takeaways from day 18 of Donald Trump’s New York hush money trial

Ex-lawyer Michael Cohen faced a third day of testimony, while Republican politicians gathered in court to support Trump.

Donald Trump straightens his jacket as he is seated at the defence table at the Manhattan Criminal Court.
Former US President Donald Trump prepares for the start of proceedings at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 16 [Jeenah Moon/Pool Photo via AP]

In New York, the fifth week of Donald Trump’s criminal hush-money trial has drawn to a close, as disbarred lawyer Michael Cohen testified for a third day about his interactions with the former United States president.

But Trump’s defence team again took the opportunity to try to poke holes in Cohen’s testimony on Thursday, blasting his credibility, his motivations and even his recollection of key events in the criminal case.

Cohen, formerly a member of Trump’s inner circle, is the prosecution’s star witness — and likely the last it will call before resting its case.

The former lawyer has alleged that Trump, a former Republican president and current presidential candidate, orchestrated a scheme to pay hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels in the lead-up to the 2016 race.

Daniels maintained she had an affair with Trump, and prosecutors say she was poised to sell her story to the press when Trump, through Cohen, bought her silence for $130,000.

The payment, they allege, was aimed at suppressing negative coverage during the 2016 presidential election, which Trump eventually won. The Republican politician was already facing scrutiny at the time for an audio recording in which he described grabbing women by their genitals.

Cohen himself previously pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance violations related to the hush-money payment.

But Trump has denied the charges against him as well as the affair itself. He faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the case, one of four ongoing criminal indictments against him.

He is the first US president, past or present, to face criminal charges. Here are the highlights from day 18 of the trial:

Michael Cohen exits his apartment building in New York to head to trial. He wears a yellow tie and dark suit.
Michael Cohen departs his apartment building on his way to the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse in New York on May 16 [Andres Kudacki/AP Photo]

Defence questions Cohen’s motives

Straight away on Thursday, the defence resumed its attacks on Cohen, probing the disbarred lawyer for evidence that he was motivated by personal animus against Trump.

Early in the day’s proceedings, they confronted Cohen with recordings of his own voice, clipped from a 2020 podcast, showing the former lawyer relishing the prospect of a Trump conviction.

The recording captured Cohen saying he hoped “this man ends up in prison” and will “rot inside for what he did to me and my family”.

“It won’t bring back the year that I lost or the damage done to my family. But revenge is a dish best served cold,” Cohen said in one clip.

In another moment, he said, “You better believe that I want this man to go down.”

The audio clips painted a stark contrast with Cohen’s relatively demure behaviour on the witness stand: In the podcasts, he was animated, speaking at a furious pace that was punctuated by expletives.

The defence also sought to underscore why Cohen felt such hatred for his former boss. Lawyer Todd Blanche implied Cohen was angling for a White House position as chief of staff — and was ultimately disappointed.

“The truth is, Mr Cohen, you really wanted to work in the White House, correct?” Blanche asked Cohen.

“No, sir,” Cohen replied, later saying Blanche was not “characterising” his motivations correctly.

Lauren Boebert and other Republican politicians gather to give a press conference outside the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse
US Representative Lauren Boebert attends a news conference outside the courtroom with other Republican supporters of former President Donald Trump [David ‘Dee’ Delgado/Reuters]

Cohen testifies to lying under oath

Cohen remains a key pillar of the prosecution’s case, as the only witness who can testify to certain private discussions about the hush-money payment at the centre of the trial.

So the defence on Thursday continued to batter his credibility, asking him to revisit moments when he lied under oath, in order to cast doubt on his current testimony.

Blanche, for example, raised the fact that Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to lying before Congress about a failed attempt to build a version of Trump Tower in Moscow.

“You lied under oath, correct?” Blanche asked Cohen, who responded: “Yes, sir.”

Cohen has long maintained he lied at the time out of loyalty to Trump.

Blanche also pressed Cohen on statements he made indicating he felt pressure to plead guilty when faced with the 2018 charges, which included tax evasion and campaign finance violations.

When defendants plead guilty in court, they must affirm they made the plea of their own volition. Blanche used that point to ask Cohen: Did he lie under oath when he said he pleaded guilty of his own free will?

“That was not true,” Cohen said.

In addition, the defence highlighted instances where Cohen used artificial intelligence to generate fake legal citations in a court application, again calling into question the former lawyer’s reliability.

Donald Trump walks into court, behind metal barricades, with a raised fist in the air.
Former US President Donald Trump exits the courtroom during a break at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse on May 16 [Jeenah Moon/Pool via Reuters]

Defence challenges Cohen’s testimony

Having raised questions about Cohen’s trustworthiness, the defence zeroed in on key moments from his testimony for the prosecution.

Cohen, for instance, testified earlier this week that he called Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller in October 2016 as a means of reaching Trump himself.

The call, Cohen explained, was about the “Stormy Daniels situation” and the hush-money payment they planned to transfer to her lawyer.

But on Thursday, Trump’s defence questioned if that was the real reason Cohen was in touch with Schiller at the time. Blanche, the defence lawyer, suggested that Cohen was instead seeking Schiller’s help to deal with a 14-year-old who had been making harassing calls to his phone.

Blanche showed the jury text messages Cohen wrote to Schiller on the same night as the 2016 conversation, saying, “Who can I speak to about harassing calls to my cell and office?”

He proceeded to ask Cohen if his description of the 2016 phone conversation “was a lie” and whether the focus was on the harassing calls, not on hush money.

“Part of it was about the phone calls, but I knew that Keith was with Mr Trump at the time, and it was more than potentially just this,” Cohen responded.

After a break, Blanche questioned Cohen about how he could recollect specific details from so long ago.

“These phone calls are things I’ve been talking about for the last six years,” Cohen said in reply. “They were and are extremely important, and they were all-consuming.”

A courtroom sketch of prosecution and defence lawyers gathered around Judge Juan Merchan, as Donald Trump looks on.
Lawyers meet with Judge Juan Merchan during one of many sidebars held during day 18 of Donald Trump’s trial [Jane Rosenberg/Reuters]

The prosecution struck back multiple times at the defence’s assertions, punctuating the cross-examination with objections and requests for “sidebar” conversations with the judge.

But the defence proceeded to try to undermine the prosecution’s central narrative, that Trump tried to conceal the hush-money payment to Daniels as part of a broader effort to influence the 2016 election.

Rather, Blanche tried to frame the actions as ordinary legal maneouvres.

He presented Cohen with a copy of the nondisclosure agreement Daniels signed and noted Trump’s signature was nowhere to be found on it. Then he asked Cohen, “In your mind, then and now, this is a perfectly legal contract, correct?”

Cohen agreed. “Yes, sir.”

He also had Cohen confirm that nondisclosure agreements were a regular practice in business law.

Blanche further questioned whether the hush-money payments had anything to do with the 2016 election at all.

He pointed to past statements Cohen made about a separate hush-money payment made to a doorman, saying that Trump was “concerned” about the doorman’s story because “it involved people that still worked with him and worked for him”.

The defence also raised comments where Cohen echoed Trump’s allegation that Daniels was extorting him for money to keep quiet.

“In your mind, there were two choices: pay or don’t pay and the story comes out,” Blanche asked Cohen, who replied with his usual, “Yes, sir.”

The cross-examination of Cohen is set to resume on Monday. Trump had requested the trial take a recess on Friday to allow him to attend the graduation of his youngest son, Barron.

Matt Gaetz speaks to reporters outside the Manhattan Criminal Court, surrounded by reporters. Behind him, a protester holds up a sign that reads, "Bootlickers."
Representative Matt Gaetz, centre, leads a news conference on May 16 in support of Donald Trump, while a protester holds up a sign that calls him and the other Republicans present ‘bootlickers’ [Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

Trump surrogates crowd the court

As much as Cohen was in the spotlight during the day’s proceedings, so too were the gaggle of Republican lawmakers who accompanied Trump to court.

Trump is famous for demanding loyalty from his fellow Republicans — and so, as the trial stretches on, several prominent politicians have made the pilgrimage to the Manhattan Criminal Court to show their support.

On Thursday, that entourage included no fewer than nine members of the US House of Representatives, including Florida firebrand Matt Gaetz, Colorado’s Lauren Boebert and Arizona’s Andy Biggs.

In fact, so many members of the House Oversight Committee were in attendance that a vote was delayed to allow them to fly back from New York to Washington, DC.

That vote concerns a resolution to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt for failing to turn over audio recordings related to another Trump case, this time pertaining to his handling of classified documents after leaving office.

While in New York, though, several of the representatives took the opportunity to denounce the myriad legal troubles facing Trump.

Gaetz, for instance, described Trump as the “Mr Potato Head of crimes”, a reference to a children’s toy with interchangeable parts.

He explained that prosecutors “had to stick together a bunch of things that did not belong together” to cobble together a case against the ex-president.

Gaetz also sparked criticism for a social media post he made on Thursday morning, showing him watching Trump enter the courtroom.

“Standing back and standing by, Mr President,” Gaetz wrote.

Critics pointed out that his words echoed a statement Trump made in 2020 when asked in a televised debate about white supremacist groups and far-right militias like the Proud Boys.

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said at the time. He later denied knowing who the Proud Boys were. Senior members of the group have since been found guilty and sentenced to prison for their participation in the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies