Cohen cross-examination resumes at the most critical point of Trump’s trial

Donald Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen goes back on the stand Thursday braced for another bruising day of cross-examination that is shaping up as the most crucial chapter in the first criminal trial of a former president.

Cohen is the last prosecution witness, and his testimony is a sign that the trial – arising from a hush money payment Trump allegedly made to an adult film star and efforts to cover it up – is moving swiftly toward a climax that could rock the last five months of the election.

Trump’s self-described former “thug” endured a withering grilling Tuesday, as Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche sought to puncture his credibility, portraying him as a liar obsessed with the ex-president who was raking in a fortune with his quest to bring him down.

CNN’s Paula Reid reported that Blanche – whose cross-examination some outside observers said was erratic and over personalized on Tuesday – will strike directly at charges that Trump ordered the payment to cover up an alleged affair to mislead voters in an early instance of election interference in 2016. (Trump denies the affair and has pleaded not guilty in the case). Blanche is also expected to challenge Cohen’s memory of conversations with Trump. And he will seek to sow doubt within jurors’ minds that a decision of such magnitude should be made on the word of Cohen alone, Reid reported.

Two significant strategic questions remain unanswered. The first centers on whether the presumptive GOP nominee will testify — after initially signaling he would like to despite the view of many legal experts that he’d be courting disaster on the stand. It’s also unclear how many witnesses the defense will call, or whether Trump’s attorneys will make a bold argument that the state of New York has failed to meet the bar of proving Trump’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and rest their case.

However things unfold, it’s obvious that following summations from both sides, the jury will retire within days to consider a verdict that will effectively decide whether, for the first time in history, a major political party will nominate a convicted felon for president.

Every criminal trial is a grave process since a defendant’s reputation and even liberty is on the line. But this case is especially momentous, given the identity of the accused — a former president who has about a 50-50 chance to win back the White House, according to national polls.

The trial is one of several critical events weighing on the destiny of the presidential race in a suddenly compressed political calendar that means voters will be wrestling with their critical choice long before Election Day in November.

For instance, long-held doubts that there’d be any presidential debates were dispelled Wednesday morning as President Joe Biden threw down the gauntlet in a video, telling Trump, “Make my day, pal,” while his campaign suggested debates in late June and early September. Biden later said he’d accepted a CNN debate on June 27. Trump quickly accepted. Later that morning, both men said they’d accepted an invitation from ABC for a second debate on September 10.

The sudden breakthrough means that debates will take place far earlier than usual in the campaign — even before either party has officially anointed their nominee at conventions in July for the GOP and in August for the Democrats. There’s some logic to the shift because voting starts in some states as early as September. But the development also means that the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has hosted debates since 1988 and has angered both parties in recent years, now seems to be on borrowed time and is at risk of becoming the latest tradition to be swept away in the turbulent Trump era.

The 81-year-old Biden’s decision to take Trump on is a risk since any flubs attributable to his age could play into the ex-president’s claim that he’s not fit to serve a second term. Some commentators have also argued that Biden should not offer the implied legitimacy of the debate stage to a former president who has been indicted over an attempt to destroy democracy after the 2020 election.

But Trump, himself 77, might have already hurt himself by setting a low bar that will allow the president to outperform expectations. The former president frequently comments outside the Manhattan courtroom, for example, that Biden can’t string two sentences together. And any repeat of Trump’s over-torqued performance in the first presidential debate in 2020 could validate Biden’s claim he’s extreme and a danger to the Constitution.

Another key development that could weigh heavily on the campaign could occur at about the same time as the first debate.

The Supreme Court is expected to deliver its decision on Trump’s sweeping claims of immunity from prosecution. High court rulings are always difficult to predict. But the signs from oral arguments on the issue last month were that the justices could send the case back to lower courts for yet more litigation. That would almost certainly delay Trump’s trial in his federal election interference case until after the election, meaning he wouldn’t be brought to account for the worst attack on democracy in modern times before a subsequent election.

The ex-president’s lawyers have long sought to delay Trump’s reckoning on this and other cases until after an election that could make him president again and furnish him with powers that could allow him to halt federal trials against him. Two other cases — a state one over election interference in Georgia and a federal one arising from his hoarding of classified documents at his Florida home — have also been bogged down in pre-trial litigation and are unlikely to take place before voters choose their next president. This raises the possibility that an election long expected to be mired in Trump’s legal nightmares could suddenly be dominated by a different kind of political mood music.

In that case, the hush money trial may be the only one held before the election. It’s impossible to predict how a guilty verdict or an acquittal would influence undecided voters in swing states who will decide the identity of the next president. Some polling suggests some Republicans might think twice about picking Trump if he’s a convicted felon. But the hush money case is widely considered the least serious criminal issue facing the ex-president. And Trump and his Republican supporters — including House Speaker Mike Johnson, who showed up at the courthouse Tuesday — are stepping up attempts to portray the trial as politically motivated, possibly to hedge against a possible conviction.

The pre-verdict spin is another sign that a trial that’s taken the country across a historic threshold may be moving toward its conclusion — at a moment when other forces that could decide the election are gathering pace.

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