Since even before Michael Cohen’s testimony went sideways at the New York Attorney General’s bank fraud trial against Donald Trump, the Manhattan District Attorney has wanted Cohen’s name kept off court documents in its own upcoming trial—and that’s sparking backlash from the former president’s lawyers, who are decrying what they call an unreasonable level of secrecy.
Manhattan prosecutors won’t let them even utter Cohen’s name in court documents ahead of the upcoming porn star hush-payment trial. And the judge keeps backing up the DA’s office.
As a result, Trump’s legal team keeps making an awkward dance. His lawyers mentioned Cohen at least 43 times in court documents attempting to dismiss the felony indictment in September—but his name had to be redacted every single time. The former president’s lawyers even had to black out Cohen’s name from a Department of Justice press release about Cohen’s guilty plea in federal court—as well as the internet link too, for good measure.
The documents instead refer to Cohen as “Lawyer A.” (The Trump court docs also redacted every mention of porn star Stormy Daniels, who is listed in initial prosecution documents as “Woman 2.” Another main character, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, also had his name repeatedly redacted—even though prosecutors have already outed him with the obvious description of “AMI CEO.”)
Trump’s lawyers take issue with the futile smokescreen, but they gave extra emphasis to the privacy afforded to Cohen, given his instrumental role in the hush money scheme.
In a court filing last month obtained by The Daily Beast, defense lawyers complained that they were held back from mentioning Cohen’s name when referring to published news articles, including a book that quoted DA Alvin Bragg Jr. when he said “he ‘could not see a world’ in which he would indict Trump and call Michael Cohen as a prosecution witness.”
As a result, court filings are loaded with ridiculous redactions like this one: “The People allege that President Trump and his personal attorney, █████, worked with executives from American Media, Inc. (“AMI”) to identify and suppress potential negative news stories during the runup to the 2016 presidential election.”
Trump is barreling toward a Manhattan trial in March that accuses him of faking business records to cover up his affair with Stormy Daniels in the days before the 2016 election. It’s a saga that’s been relentlessly exposed and reviewed for years and involves a core cast of characters—most notably Cohen.
Meanwhile, Cohen has discussed the matter extensively in public, appearing on TV news shows, chatting with reporters, and even talking about it on his own podcast.
The District Attorney of New York County, officially referred to as DANY, appears to be narrowly following traditional rules that keep the names of witnesses and their grand jury testimony under wraps until trial.
Defense lawyer Todd Blanche seemed vexed by the ordeal. On Oct. 5, he asked the judge overseeing the case to partially lift the silly veil by allowing them to refile key court documents “with redactions solely limited to the names of DANY support personnel and personal identifying information of the parties and witnesses.”
“Further, any considerations must be weighed against President Trump’s fundamental right to a public trial and the public’s interest in open access to judicial records,” Blanche wrote. “Notably, much of what the People seek to redact, such as the name of witnesses who proffered with the People, is not even grand jury material.”
Justice Juan Merchan is keeping a tight lid on it, though. Documents filed in court this month continued redacting names across the board.
Blanche declined an interview. The DA’s office did not provide a comment but pointed at court documents where they claim to be OK with naming some fact witnesses listed in public reports—just not if there’s any nexus with grand jury material.
This level of opacity extends to other well-known players in the alleged Trump scheme to hide his hush money payment to Stormy Daniels. The billionaire’s longtime top finance executive, Allen Weisselberg, is identified as the “Chief Financial Officer of the Trump Organization” but not by name.
New York state law protects the identity of trial witnesses from “risk of intimidation, economic reprisal, bribery, harassment or unjustified annoyance or embarrassment.” And that’s definitely a cause of concern with Trump, who has employed the menacing threat of his loyal MAGA following to target judges, court staff, and witnesses—including Cohen himself. That’s why Merchan sternly warned Trump in May to drop the intimidation campaign, which the former president extended to the judge’s own daughter.
But in this historic case, several of the people at the center of it all have already gone public. Stormy Daniels wrote a tell-all book, Full Disclosure. A former Manhattan prosecutor on Bragg’s team, Mark Pomerantz, published a detailed memoir about the investigation called People vs. Donald Trump: An Inside Account.
This latest legal battle shows just how the New York City hush money case is proceeding largely in the shadows. Criminal cases are a matter of public record, and journalists regularly pull files to update the American population about their progress—a duty that’s particularly relevant when dealing with a historic case involving a former president accused of crimes who’s attempting a return to the White House.
But at the Manhattan criminal courthouse, the publicly accessible file bin only includes a snippet of the back-and-forth going on behind the scenes. Several judicial orders are missing, and the occasional legal motions hint at a much more thorough discussion about ongoing issues behind closed doors.
By contrast, key documents in Trump’s three other criminal cases remain easily accessible online, allowing timely updates for his upcoming trials in Atlanta for racketeering, D.C. for election fraud, and South Florida for hoarding classified documents post-presidency.
The hush money case has already endured severe scrutiny, given that Bragg and his predecessor, Cy Vance Jr., were unwilling to indict Trump on more serious mob crimes—and opted instead to nail Trump for a watered-down case that’s been sneered at by critics. Although a federal judge has already described its bulletproof nature, the Stormy Daniels affair is still a fraction of what former prosecutors on the team had in mind.
The continuing obscurity in this case has put Trump in the odd position of championing press access—knowing full well that journalists consistently call him out on non-stop delay games and underhanded legal tactics.
“The redactions proposed by the People are inappropriate,” Blanche wrote in last month’s court filing. “The People brought this case and should not be permitted to avoid public scrutiny of the numerous infirmities in their case by attempting to litigate it in secret. Nor should the People be allowed to pick and choose what information they believe the public is entitled to know pre-trial. This is inconsistent with President Trump’s First and Sixth Amendment rights, as well as the public’s First Amendment and common law rights to public access to judicial records.”