Donald Trump's first criminal trial is fast approaching in New York – and both his lawyers and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's office are preparing for the man who could stand between Trump and his first criminal conviction of an American president: Michael Cohen.
The silent affair, 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 lawyer.
Although Trump's landlord's lawyers have warned him that he will likely be convicted in the case, legal experts including some prosecutors in Bragg's own office, believe Bragg's criminal case may be the weakest the former president faces. The case, to some extent, rests on the allegation that Trump falsified business records to make an illegal federal campaign contribution, and the Justice Department never brought such a charge. But lawyers for New York City and the former president have signaled they are prepared for the trial to be a fight over the credibility of Cohen, one of the key witnesses.
On the government side, Manhattan prosecutors have spent a significant amount of time strategizing how to respond to a variety of possible creative maneuvers that Trump's legal team might try to throw at Cohen, two sources familiar with the situation said. Rolling Stone. The preparation included detailed analyzes of sensitive documents and communications, and an in-depth study of how Trump's lawyers pursued Cohen when he took the stand at 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 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 identify any vulnerabilities. under-examined areas that they could explore. when he takes position. The former president, for his part, has repeatedly said privately that he expects these trials to provide ample opportunities for his team to denigrate and attack Cohen, including to his face, the sources say.
The process of facing his former boss's lawyers and the likelihood of further attacks on his character have now 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 on an episode of his Mea Culpa podcast earlier this month. “It’s not a fun experience at all.”
On his podcast, Cohen said he would appreciate the upcoming criminal trial having more restrained courtroom decorum than there was at Trump's civil fraud trial in New York: “My hope is that in this case, Judge (Juan) Merchan will put put an end to the nonsense that happened, despite the accusations and attacks and the complete lack of knowledge of the legitimate facts.”
He may not be so lucky.
Both sides appear to recognize that Cohen's credibility — damaged by a 2018 perjury conviction related to his testimony before Congress about Trump's Russian investments — will be a key battlefront.
Prosecutors sought to avoid relying solely on Cohen's testimony to prove their case, two sources familiar with the matter said. They also attempted to bolster the former Trump fixer's testimony by interviewing former senior Trump officials and others for corroborating evidence and anecdotes to try to prove that the then-future president oversaw the Stormy Daniels cover-up in an attempt to protect his prospects. 2016 elections.
During her appearance as a witness at Trump's civil fraud trial in New York, Trump lawyer 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 largely similar to those of Trump's defense in his civil case, the criminal defense team led by Trump lawyers Susan Necheles and Todd Blanche is grappling with potentially much greater risks.
Last year, some of Trump's lawyers and political advisers warned him that he should prepare to lose to Bragg and seek a vigorous appeal, as Rolling Stone previously reported. This insider prognosis is largely based on the premise – and the popular MAGA talking point – that there is no way Trump can get a fair trial with a New York City jury. Still, several of Trump's legal advisers and political advisers 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 could potentially blow up Bragg's case at trial, the two say. sources.
It's no surprise that emotions are running high on both sides of the upcoming Manhattan trial, for a case – involving sex, lies, scandal, a high-stakes and heated presidential election, and an alleged criminal conspiracy to bury the salacious truth – This suits the tabloid-obsessed Trump perfectly.
Cohen once portrayed himself as Trump’s biggest defender, boasting that he would “take a bullet” for Trump; now, he compares the former president and Republican leader in 2024 to a “mafia boss” who deserves to be sentenced to house arrest. In recent years, Trump has fostered, as one source close to the former president put it, a “skewed father-son relationship” with Cohen, and has relied on the lawyer to handle some of his most confidential operations and dirt. These days, Trump detests Cohen for being a “damn rat” — according to several people who heard Trump use those words — who turned on him during the course of multiple criminal investigations.
If the Manhattan trial resulted in Trump's criminal conviction, it could have a major impact on the direction of the country. For several months now, there has been a consistent trend of polls – both in internal Republican data and in 2024-related public surveys conducted by high-quality pollsters – showing that a substantial share of undecided voters in swing states say that if Trump were criminally convicted this year, this would prevent them from voting for him.
This trend in polling data has remained strong long enough that even some of Trump's closest advisers, including those working in the upper echelons of his presidential campaign, have become increasingly concerned about the possibility of a conviction – and have warned Trump on the potential for toxic fallout.
“(Late last year) I mentioned to (Donald Trump) how the polls said a conviction would hammer him with some of the voters he needs to keep in his column to win,” said a source who frequently speaks with the former -president about 2024 said Rolling Stone earlier 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 would be a disaster.' But we'll find out, I guess. Fortunately, people are lying to researchers.”