Michael Cohen and Todd Blanche Match Wits in Trump Hush-Money Trial

Donald J. Trump’s lawyers on Thursday took their best shot at Michael D. Cohen, the star witness in the former president’s criminal trial in Manhattan, grilling Mr. Cohen about a medley of misrepresentations, manipulations and outright lies.

Seeking to destroy Mr. Cohen’s credibility, a defense lawyer, Todd Blanche, portrayed him as an unrepentant criminal and a serial deceiver who took the stand only to exact revenge on Mr. Trump.

He argued that Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s loyal lawyer and fixer until a falling-out years ago, had changed his story about matters big and small: whether he had wanted a White House job, whether he had sought a presidential pardon and whether he had lied during the trial about a phone call he said he had with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Cohen testified that he had spoken with Mr. Trump in October 2016, during the presidential campaign’s waning days, to update him about a hush-money deal that Mr. Cohen was negotiating with a porn star on his boss’s behalf. Producing a string of Mr. Cohen’s text messages about a prankster who had targeted him, Mr. Blanche offered an alternative theory about the conversation, raising his index finger as his voice hit a higher register.

“You were actually talking,” Mr. Blanche said, “about harassing phone calls from a 14-year-old,” rather than the hush money.

“That was a lie,” Mr. Blanche then shouted, evoking the climax of a courtroom drama. “You can admit.”

“No sir, I can’t,” Mr. Cohen responded, sticking to his story, as he did through much of the day while the defense sought to corner him. “I believe I was telling the truth.”

Now on his third day of testimony in the first criminal trial of an American president, Mr. Cohen showed signs of fragility as the defense chipped at his credibility without delivering a fatal blow to the prosecution’s case. Mr. Cohen, a self-described former “thug” for Mr. Trump who oscillates between defiance and charm, bent on the stand, but did not break.

Mr. Cohen’s conduct — and truthfulness — is at the case’s heart. He made the $130,000 payment to the porn star, Stormy Daniels, to suppress her account of a sexual liaison with Mr. Trump, who later reimbursed Mr. Cohen from the White House. Prosecutors accused Mr. Trump, who denies the sex and any wrongdoing, of falsifying related records so he could cover up the scandal for good.

When the deal leaked anyway, Mr. Trump washed his hands of Mr. Cohen, who in turn pleaded guilty for his role in the hush money, among other federal crimes, saying he had struck the deal at the former president’s direction. The plea marked a definitive break with Mr. Trump, his onetime mentor, and Mr. Cohen is the only witness offering testimony linking Mr. Trump to the records that prosecutors say were falsified.

During cross-examination Thursday, Mr. Blanche sought to undercut Mr. Cohen’s testimony with moments meant to be showstopping, including hammering Mr. Cohen about his criminal record and his previous admissions to lying under oath.

“There’s no doubt that you know what perjury means, correct?” Mr. Blanche asked Mr. Cohen. The witness, who has admitted lying to Congress and the courts, replied, “I know what perjury means.”

It was one of dozens of heated exchanges between the two lawyers — Mr. Blanche a former prosecutor, Mr. Cohen a disbarred litigator. Each sought to outmaneuver the other as they parried throughout the day.

Some of Mr. Blanche’s attacks meandered, and some Mr. Cohen easily turned aside. The questioning drew more than a dozen prosecution objections that the judge sustained and prompted a handful of sidebar conferences at the judge’s bench. The interruptions gave a disjointed feeling to a high-stakes confrontation.

Early in the day, Mr. Cohen lightened the mood in the courtroom amid the tension caused by the prosecution’s string of successful objections. Glancing at jurors, Mr. Cohen shook his head, appearing to crack a brief, crooked smile before accepting a fresh cup of water from a court officer.

Mr. Trump, who had kept his eyes closed for much of Mr. Cohen’s earlier testimony, was now very much awake, leaning in and at one point glaring at his former fixer.

And his lawyer, Mr. Blanche, gained steam and confidence after closing out the morning with the questioning about the prank calls. While he did not call into question key elements of the prosecution’s case, he wearied Mr. Cohen.

The former president, who faces probation or up to four years in prison if convicted, stands accused of 34 counts of falsifying business records, one for each record involved in the reimbursement of Mr. Cohen: 11 checks, 11 invoices and 12 entries in the former president’s ledger.

The records, prosecutors say, disguised the nature of the repayment to Mr. Cohen. Although Mr. Trump was reimbursing him partly for the hush money, the records referred only to a retainer agreement and ordinary legal expenses.

Under questioning from prosecutors earlier in the week, Mr. Cohen gave his account of two crucial meetings with the former president about the records, the first in January 2017, where he said Mr. Trump learned about a plan to falsify them. They met again the following month in the Oval Office, where Mr. Trump confirmed a plan to send Mr. Cohen a check.

Although Mr. Trump did not personally falsify records or explicitly instruct anyone to do so, under New York law, prosecutors need only show that Mr. Trump “aided” a crime, or “caused” his company to file false records.

Mr. Blanche has not addressed those two meetings, but instead focused much of his cross-examination on what he described as Mr. Cohen’s obsession with hurting Mr. Trump, and his unrepentant lying.

The defense lawyer began by playing excerpts from Mr. Cohen’s podcast, “Mea Culpa,” in which the former fixer sounded giddy about Mr. Trump’s indictment last year.

The jury heard Mr. Cohen’s maniacal excitement as he called Mr. Trump “dumbass Donald.” In another recording, he expressed his hope “that this man ends up in prison,” adding that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” He averred that “you better believe I want this man to go down and rot inside for what he did to me and my family.”

Mr. Blanche also highlighted what he said was a motive for Mr. Cohen to attack Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen, he noted, missed out on a Trump administration job.

“You really wanted to work in the White House, correct?” Mr. Blanche said, laying a trap for Mr. Cohen, who briefly stepped in.

“No, sir,” Mr. Cohen replied.

Then Mr. Blanche produced records that appeared to undercut that denial and raised his voice as he showed that Mr. Cohen had in fact longed to be Mr. Trump’s chief of staff.

“That was for my ego, yes,” Cohen acknowledged, and it seemed as if Mr. Blanche had landed a blow.

But the questioning soon devolved into a debate over semantics and nuance. Mr. Cohen said that he had actually wanted a “hybrid” role, both White House and personal lawyer, that would keep him close to the president.

Mr. Cohen also denied Mr. Blanche’s claim that he had initially turned on Mr. Trump to receive leniency from federal prosecutors years ago as they investigated him for crimes related to the hush-money deal and other wrongdoing.

He fired back that he “wasn’t interested” in a formal cooperation deal after he pleaded guilty in 2018; he also received nothing from the local prosecutors who brought the case against Mr. Trump.

Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a potential Trump Tower deal in Moscow. He also pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations related to payoffs of Ms. Daniels and another woman. Mr. Cohen has taken responsibility for those crimes, attributing them to a primal urge to protect his family and Mr. Trump, his longtime boss and a man he once revered.

But he also pleaded guilty to personal financial crimes unrelated to Mr. Trump, admitting under oath that he committed them. Now, however, he disputes his guilt in those matters.

Mr. Blanche sought to underscore the discrepancy, casting Mr. Cohen as an indiscriminate liar who changed his story to suit the situation.

Mr. Cohen said he had pleaded guilty to tax evasion only because prosecutors were threatening to charge his wife as well. But, Mr. Blanche noted, when Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty, he was asked whether anyone had “threatened or induced you to plead guilty.”

He suggested that when Mr. Cohen answered no, he had lied.

Mr. Cohen conceded that was the case, a compelling back-and-forth that appeared the command the jury’s attention.

Mr. Blanche also painted Mr. Cohen as something of a conspiracy theorist as he noted that Mr. Cohen has placed blame on the federal judge who oversaw the 2018 case, William H. Pauley.

“So you believe Judge Pauley was in on it?” Mr. Blanche asked.

“I do,” he replied.

Mr. Blanche also seized on Mr. Cohen’s claim under oath before Congress in 2019 that he had never sought a pardon from Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen testified during this trial, as well as during an unrelated deposition, that he had once directed his lawyers to explore the possibility.

While Mr. Blanche, now lowering his voice, harped on the inconsistency, Mr. Cohen pointed out that Mr. Trump was dangling pardons to various allies at this time. Mr. Cohen explained that he simply wanted to know if he might qualify as well, a line of testimony that drew a slight shake of the head from Mr. Trump.

“Is this really something that they’re talking about? Can you find out?” Mr. Cohen recalled saying to his lawyers. “I wanted this nightmare to end.”

Jonathan Swan, Wesley Parnell and Kate Christobek contributed reporting.

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