Michael Cohen Has Undoubtedly Changed. To Whose Benefit?


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It was a highly domesticated Michael Cohen who took the stand at former President Donald Trump’s criminal hush money trial in New York.

Over the last few weeks, jurors and reporters in the courtroom have heard others paint a visceral portrait of the man who, for a decade, worked as Trump’s exceedingly aggressive personal attorney and “fixer,” becoming something of a raging attack dog for Trump. Cohen once told a magazine that he would “take a bullet” for his then-boss. His displeasure with others was often expressed as a barrage of swear words hurled at high volume. So unpleasant was he to deal with that Keith Davidson, a former attorney to porn actor Stormy Daniels who testified earlier in the trial, suggested that he almost walked away from an easy $10,000 paycheck just because he would have to speak to Cohen on the phone.

“No one wanted to talk to Cohen,” Davidson said on the stand.

But the version of Michael Cohen who appeared in Judge Juan Merchan’s courtroom this week was calm and polite, answering many of prosecuting attorney Susan Hoffinger’s questions with “yes, ma’am.” Less pit bull, more Labrador. A good family dog. And family, by all accounts, is very important to Cohen — it’s perhaps the key to understanding him as a witness.

Cohen spoke of his family at a couple of moments in his testimony, most notably when Hoffinger asked about the point when he finally decided to turn on Trump, after the FBI raided his home and office looking for evidence relating to the hush money paid to Daniels.

“My wife, my daughter, my son all said to me: ‘Why are you holding on to this loyalty? What are you doing? We’re supposed to be [your] first loyalty,’” Cohen testified. “It was about time to listen to them.”

Asked about his regrets, Cohen said that he regretted the “lying, [the] bullying people, in order to effectuate a goal.”

“But to keep the loyalty and to do the things that he [Trump] had asked me to do, I violated my moral compass, and I suffered the penalty, as has my family,” Cohen said.

To see him speak on the stand — gray-haired and somber, appearing under the harsh overhead lighting of the courtroom almost like an old man — it was not difficult to sympathize with him for a moment. He is the architect of his own despair, but also a human being who got wrapped up in Trump’s web of glitz and chaos.

However, there is another side to Cohen, highlighted at length by defense attorney Todd Blanche, which draws into question how much of a changed man he is. And which version the jury ultimately believes to be the real Michael Cohen will have implications that resonate through the trial, and quite possibly through the next presidential term.

Cohen still uses that loud, brash voice he once employed on behalf of Trump — he just uses it against Trump now. Within the first few minutes of his cross-examination, Blanche accused Cohen of having attacked him personally as a lawyer defending Trump.

“You went on TikTok and called me a ‘crying little shit,’ didn’t you?” Blanche asked.

He later read other attacks lobbed by Cohen over recent years, asking the witness to affirm that he’d called Trump a “dictator douchebag,” a “boorish cartoon misogynist” and a “Cheeto-dusted cartoon villain.”

Cohen’s frequent use of the media — he has two podcasts and two books, is a regular guest on cable news, and livestreams on TikTok for around an hour each night — is why the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg was previously reluctant to use him as a witness. Mark Pomerantz, a former prosecutor who helped lead the office’s investigation into Trump, wrote in the book “People vs. Donald Trump” that Bragg once said he didn’t “see a world” in which Cohen was the star witness of any case. (Further complicating Cohen’s credibility is the fact that he pleaded guilty to lying under oath in testimony he gave to Congress back in 2017.)

The media earns him money — which Cohen presumably appreciates, as he can no longer legally practice as an attorney, having been disbarred. Two books he’s written, provocatively titled “Disloyal” and “Revenge,” netted him around $3.4 million, Cohen testified Tuesday.

Donald Trump remarks on the case against him before leaving the New York courthouse for the day on Tuesday, May 14.
Donald Trump remarks on the case against him before leaving the New York courthouse for the day on Tuesday, May 14.
Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images

On his “Mea Culpa” podcast, Cohen shares his expletive-laden views on the news of the day. Several of his episode titles are written to taunt Trump, such as “KnocK, Knock Donald… It’s The Marshalls. Keys Please!” and “Tik Tok, Tik Tok Donald…Your Time For Evading Accountability Is Running Out!”

Trump’s team is clearly trying to cast Cohen as an opportunist, using the drama of his turn against Trump to rake in views and paychecks, although Blanche’s questioning is often disjointed and rudderless. Asked why he made his TikTok posts, Cohen said that he wanted to “build an audience” and “create a community,” two things that are key to moneymaking on the internet. But he also said that it benefited his mental health.

He liked going on TikTok “to really vent, because I have a difficult time sleeping, so I found an outlet,” Cohen testified.

That’s the new Michael Cohen: a brash, New York-accented loudmouth, but one apparently much more interested in self-reflection.

Pomerantz wrote that over multiple interactions with Cohen, he found the former Trump fixer to be “a complicated person” with a “tortured psyche” who “would be the first to admit that he can be a complete pain in the ass.”

He wrote that “there were times he was demanding and defensive and other times when he was down in the dumps. He spoke to me once about his daughter, who had blamed him for his involvement with Trump and the pain that this had caused for the family.”

Pomerantz added, “Whatever his sins, Michael dearly loved his family.”

What the jury sees in Cohen, whether repentant family man or rabid revenge-taker, is yet to be determined. And it should be noted that he still has time to blow up his reworked image — cross-examination with Blanche is set to continue Thursday.