Michael Cohen strikes back
For a year or two now, the likes of CNN and MSNBC have routinely booked Michael Cohen as an on-air commentator and have portrayed him as a reliable narrator for all things Donald Trump. But now that the Manhattan District Attorney is about to criminally indict Trump in a case that includes Cohen as a star witness, some legal pundits on both networks are suddenly portraying Cohen as unreliable.
Michael Cohen isn’t thrilled with this, tweeting this today in his usual direct fashion: “I expect this kind of bullshit from Fox News …but watching several CNN hosts spew the same misinformation, disinformation and malinformation confuses me! Nevertheless, it won’t deter me.”
You know what? Cohen has a point. These TV networks are so desperate to chase ratings by convincing you that Trump will get away with it all, they’re suddenly doing a 180 on Cohen in a way that’s not based in reality. And they appear to be doing it for the most self-interested of reasons. So let’s talk about 1) why Cohen is likely to be perceived a reliable witness in this case, and 2) how the DA has already taken steps to work around any reliability concerns with Cohen.
First, Cohen’s prior lies were only to protect Trump. The defense will harp on this, but juries tend to understand it. You were covering for your boss, but now you’re admitting all the things you and he did together. People get this kind of thing. And juries are made up of people.
There’s also more to it. There’s a reason why prosecutors have so many other former and/or current Trump pals testifying against him: Kellyanne Conway. Hope Hicks. David Pecker from the National Enquirer, and so on. Even if the jury might not take any one of these witnesses at their word, it changes things when they’re all corroborating each other’s testimony.
When your former attorney, former campaign manager, former personal aide, and former closest ally in the media are all giving first hand testimony that you knowingly committed the crime, that’s the definition of a solid case. It doesn’t come down to any one witness.
Besides, the notion of Cohen being unreliable is pretty absurd at this point. Ahead of his grand jury testimony next week, the DA’s office met with him roughly twenty times. This wasn’t for hair and makeup. It was to poke and prod Cohen and make sure he’s a reliable witness. Which he must be, or they wouldn’t be going forward with him.
To its credit, after MSNBC’s legal panel put on a putrid display of defeatist performance art on the evening the news broke of Trump’s impending indictment, much of MSNBC’s legal analysis of the case has since shifted toward reality. CNN still seems to be trying to get it wrong on purpose. But let’s be real here: should we really be handing out partial credit to MSNBC because only some of its on air legal pundits are saying full of crap things?
A lot of these TV folks are trying to portray this as a weak, flawed, risky case (while offering nothing to make that argument) because they want to scare you into believing that Trump will “get away with it all no matter what” – so you’ll stay glued to your screen and boost ratings. If they admit that this is a slam dunk case that’s very likely to result in conviction, and that there’s not much Trump can do about it, you’ll tune out until trial – and that’s terrible for ratings in the meantime. These networks need you to believe that this criminal case is always five minutes from going off a cliff, so you’ll stare rapt at the screen in fear all day every day from now until the trial.
Some of these TV folks are also generically pushing the notion that Trump can somehow magically “violence” his way out of this case, or that no trial jury could ever be seated in this case. But nothing works that way. Let’s look at the facts. Fulton County had no trouble seating that special grand jury, and best anyone can tell, it ended up recommending everyone for indictment.
These legal experts on MSNBC and CNN all know how this stuff really works. They can’t possibly not know this stuff; it’s what they do for a living. But many of them are seemingly just misleading you for ratings. And that’s sad. These networks spent all this time acting like Trump would never be indicted to begin with, and now they’re moving the goalposts again by acting like the indictment somehow won’t do anything to him. If indicting Trump was supposedly the key to taking him down back before he was indicted, why is indicting him somehow no longer the key to taking him down? Funny how that sentiment changes overnight.
I say this only half facetiously: you could probably learn more about what to expect from this Trump case and trial by watching any rerun of Law & Order than by watching some of this “expert” legal coverage on MSNBC or CNN. It’s not that these experts don’t know what they’re talking about. They all do. It’s just that some of them think their job is to spin it such that you’ll stay glued to the screen in fear and outrage. In fairness, Law & Order is simplistic fiction. But at least Law & Order gets the basic idea right. And frankly, some of this “Trump will get away with it all no matter what” stuff on MSNBC and CNN is also simplistic fiction.
There are challenges in any prosecution. Things can go wrong in any trial. And things specific to a high profile trial. But it’s all subtle, nuanced. It’s stuff you should know about, and it’s the stuff that legal experts can spell out in more expert fashion than anyone else can. But you don’t get to learn any of that stuff when all you’re hearing is ratings-driven doomsday hysteria.
When it comes to seating a jury, there are plenty of people out there who don’t have a political party, don’t follow political news, don’t vote, don’t care, and are willing to address the simple question of whether the trial has proven the person guilty. Prosecutors are good at finding these types in the jury pool, and screening out secretly partisan jurors. It’s the prosecutors’ job. It’s what they do.
Career prosecutors are not helpless damsels in distress too naive to know whether a witness is credible, too inept to seat a jury, or too oblivious to know what kinds of defenses the defendant will try to use. Such cartoonish portrayals only exist on cable news and Twitter. If these folks would spend more time informing you about how these kinds of legal and criminal processes actually work, you wouldn’t be so in the dark about why this indictment took the time that it did, whether this is a strong case, and whether the witnesses are reliable.
But if you’re not someone who knows the difference between a strong or weak case, or what makes a reliable witness, one thing alone should set off alarm bells for you. The mere fact that so many of these TV folks have gone overnight from “Michael Cohen is the definitive voice in explaining Trump’s crimes” to “Michael Cohen is an unreliable witness when it comes to Trump’s crimes” should give you pause – not about his reliability, but about their honesty.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report