Michael Cohen, star witness

MICHAEL COHEN, STAR WITNESS. If all goes as scheduled, former President Donald Trump’s trial will begin next Monday. It stems from the indictment by the elected Democratic district attorney of Manhattan, Alvin Bragg, and it is what the New York Times calls a “paperwork” case — that is, it concerns business records, in this instance records Trump’s company kept of a nondisclosure agreement he made with porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

It’s an astonishingly weak case. There have been many analyses making that point, so this is not the place to go into every aspect of the case’s many flaws. Here’s a short version: 1) The core crime alleged, falsifying business records, is a misdemeanor. 2) To turn the misdemeanor into a felony, Bragg had to claim that Trump falsified records in the act of committing another crime — but Bragg has not charged Trump with any other crime. 3) Bragg “stacked” the charges to come up with 34 felony counts against Trump based on what was essentially one payoff. 4) Bragg’s effort to boost the case from misdemeanor to felony depends on a highly debatable reading of campaign finance law. 5) Bragg’s star witness is, in the New York Times’s words, “a disbarred lawyer who served prison time after pleading guilty to violating campaign finance laws, evading taxes, making false statements to a bank, and lying to Congress.”

There’s too much to go into here. So this newsletter will just look at the last factor, the disbarred lawyer with the long rap sheet. He is Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime lawyer/fixer who has now, after pandemic-related early release from prison, gone full time into the anti-Trump business. Start with the various reasons Cohen has been disbarred:

In August 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to five felony counts of willful tax evasion. Cohen’s crimes, evading taxes on a total of $4,134,051 in income, stemmed mostly from New York City taxi medallions he owned. Federal prosecutors said Cohen concealed income from loans he made to taxi operators as well as income received from those operators. Cohen also evaded taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars he made in real estate deals. And, just for a little color, prosecutors also revealed Cohen evaded taxes on $30,000 he made “for brokering the sale of a Birkin Bag, a highly coveted French handbag that retails for between $11,900 and $300,000, depending on the type of leather or animal skin used.”

That’s the tax evasion. Cohen’s felony false statements to banks also involved the taxi medallions. Basically, he borrowed millions of dollars using the medallions as collateral, then borrowed millions more from a different institution, also using the medallions but not informing the new lender of his existing debts. 

As far as lying to Congress is concerned, Cohen admitted to misleading House and Senate investigators in 2017, during the Trump-Russia hysteria. Cohen had written a letter to investigators saying discussions about a never-realized Trump development in Moscow ended earlier than they in fact did. He pleaded guilty to special counsel Robert Mueller, who at the time was still pursuing the elusive dream of prosecuting Trump-Russia collusion, which in the end Mueller could never establish happened at all.

Finally, on violating campaign finance laws, Cohen arranged for money to be paid to Daniels for her to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she says she had with Trump. (Trump denies it.) It happened during and after the 2016 campaign. “Prosecutors said the purpose of the hush payments was to influence the 2016 election, and [prosecutors] treated them as campaign contributions, which are subject to restrictions under the Federal Election Campaign Act,” NPR reported. A number of conservative commentators at the time and now said it was a ridiculous charge, somewhat akin to the indictment of former Sen. John Edwards in the Justice Department’s unsuccessful effort to prosecute him on campaign finance charges. Nevertheless, Cohen pleaded guilty. 

In his anti-Trump media life, including book, podcasts, and TV appearances, Cohen now denies that he evaded taxes. He made that a large part of his anti-Trump book, fittingly titled Revenge. But now, Cohen’s denials might be getting him into trouble. Last October, at the trial of New York Democratic Attorney General Letitia James’s lawsuit against Trump, Cohen testified under oath that he lied to the federal judge before whom he pleaded guilty to tax evasion. Now another judge, U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman, has noted, “Cohen repeatedly and unambiguously testified at the state court trial that he was not guilty of tax evasion and that he had lied under oath.” That, Furman said, “gives rise to two possibilities: one, Cohen committed perjury when he pleaded guilty … or two, Cohen committed perjury in his October 2023 testimony.”

So that is the star witness in Bragg’s deeply troubled case against Trump. Prosecutors can only hope that the jury will be as credulous as the judge in the Letitia James lawsuit, Arthur Engoron. In that case, Engoron simply chose to believe Cohen’s testimony. “A less forgiving factfinder might have concluded differently, might not have believed a single word of a convicted perjurer,” Engoron wrote. “This factfinder does not believe that pleading guilty to perjury means that you can never tell the truth. Michael Cohen told the truth.”

Engoron, of course, had the final say in his courtroom. James structured the lawsuit so that Trump did not have a right to a jury trial. But there will be a jury in this criminal trial. Yes, it will be a deep-blue Manhattan jury, perhaps composed of New Yorkers who voted for Bragg in the hopes he would get Trump. But it will be a jury nonetheless. And perhaps at least some jurors will be skeptical about the feeble “paperwork” case that Bragg has built in part upon the character of Michael Cohen.

For a deeper dive into many of the topics covered in the Daily Memo, please listen to my podcast, The Byron York Show — available on Radio America and the Ricochet Audio Network and everywhere else podcasts can be found.

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