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Cohen offers inside knowledge in Trumps hush money trial

Updated May 14, 2024 - 3:06 pm

NEW YORK — It wasn’t until after a decade in the fold, after his family pleaded with him, after the FBI raided his office, apartment and hotel room, Michael Cohen testified Tuesday, that he finally decided to turn on Donald Trump.

That decision led to a 2018 guilty plea to federal charges involving a payment to the porn actor Stormy Daniels to bury her story of an alleged sexual encounter with Trump and to other, unrelated crimes. And it’s that insider knowledge of shady deals that pushed Manhattan prosecutors to make Cohen the star witness in their case against Trump about that same payment, which they say was an illegal effort to influence the 2016 presidential election. Under questioning this week, Cohen has described the nuts-and-bolts of how the scheme worked.

“To keep the loyalty and to do the things that he had asked me to do, I violated my moral compass, and I suffered the penalty, as has my family,” Cohen testified Tuesday.

There’s been no witness-stand bombast or fireworks so far from Cohen, a man who was defined for years by his braggadocio as Trump’s problem-zapper. Instead, his testimony about purposefully mislabeled checks, false receipts and blind loyalty, however dry it was, placed Trump at the center of the scheme and underscored the foundational argument of the case — that it’s not about the spectacle of what Trump was paying for, but rather his effort to illegally cover up those payments.

A shocking moment did come, but it was courtesy of House Speaker Mike Johnson, who appeared at the courthouse with Trump and who used his powerful bully pulpit to turn his political party against the rule of law by declaring the Manhattan criminal trial illegitimate. He and other GOP lawmakers are serving as surrogates while Trump himself remains barred by a gag order in the case following an appeals court ruling Tuesday.

Trump surrogate parade

“I do have a lot of surrogates, and they’re speaking very beautifully,” Trump said before court as the group gathered in the background. “And they come … from all over Washington. And they’re highly respected, and they think this is the greatest scam they’ve ever seen.”

The Republican presidential nominee has pleaded not guilty and denies that any of the encounters took place.

Cohen has testified in detail about how the former president was linked to all aspects of the hush money scheme, and prosecutors believe Cohen’s testimony is critical to their case. But their reliance on a witness with such a checkered past — he was disbarred, went to prison and separately pleaded guilty to lying about a Moscow real estate project on Trump’s behalf — could backfire, especially as Trump’s attorneys continue to cross-examine him.

Defense lawyer Todd Blanche spent no time Tuesday asking about the allegations at the center of the trial. He instead worked to portray Cohen as a Trump-obsessed media hound, intimating that Cohen leaked self-serving information about himself.

Amid rapid-fire objections from prosecutors, Blanche probed Cohen’s hyperfocus on Trump, quizzing him about various social media posts and comments he’s made. Cohen was asked to listen through headphones to a snippet of his podcast, as was Trump while sitting at the defense table.

Cohen was asked by Blanche if he recalled an October 2020 podcast episode in which he said Trump needs to wear handcuffs and that “people will not be satisfied until this man is sitting inside a cell.” The line of questioning was designed to persuade jurors that Cohen was driven by personal animus to hold Trump accountable.

“I wouldn’t put it past me,” Cohen testified.

“Is it fair to say you’re motivated by fame?” Blanche asked.

“No sir, I don’t think that’s fair to say,” Cohen said. “I’m motivated by many things.”

Cohen last prosecution witness

Cohen will be the prosecution’s last witness. Trump’s defense will begin after Cohen, though it’s not clear whether his attorneys will call any witnesses or if Trump will testify in his own defense.

Jurors have already heard how Trump and others in his orbit were reeling after the leak just a few weeks before the 2016 election of an “Access Hollywood” tape in which he bragged about grabbing women by the genitals without their permission. The publication of the tape hastened the payments to Daniels, according to testimony.

Cohen testified that Trump was constantly apprised of the behind-the-scenes efforts to bury stories feared to be harmful to the campaign. And after paying out $130,000 to Daniels in order to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual encounter, Trump promised to reimburse him.

Jurors followed along as Hoffinger, in a methodical and clinical fashion, walked Cohen through that reimbursement process. It was an attempt to show what prosecutors say was a lengthy deception to mask the true purpose of the payments.

As jurors were shown business records and other paperwork, Cohen explained their purpose and reiterated again and again that the payments were reimbursements for the hush money — they weren’t for legal services he provided or for a retainer.

It’s an important distinction, because prosecutors allege that the Trump records falsely described the purpose of the payments as legal expenses. These records form the basis of 34 felony counts charging Trump with falsifying business records. All told, Cohen was paid $420,000, with funds drawn from a Trump personal account.

“Were the descriptions on this check stub false?” Hoffinger asked.

“Yes,” Cohen said.

“And again, there was no retainer agreement,” Hoffinger asked.

“Correct,” Cohen replied.

Credibility issues

But prosecutors also spent time working to blunt the potential credibility issues, painting Cohen as a longtime Trump loyalist who committed crimes on behalf of the former president. On the witness stand, Cohen described in detail the April 2018 raid that marked the beginning of the end of his time being devoted to Trump.

“How to describe your life being turned upside-down? Concerned. Despondent. Angry,” Cohen told the jury.

“Were you frightened?” Hoffinger asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

But he was heartened by a phone call from Trump that he said gave him reassurance and convinced him to remain “in the camp.”

He said to me, ‘Don’t worry. I’m the president of the United States. There’s nothing here. Everything’s going to be OK. Stay tough. You’re going to be OK,’” Cohen testified.

Cohen told jurors that he “felt reassured because I had the president of the United States protecting me … And so I remained in the camp.”

Wife and family convinced him to leave Trump

It was his wife and family who finally made him see how sticking by Trump was detrimental.

“What are you doing? We’re supposed to be your first loyalty,” Cohen testified. “It was about time to listen to them,” he said.

The men were once so close that Cohen boasted that he would “take a bullet” for Trump. But as their relationship soured, Cohen became one of Trump’s most vocal critics. The two have, over the years, traded vicious barbs. During their last courtroom faceoff in October during Trump’s civil fraud trial, Trump walked out of the courtroom after his lawyer finished questioning Cohen.

Throughout Cohen’s testimony Tuesday, Trump reclined in his chair with his eyes closed and his head tilted to the side. He shifted from time to time, occasionally leaning forward and opening his eyes, making a comment to his attorney before returning to his recline. Even some of the topics that have animated him the most as he campaigns didn’t stir his attention.

“Mr. Cohen, do you have any regrets about your past work for Donald Trump?” Hoffinger asked.

“I do,” Cohen said. “I regret doing things for him that I should not have. Lying. Bullying people to effectuate a goal. I don’t regret working for the Trump Organization. As I expressed before, I had some very interesting, great times.”

Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.

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