June 13, 2024
Money

Michael Cohen Testifies on White House Deal That Led to Trump’s Trial


Little more than two weeks into Donald J. Trump’s presidency, he and his personal lawyer met in the Oval Office for a private conversation about money.

“I was sitting with President Trump and he asked me if I was OK,” the lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, recalled on Tuesday from the witness stand at Mr. Trump’s criminal trial. “He asked me if I needed money,” Mr. Cohen added, and volunteered that a check would be forthcoming.

When monthly checks started arriving — most bearing Mr. Trump’s signature — they disguised the nature of the payments, Mr. Cohen testified. The stubs described the checks as part of a legal “retainer” agreement, but they were in fact reimbursements for hush money that Mr. Cohen had paid to silence a porn star’s story of sex with Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen said that Mr. Trump was present when a plan to fictionalize the records was cooked up weeks earlier in New York.

The testimony marked a pivotal moment for prosecutors. They charged Mr. Trump with falsifying the checks and other records, and Mr. Cohen’s recounting drove those accusations home. It offered the jury its first and only personal account tying the former president to the documents at the crux of his case.

Mr. Trump has denied the allegations and the sex, and his legal team soon sought to sweep Mr. Cohen’s revelations aside in cross-examination. The lead defense lawyer, Todd Blanche, attacked Mr. Cohen’s credibility, portraying him as out of control and bent on exacting revenge on Mr. Trump after his patron abandoned him.

Mr. Blanche also emphasized Mr. Cohen’s voluminous television appearances and insult-slinging on social media — all of which Mr. Cohen did in defiance of the prosecution’s wishes and at Mr. Trump’s expense, Mr. Blanche suggested. And he noted that Mr. Cohen maintains a financial interest in attacking Mr. Trump, arguing that he cashed in on their feud with a podcast and a pair of books.

“Do you want President Trump to get convicted in this case?” Mr. Blanche asked.

“Sure,” Mr. Cohen replied smoothly, keeping his composure under fiery questioning about his falling out with Mr. Trump, who kept his eyes closed through much of the testimony.

Their near-filial relationship imploded when Mr. Cohen came under federal investigation for the hush money and other matters six years ago. Mr. Trump turned his back on Mr. Cohen, who then vowed to flip on the man he had once loyally protected and proudly called “boss.”

Mr. Cohen, who already served more than a year in federal prison, did not receive anything in return for his testimony against Mr. Trump, making him an unusual cooperating witness.

“I made a decision,” he said on the stand Tuesday, that “I would not lie for President Trump anymore.”

The case against Mr. Trump — the first criminal trial of an American president — stems from three hush-money deals that Mr. Cohen helped arrange before the 2016 presidential election. Two involved women shopping stories of sexual encounters with Mr. Trump, most notably, the porn star, Stormy Daniels.

On Monday, Mr. Cohen testified how he had paid $130,000 out of his own pocket to silence Ms. Daniels’s story on the eve of the election. Once Mr. Trump was sworn in as president, he repaid Mr. Cohen for the hush money, as well as another expenditure and an overdue bonus.

Mr. Trump, who faces probation or as long as four years in prison if he is convicted, is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to the payment of Mr. Cohen, one for each document involved: 11 checks to Mr. Cohen, 11 invoices from Mr. Cohen and 12 entries in Mr. Trump’s ledger.

All 34 records referred to the supposed retainer, while the ledger entries portrayed the payments to Mr. Cohen as an ordinary “legal expense.” But Mr. Cohen asserted that there was no retainer agreement, and he had not accrued any legal expenses, offering crucial testimony in the prosecution’s favor.

“In truth, was this invoice for any service you rendered in those two months pursuant to a retainer agreement?” a prosecutor, Susan Hoffinger, asked Mr. Cohen on Tuesday.

“No, ma’am,” he replied.

“Was this invoice a false record?” she continued, underscoring the point for the jury.

“Yes, ma’am,” he confirmed, and added that the check stubs were false as well.

And asked the purpose of the checks, he explained, that in part they represented “the reimbursement to me for the hush-money fee.”

His account of the records — and description of his Oval Office meeting with Mr. Trump — marked a high point for the prosecution’s case.

Before he took the stand, the jury heard that Mr. Trump had wanted to cover up a series of sex scandals and was intimately involved in all matters of money. Witnesses said that Mr. Trump had an imperative political need to eliminate any trace of the hush-money deal with Ms. Daniels — but they had no direct knowledge of whether Mr. Trump falsified records to do so.

That earlier testimony was building to this — the moment when Mr. Cohen could offer a firsthand account of his dealings with Mr. Trump and bring the interwoven strands of the case into focus.

The first crucial moment came on Monday, when prosecutors delved into a January 2017 meeting in New York among Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump and the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen H. Weisselberg.

Although Mr. Trump did not personally falsify records, or explicitly instruct anyone to do so, Mr. Cohen testified that the former president knew that Mr. Cohen and Mr. Weisselberg would obscure the purpose of the reimbursement.

“Did Mr. Weisselberg say in front of Mr. Trump that those monthly payments would be, you know, like a retainer for legal services?” Ms. Hoffinger asked Mr. Cohen.

“Yes,” he said.

On Tuesday, when he retook the stand, Mr. Cohen detailed the Oval Office meeting the following month, at which, he said, Mr. Trump confirmed he would pay him back.

Under New York law, prosecutors need only show that Mr. Trump “aided” a crime, or “caused” his company to file false records. Armed with Mr. Cohen’s testimony, prosecutors can argue that Mr. Trump broke the law even if he merely knew about the records and did not stop the fakery.

Mr. Cohen, of course, does not make a perfect prosecution witness.

Over the decade he worked for Mr. Trump, he behaved like a bully and a harried errand boy, threatening Mr. Trump’s enemies and carrying out his every wish, he has said. Their roles were symbiotic, with Mr. Trump acting as the mercurial boss and Mr. Cohen his ruthless enforcer.

But Mr. Trump’s lawyers argue that he caused more problems than he fixed, and that the jury cannot trust him. They have noted that Mr. Cohen is a convicted liar, though he argues he lied out of loyalty to Mr. Trump.

On cross-examination, Mr. Blanche seized on Mr. Cohen’s criminal record, implying that he had initially sought some benefit from prosecutors in exchange for his cooperation. He also suggested that Mr. Cohen’s self interest — he sells T-shirts with an image of Mr. Trump behind bars — tainted his testimony.

Mr. Cohen remained mostly calm during questioning, speaking slowly as if he were restraining himself from an outburst, including when Mr. Blanche sought to grill him over colorful insults he has lobbed at the former president. They included “boorish cartoon misogynist” and “Cheeto-dusted cartoon villain.”

Mr. Cohen responded to both questions with a version of “sounds like something I would say.”

When Mr. Blanche confronted Mr. Cohen with his past praise of his boss, he shot back, “At that time, I was knee-deep into the cult of Donald Trump.”

Under questioning from prosecutors, Mr. Cohen recounted his gradual falling out with Mr. Trump, tracing it to the spring of 2018, when federal authorities were bearing down on him.

Soon after the F.B.I. searched Mr. Cohen’s home and office, he received a call from Mr. Trump, he recalled.

“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.’”

The call, Mr. Cohen explained, “reinforced my loyalty and my intention to stay in the fold.”

Mr. Cohen also developed a relationship with Robert J. Costello, a Republican lawyer who served as a back channel to Mr. Trump’s legal team. In one email to Mr. Cohen, Mr. Costello wrote, “Sleep well tonight, you have friends in high places.”

Mr. Cohen would soon lose that sense of security, as Mr. Trump stopped calling and the Trump Organization began to balk at some of Mr. Cohen’s legal bills.

The message from Mr. Trump’s universe, he came to believe, was: “Don’t flip. Don’t speak.” Mr. Trump, Mr. Cohen suspected, wanted his embattled fixer to remain under his thumb.

By summer 2018, he no longer was, he said. On Tuesday, Mr. Cohen considered a prosecutor’s question: To whom had he decided to be loyal, instead of Mr. Trump?

As he thought about it, a parade of Mr. Trump’s Republican allies streamed into courtroom.

Mr. Cohen was unfazed. “To my wife, my daughter, my son, and the country,” he said.

When Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty in August 2018 to federal campaign-finance violations over the hush-money deals, he pointed the finger at his former boss, saying he acted at his direction. Mr. Cohen, who also pleaded guilty to tax evasion and another personal financial crime unrelated to Mr. Trump, called it the “worst day of my life.”

He eventually served more than a year in prison, including a stint in solitary confinement.

But his testimony this week offered him a shot at public redemption, and perhaps, personal revenge.

“I regret doing things for him that I should not have, lying, bullying people in order to effectuate the goal,” Mr. Cohen said on the stand, adding that he “violated my moral compass and I suffered the penalty. That is my failure.”

Reporting was contributed by Kate Christobek, Jesse McKinley, Jonathan Swan and Wesley Parnell.



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