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Conversations and insights about the moment.


Jonathan Alter

Clockwise from top left, Justice Juan Merchan, Donald Trump, the prosecutor Susan Hoffinger and Michael Cohen.Credit…Josh Cochran

When Michael Cohen took the stand for the first time in Donald Trump’s hush-money trial on Monday morning, he almost accidentally sat down without taking the oath. But after he raised his hand and swore to tell the truth, he seemed to do so.

In dry language, with his impulse-control problems nowhere in sight, he landed blow after blow on the former president.

Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, is willing to look like a stooge — pathetically eager for any praise from the boss — to implant in jurors’ minds that even in the absence of incriminating emails, he should be believed because of all the time he spent looking for Brownie points from Trump. When he did so, he was implicating Trump.

Cohen’s testimony about the Playboy model Karen McDougal, who says she had a nine-month affair with Trump, is important beyond Trump describing her to Cohen as “beautiful.” It cemented Trump’s attention to detail, which we’ve heard a lot about already. He constantly asked for updates on the hush money that American Media Inc., publisher of The National Enquirer, was paying at his direction to McDougal, replying, “Great!” or “Fantastic,” when Cohen delivered them.

Cohen’s tape of Trump discussing that deal landed hard when it was played, and not just because it was Trump’s voice talking about “150” — a clear reference to the $150,000 in hush money that Trump — through Cohen and A.M.I. — was originally going to pay McDougal. Trump’s micromanaging, which we’ve heard about for two weeks, came to life in a way that didn’t help him. And when Cohen dissected practically every moment of the call, there was no mistaking the meaning of the brief conversation.

When Cohen told Trump that Stormy Daniels was shopping her story, “Trump was really angry with me,” he said. Trump told Cohen: “‘I thought you had this under control, I thought you took care of this! … Just take care of it!’”

According to Cohen, Trump thought he would surely lose the 2016 election if the Daniels story came out. He testified that Trump said, “This is a disaster, a total disaster. Women will hate me,” and added that “guys, they think it’s cool” to have sex with a porn star, “but this is going to be a disaster for the campaign.” In combination with the fallout from the “Access Hollywood” tapes, they agreed, it would send his already low polling with women into a tailspin.

“Get control of it!” Trump barked, Cohen testified. “Just get past the election. If I win, it’ll have no relevance when I’m president. And if I lose, I don’t really care.”

Here the prosecutor, Susan Hoffinger, asked if Cohen inquired about Melania Trump. He said yes, and said Trump responded: “Don’t worry. How long do you think I’ll be on the market for? Not long.”

Wow. With Trump, every time you think he’s touched bottom, he crashes through the floor. Here he was already looking ahead to his third divorce.

Cohen is doing very well on direct examination. The test will come Tuesday afternoon, when cross-examination is likely to begin.



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