Opinion: Credibility is the key at Trump trial

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“Lying is universal — we all do it,” Mark Twain wrote in 1880. But to lie well is a skill that should be “taught in the public schools — even in the newspapers.”

That would level the playing field, Twain archly observed: “What chance has the ignorant uncultivated liar against the educated expert? What chance have I … against a lawyer?”

Michael Cohen, the star prosecution witness in the New York trial of former President Donald Trump, is — aside from being a lawyer — an admitted liar and convicted criminal. But he is also the only person testifying who could provide direct as opposed to circumstantial evidence that Trump broke the law by intending to conceal the hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

The case is likely headed to the jury after Memorial Day weekend. It would only take one juror’s reasonable doubt about the charges to result in a hung jury and mistrial. So attempting to demolish Cohen’s credibility is a pivotal move for the defense.

In cross examining him Thursday, defense lawyer Todd Blanche came right at Cohen. Legal analyst Norm Eisen said Blanche highlighted “Cohen’s many prior lies under oath.”

“Again and again, the defense lawyer pummeled Cohen about the fact that in those instances he had raised his right hand and taken an oath to tell the truth (just like here in this court) and betrayed it. To Congress. To special counsel Robert Mueller. And to the federal judge who sentenced Cohen when he said he was guilty (but later said he wasn’t) of the crimes for which he was sentenced: his tax offenses and his false statements on his bank paperwork to get the hush money to pay Stormy Daniels, who alleges that she had a sexual encounter with Trump (which Trump denies). The $130,000 payment to the adult film actress in 2016 is at the core of the 34 felony counts of falsifying business documents faced by Trump.” The former president denies any wrongdoing in the case.

Nick Anderson/Tribune Content Agency
Nick Anderson/Tribune Content Agency

Cohen testified that he told Trump, on an October 24, 2016 call to the then-presidential candidate’s bodyguard Keith Schiller, that he was going to move forward with the hush money deal. Blanche produced phone and text records seeming to show that the real subject of the 96-second call was instead a series of harassing calls Cohen had received from a 14-year-old.

The idea that Cohen talked to Trump about Daniels on that call “was a lie,” Blanche alleged.

“Trials, like boxing matches, are about momentum — and the defense got some in that exchange,” Eisen wrote. “But no further punches landed on the chin in the afternoon as Cohen better withstood the onslaught. Moreover, my experience has been that juries don’t decide based upon one moment — they base their judgment on an overall view.”

There were allegedly three parties aware of the scheme to conceal the real reason Trump paid Cohen more than $400,000 in supposed legal fees: Trump, Cohen and Allen Weisselberg, then-chief financial officer of the Trump Organization. For many reasons, Trump’s lawyers are no doubt opposed to putting the former president on the stand. As for Weisselberg, he is serving jail time for perjury on New York’s Rikers Island and has declined to cooperate with prosecutors investigating alleged wrongdoing by the Trump Organization.

“Weisselberg could be the linchpin to validate Cohen’s claims about Trump agreeing to reimburse him through Trump Organization, as a business expense,” wrote attorney Stacy Schneider. “But the prosecutors have a problem. Weisselberg also has credibility issues. … so the safest thing for them to do is not call Weisselberg at all. It leaves a hole in the prosecution’s case, and that also could leave room for reasonable doubt.

“The defense can easily argue that Trump was running the presidency in DC and no longer micromanaging what was going on in New York at the Trump Organization. If he signed checks put in front of him, they could have easily been part of a busy work pile to be FedExed back to the company with Trump barely paying attention. If so, there would have been no intent to falsify the business records. Without Weisselberg’s testimony about what Trump knew or intended, the prosecution only has Cohen to rely upon. That might not be enough for a conviction.”

The missing camera

The first-ever trial of a president is closed to television cameras, forcing Americans to rely on second-hand descriptions of what’s going on inside the courtroom. “It’s nothing short of scandalous that television, which played such a huge role in making us a predominantly visual culture during the second half of the 20th century, cannot now show us what could be one of the most important political moments of the 21st,” wrote media critic David Zurawik.

“I’ve found it informative and instructive to read accounts about the trial in the newspaper and watch the analysts discuss it on TV. But as diligent as the correspondents and commentators have been in relating back to us what they saw in that courtroom, it is not the same as judging for ourselves — especially when there is considerable disagreement among them as to what they saw and what it meant.”

A lower-wattage trial of a sitting US senator on bribery charges began last week. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey is “accused of accepting bribes in the form of cash, gold bars, and cars, in exchange for political favors for friends and foreign governments. He’s pleaded not guilty,” SE Cupp noted.

“It’s his second bribery trial … but this one may finally end his three-decade Congressional career. Still, he’s refusing to resign, saying defiantly, ‘I am not going anywhere.’” Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar has also been charged with bribery and is also refusing to resign.

“If they weren’t so power hungry and ego-driven,” Cupp argued, “the right thing would be to step down, face their charges, and let the people … move on with their lives with representatives who aren’t facing federal indictments.” But they followed the example of a defiant Trump, who is running for the White House again after four indictments.

Drew Sheneman/Tribune Content Agency
Drew Sheneman/Tribune Content Agency

Putin’s move

A Russian strike into northeast Ukraine, an attempted assassination in Slovakia, turmoil in Georgia — all of those events last week were signs of instability in a region unsettled by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2022 full-scale invasion of his neighboring country, wrote Frida Ghitis. “What started as a Russian invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago has turned into an epochal challenge for Europe. With Russia advancing in Ukraine, this entire region is waking up to the fact that this conflict is about more than the survival of a former Soviet Republic. Every day, the stark reality that what began in Ukraine will change Europe for years to come becomes more inescapable.”

Ghitis noted, “Tactically, Moscow’s push strengthened its field position ahead of the arrival of promised US weapons to Ukraine. Politically, it comes months before the possible return to power of former President Donald Trump, who has indicated he will not continue President Joe Biden’s level of support for Kyiv.”

Dana Summers/Tribune Content Agency
Dana Summers/Tribune Content Agency

Debate date

It’s on: A June 27 debate on CNN between Biden and Trump. The two major party candidates also agreed to a September 10 debate on ABC. They’re debating months earlier than usual in the general-election cycle and spurning the traditional invites from the Commission on Presidential Debates.

“Biden took the stage twice in 2020 and won,” Julian Zelizer wrote. “He wants to do it again. Trump seems to be tempted to go mano a mano and show that he is better fit to be commander-in-chief. Although challengers are frequently more eager to debate than incumbents, Biden is likely feeling more pressure than usual to perform on the national stage given concerns within the Democratic Party and among moderates about his age and polls showing he is trailing Trump in some swing states. Moreover, while incumbent presidents normally enjoy far more attention than those seeking to replace them, in this election the fact that Trump is a former president and one who is able to command ongoing media attention makes the debates more important for Biden.”

Bill Bramhall/Tribune Content Agency
Bill Bramhall/Tribune Content Agency

They’re still working

In the US, men retire at 65 on average and women at 63. Yet millions keep on working, including this year’s candidates for president of the United States. Stephanie Griffith of CNN Opinion curated the thoughts of seven people who are still on the job, including the 101-year-old Dr. Howard Tucker, a neurologist who teaches medical students in Cleveland.

“I keep my brain stimulated by working,” he wrote, “though for those who have retired or plan on retiring, a mentally stimulating hobby might be a suitable alternative. It is critical to know yourself and understand your limits and capabilities, but I firmly believe that retirement is the enemy of longevity.”

Yoga instructor Gayle Fleming, 76. - Michael Ventura
Yoga instructor Gayle Fleming, 76. - Michael Ventura

Gayle Fleming also has no plans to pack it in. “In a world where youth is glorified beyond all reason and old age is treated like a disease, I proudly celebrated turning 76 in February. On my birthday, I taught an overflow yoga class where most of the students ranged between 20 and 40 years younger than me.”

“Yes, I teach to earn my keep, but also because I love what I do.”

“My advice to older people — and this includes President Biden — is that they should simply refuse to be defined by their age. That’s how I have proceeded in my eighth decade of life, and I don’t intend to stop. I didn’t succumb to age last summer while hiking eight to 10 miles a day with a bunch of 20-somethings. I refuse to be defeated by age when plowing through the 30 to 50 books I read each year.”

Tom Brady’s regret

“The Greatest Roast of All Time” had some aftereffects.

As Kara Alaimo wrote, football legend Tom Brady “was roasted by comedian Kevin Hart and a cavalcade of celebrities and former colleagues” in a show livestreamed on Netflix May 5. “But a number of the jokes touched on his divorce from his ex-wife, Gisele Bündchen, with whom Brady shares two kids, Benjamin, 14, and Vivian, 11. “I loved when the jokes were about me. I thought they were so fun,’ Brady said in his podcast interview. ‘I didn’t like the way that it affected my kids.’”

Alaimo observed, “It’s hard to believe that, with so many years of experience with both parenthood and global stardom, Brady didn’t foresee that appearing on ‘The Greatest Roast’ would essentially be accepting an invite to have his family skewered…Maybe he really didn’t see coming how hard this would be on his kids. Even so, he would set a better example for them by owning up more completely to his poor choices and promising it won’t happen again.”

Surveillance renewal

Biden has signed a new law that reauthorizes surveillance to detect national security threats. As Nafees Syed and Kamel El Hilali wrote, the stated intent of the legislation, which Congress passed with bipartisan support, is to collect data on “certain targeted foreigners located outside the United States, but (it) in practice allows intelligence agencies to spy on Americans.”

“In spite of the multitude of evidence that protesters, journalists and members of Congress have had their communications data searched under FISA Section 702, lawmakers decided to ignore their constitutional duty to protect Americans,” they wrote.

In an opposing view, former US intelligence officer Andrew Borene wrote, “My personal experiences … with the trusted American women and men at the very heart of professional counterintelligence, counterterrorism and cybersecurity all stand in stark contrast to some ludicrous claims from external critics who simply have not been in the rooms where things happen. … because the authority actually empowers the active defense and collaborative protection of American lives, businesses, research and interests against hostile foreign actors.”

AI freakout

Scott Stantis/Tribune Content Agency
Scott Stantis/Tribune Content Agency

The AI arms race is continuing, with Open AI introducing a stunning new version of ChatGPT.

As Jeff Yang noted, “GPT-4o can comprehend human speech and respond in kind, and not in the stilted call-and-response manner of the virtual assistants gathering dust on kitchen counters everywhere, either. It speaks with stunning fluidity and startling fidelity, interacting at the same brisk pace as humans do, in what will eventually be more than 50 different languages.”

“GPT-4o’s omnimodal capabilities are admittedly mind-blowing. … The freakout aspect of the reveal came from how it demonstrated that GPT-4o isn’t just a tool — it’s a tool with personality. In its conversations, GPT-4o makes spontaneous social overtures, cracks jokes and laughs, sometimes at its own jokes; compliments users on their appearance; and even seems to flirt, at one point coyly saying, “Oh stop it, you’re making me blush!” in response to a compliment…”

Brown v. Board

On May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court forever changed America by outlawing the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Seventy years later, wrote Keith Magee, we’re marking the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision “as a nation that has never had a more ethnically diverse student population; more than half of the children enrolled in our K-12 public schools are Black or brown. Yet, despite the progress made in desegregating schools during the three decades or so that followed Brown, backpedaling has derailed integration.”

“There can be little doubt that the integrated, equal education for all that should have been Brown’s legacy is still shockingly out of reach. … high levels of racial and economic school resegregation are preventing students, communities and our beleaguered democracy from benefiting from our greatest national resource — our diversity.” Integration has been shown to raise “the attainment levels of all students — not just those who are Black, Brown and poor. Integration also fosters positive intergroup relationships, reduces stereotypes and promotes empathy.”

Veepstakes card player

Forget going to Mar-a-Lago. The new requirement for GOP politicians wanting to demonstrate their loyalty to Trump seems to be visiting the Manhattan courthouse where he’s on trial. And that goes double for those candidates angling to be Trump’s running mate.

Among those is North Dakota’s governor, Doug Burgum. Scott Jennings wrote, “No one has played their cards better than the affable former businessman-turned-governor of the Peace Garden State (although Burgum would dispute that he even knows how to play political poker at all), and now he finds himself as well positioned as anyone to vault onto the national ticket…”

“After eight years as governor, Burgum’s got a story to tell. North Dakota is thriving economically, ranks second in energy production per capita and has a low unemployment rate. When talking to Burgum about his record, you can feel a passion for innovation and a true understanding of what the federal government can do to help — and hurt — individual states, especially when it comes to energy policy.”

Bill Bramhall/Tribune Content Agency
Bill Bramhall/Tribune Content Agency

Clarence Thomas

Washington is “a hideous place.” That’s Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ verdict on the nation’s capital. Critics “bomb your reputation or your good name or your honor. And that’s not a crime but they can do as much harm that way,” the senior justice on the court told a judicial conference.

“It’s true that in recent years the justice has been rightfully criticized for his ethically questionable actions,” argued Dean Obeidallah. “Pundits — me included — have been relentless in calling out Thomas’ ethical issues from accepting lavish gifts from GOP megadonor Harlan Crow to his refusal to recuse himself from cases related to the January 6 attack on the Capitol despite his wife Ginni’s personal efforts to help Trump overturn the 2020 election results.”

Clay Jones
Clay Jones

He urged Thomas to consider comedian John Oliver’s offer of a million dollars a year and a luxury RV if Thomas resigns from the court. But there’s no sign Thomas is heading in that direction. In fact, he made news on another front last week by writing the majority opinion in a case that upheld the funding of the Consumer Financial Protection Board, which has long been a target of some big businesses and conservatives.

Steve Vladeck wrote that the ruling didn’t come about because “Thomas has secretly become a liberal squish, but because the case only got to the Supreme Court because of a truly preposterous ruling by the Fifth Circuit — the court that hears all federal appeals from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.”

“Instead, the real headline from Thursday is not that the Supreme Court is more ‘moderate’ than its critics often claim; it’s that there’s a court of appeals that is even more extreme — not just in this case, but in 10 other cases the Supreme Court will decide this term.

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The Red Portrait

Artist Jonathan Yeo and King Charles III stand in front of the portrait as it is unveiled at Buckingham Palace on May 14. - Aaron Chown/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Artist Jonathan Yeo and King Charles III stand in front of the portrait as it is unveiled at Buckingham Palace on May 14. - Aaron Chown/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Don’t even think about the Red Wedding on “Game of Thrones.” It only shares a color with the portrait of King Charles III that was unveiled last week.

“Nothing about the portrait has garnered nearly so much comment as its dominant color,” Holly Thomas observed. “One commentator on the Royal Family’s official Instagram feed remarked that it looked as though the King was ‘burning in hell,’ while another said it gives the impression that he ‘has a lot of blood on his hands.’ One less earnest observer wrote, ‘Tampax the third,’ perhaps in reference to one of the King’s more embarrassing appearances in the British press.”

“Intriguing though these insights are, the first thing I noticed about the painting wasn’t its menstrual overtones, but what they obscured,” wrote Thomas. “The King’s body is almost entirely opaque. He’s fading into the background, the outline of his ceremonial uniform blurred out of focus. It’s a fitting representation of a man once known for choleric asides, now obliged by his elevated role to keep his personal feelings private. He’s withdrawn, but his aristocratic silhouette remains. … his gaze remains clear, the expression instantly recognizable.”

Note: This article has been updated to clarify that Michael Cohen was called as a witness to provide direct evidence to support the prosecution’s case.

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