I’ve grilled Cohen. The jury may be surprised by this star witness

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.

Cohenthe first while lawyer and fixer of former President donald trumpwas one of the first witnesses I interviewed as part of the first Trump impeachment: That was because I was investigating the identical 2016 alleged election interference now at issue in the former president’s hush money criminal trial.

The hard-charging Cohen had been by Trump’s side since 2006, had negotiated the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels to benefit the Trump campaign and was about to report to prison after pleading guilty in 2018 to campaign finance violations for that payment and to other crimes.

Norm Eisen – Courtesy Norm Eisen

I expected someone very different from the person I met, who was candid, remorseful and funny, if profane and possessed of a hatred of Trump. Cohen has never wavered since in the key details he provided me about the election scheme and its cover-up that will also be at the center of his testimony in Trump’s Manhattan criminal trial starting Monday. As we approach his keenly anticipated appearance, I think he, like Daniels did last week, will exceed expectations in how he presents to the jury.

The District Attorney’s Office has set that up with their work throughout the trial. They have methodically bolstered Cohen’s upcoming testimony with a series of credible witnesses and corroborating documents, gradually narrowing the universe of uncorroborated evidence that Cohen will provide.

Cohen will undoubtedly be the subject of a vigorous cross-examination that will likely include the many lies he now admits having been told when he was associated with Trump, as well as Cohen’s plea for perjury. But the prosecution’s effective strategy has significantly shortened the leap of faith the jury will have to take to believe him (as I did when I interviewed him).

Here is how the prosecution has supported Cohen’s testimony in advance across three major aspects of the case.

Trump’s intent was to benefit his campaign

First, Cohen is expected to testify, based on his conversations with Trump, that the purpose of the payment to Daniels and the later alleged business record falsification was to benefit Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The prosecution has already presented extensive evidence of this to the jury. For example, the former chief executive of American Media and the publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, testified that he met with Trump and Cohen at Trump Tower in Manhattan in 2015 to hatch the “catch and kill” conspiracy with the explicit purpose of benefiting Trump’s campaign.

Pecker explained that for the scheme to further benefit Trump’s campaign, he later set in motion the hush money payment to Stormy Daniels. So when Cohen testifies that he has discussed the payment with Trump and that his purpose included benefiting the campaign, that just represents the carrying forward of an intent that has already been corroborated.

To take another example, the jury also heard evidence of Trump’s own words suggesting that the purpose of the scheme was to benefit his campaign. Former Trump aide Hope Hicks testified that when the Daniels scandal emerged in 2018, the former president told her that it was better to be dealing with Daniels’ allegation of a sexual encounter with him at that time, because “it would have been bad to have “that story comes out before the election.”

Hicks further testified that Trump admitted to her that he knew Cohen had paid Daniels. Trump claimed Cohen made the payment on his own and not at Trump’s direction, but Hicks did not believe him. She explained it was implausible that Cohen would have paid Daniels absent Trump’s instruction.

The Trump Tower meetings: Formulating the scheme

Cohen will likely testify about a second meeting at Trump’s office that took place between October 10 and October 28, 2016, with former Trump Organization finance chief Allen Weisselberg in attendance, where Trump agreed to pay Daniels the $130,000. According to Cohen, Trump said “it is not a lot of money, and we should just do it, so go ahead and do it.” Trump then allegedly directed Cohen and Weisselberg to “figure this all out.” The two allegedly met again in early January in Trump Tower to do that, and then confirmed it with Trump.

Keith Davidson, Daniels’ former attorney who negotiated her hush-money payment, made clear during his testimony that he believed Trump was responsible for final approval of the funds. He testified that he was under the belief that Cohen needed Trump’s approval to wire any funds and that Trump was the source. Davidson maintained that he never believed Cohen was the ultimate source of the funds, affirming the money was expected to come from Trump or an associated corporate body.

Former Trump Organization accountant Deborah Tarasoff also told the jury that Trump was directly involved in reimbursing Cohen. Tarasoff detailed how payments shifted from the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust to being personally made by Trump in 2017, reflecting a deeper personal engagement. She recounted processing checks for Trump’s signature, including one for $70,000 signed by Weisselberg and Eric Trump and a $35,000 check from Trump’s personal account.

This evidence was pivotal in challenging the defense’s assertion that Trump was detached from the transactions, clearly showing he actively repaid Cohen, including during his time in the White House.

The White House meeting: Reimbursing Cohen

Cohen is also expected to testify that he met Trump in the White House in February 2017, and there Trump again agreed to the repayment plan that Weisselberg had concocted. Trump then proceeded to personally sign checks to Cohen from the Oval Office for the rest of the year. The DA’s office has already elicited testimony that corroborates this meeting and reimbursement scheme and highlights Trump’s frugality and check-signing practices.

For example, Trump Organization controller Jeffrey McConney was able to testify to Weisselberg’s handwritten note — “I’ve been looking at his handwriting for 35 years,” McConney said, confirming he recognized it — that spelled out the exact repayment scheme that Trump used to reimburse Cohen for the hush money. This key physical evidence from McConney and Weisselberg, who may not testify themselves, independently establishes the “grossed up” amount that Trump then paid Cohen after their February 2017 meeting.

Madeleine Westerhout, a former Trump aide who sat just outside the Oval Office and had direct line of sight to Trump’s desk, was able to testify both to scheduling Cohen’s physical presence at the White House for the February reimbursement meeting and to Trump’s business practices early in his administration. She spoke at length about how Trump continued to focus on personal and Trump Organization business minutes while in the White House.

This supports the notion that Trump would have, in the same time period, paid close attention to the $35,000 checks he was signing for Cohen. Westerhout also read aloud her email confirming her, to Cohen the February meeting at the White House.

Lastly, Sally Franklin, a senior vice president at book publisher Penguin Random House, quoted from Trump’s own books and own words about his check-signing and other practices that corroborate Cohen’s story over and over again.

For example, in “Trump: Think Like a Billionaire,” a chapter titled “How to Pinch Pennies” contained Trump saying, “I received a check for fifty cents, and we at The Trump Organization deposited it. They may call that cheap; I called it watching the bottom line… As I said before, I always sign my checks so I know where my money’s going. In the same spirit, I also always try to read my bills to make sure I’m not being overcharged.”

To be sure, the defense will come after Cohen on cross with his prior lies in service of Trump, his perjury conviction and more. But because Cohen is so strongly corroborated, believing him will not require a leap of faith for the jury — more like a short hop. When that is combined with the brutally unfiltered, heart-on-his-sleeve person I first met back in 2019, you get a witness who may surprise us all, and certainly the jury, by exceeding expectations.

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