Michael Cohen gives more evidence in Donald Trump hush money trial

14 May 2024, 22:04

Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building on his way to Manhattan Criminal Court in New York
Trump Hush Money. Picture: PA

Donald Trump, the first former US president to go on trial, was joined at the courthouse by an entourage of legislators including the House Speaker.

Michael Cohen has told Donald Trump’s hush money trial that it was not until after a decade in the fold, after his family pleaded with him, after the FBI raided his office, apartment and hotel room, that he finally decided to turn on the former US president.

That decision led to a 2018 guilty plea to federal charges involving a payment to the adult film actor Stormy Daniels to bury her story of an alleged sexual encounter with Trump and to other, unrelated crimes.

And it is that insider knowledge of shady deals that pushed Manhattan prosecutors to make Mr 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.

US speaker of the House Mike Johnson speaks at a press conference across the street from Manhattan Criminal Court in New York
US speaker of the House Mike Johnson speaks at a press conference across the street from Manhattan Criminal Court in New York (Stefan Jeremiah/AP)

Under questioning this week, Mr 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,” Mr Cohen said on Tuesday.

There has been no witness box bombast or fireworks so far from Mr Cohen, a man who was defined for years by his braggadocio as Trump’s problem-zapper.

Instead, his evidence about purposefully mislabelled cheques, false receipts and blind loyalty, however dry it was, placed Trump at the centre of the scheme and underscored the foundational argument of the case – that it is not about the spectacle of what Trump was paying for, but rather his alleged effort to illegally cover up those payments.

A shocking moment did come, but it was courtesy of House of Representatives 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 Republican legislators are serving as surrogates while Trump himself remains barred by a gag order in the case following an appeals court ruling on Tuesday.

“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.”

Michael Cohen, right, leaves his apartment building in New York
Michael Cohen, right, leaves his apartment building in New York (Seth Wenig/AP)

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

Mr Cohen has given evidence in detail about how the former president was linked to all aspects of the hush money scheme, and prosecutors believe Mr Cohen’s insider knowledge is critical to their case.

But their reliance on a witness with such a chequered 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 lawyers cross-examine him.

Defence lawyer Todd Blanche spent no time asking about the allegations at the centre of the trial.

He instead worked to portray Mr Cohen as a Trump-obsessed media hound, intimating that Mr Cohen leaked self-serving information about himself.

Amid rapid-fire objections from prosecutors, Mr Blanche probed Mr Cohen’s hyperfocus on Trump, quizzing him about various social media posts and comments he has made.

Mr Cohen was asked to listen through headphones to a snippet of his podcast, as was Trump while sitting at the defence table.

Mr Cohen was asked by Mr 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”.

Defence lawyer Todd Blanche cross-examines Michael Cohen in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York.
Defence lawyer Todd Blanche cross-examines Michael Cohen in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

The line of questioning was designed to persuade jurors that Mr Cohen was driven by personal animus to hold Trump accountable.

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

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

“No sir, I don’t think that’s fair to say,” Mr Cohen said.

“I’m motivated by many things.”

Mr Cohen will be the prosecution’s last witness.

Trump’s defence will begin after Mr Cohen, though it is not clear whether his lawyers will call any witnesses or if Trump will give evidence in his own defence.

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 Ms Daniels, according to evidence.

Mr Cohen said that Trump was constantly apprised of the behind-the-scenes efforts to bury stories feared to be harmful to the campaign.

Donald Trump speaks before the start of proceedings in his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York
Donald Trump speaks before the start of proceedings in his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York (Craig Ruttle, Pool/AP)

And after paying out 130,000 dollars (£103,000) to Ms Daniels in order to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual encounter, Trump promised to reimburse him.

Jurors followed along as prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, in a methodical and clinical fashion, walked Mr 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, Mr Cohen explained their purpose and reiterated again and again that the payments were reimbursements for the hush money – they were not for legal services he provided or for a retainer.

It is 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, Mr Cohen was paid 420,000 dollars (£333,000), with funds drawn from a Trump personal account.

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

Stormy Daniels in Manhattan Criminal Court on May 7 in New York
Stormy Daniels in Manhattan Criminal Court on May 7 in New York (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

“Yes,” Mr Cohen said.

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

“Correct,” Mr Cohen replied.

On Monday, Mr Cohen said: “Everything required Mr Trump’s sign-off.”

He told jurors that Trump did not want Ms Daniels’ account of a sexual encounter to get out.

At the time, Trump was especially anxious about how the story would affect his standing with female voters, particularly after the Access Hollywood leak.

“What I was doing, I was doing at the direction of and benefit of Mr Trump,” Mr Cohen said.

But prosecutors also spent time on Tuesday working to blunt the potential credibility issues, painting Mr Cohen as a longtime Trump loyalist who committed crimes on behalf of the former president.

Former US president Donald Trump sits in the courtroom with lawyers Todd Blanche, left, and Emil Bove at Manhattan Criminal Court before his trial in New York
Former US president Donald Trump sits in the courtroom with lawyers Todd Blanche, left, and Emil Bove at Manhattan Criminal Court before his trial in New York (Michael M Santiago/Pool Photo via AP)

In the witness box, Mr 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,” Mr Cohen told the jury.

“Were you frightened?” Ms 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”.

Mr Cohen said: “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’.”

Mr 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”.

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

Assistant district attorney Susan Hoffinger questions Michael Cohen, right, as former President Donald Trump, far left, looks on in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York
Assistant district attorney Susan Hoffinger questions Michael Cohen, right, as former president Donald Trump, far left, looks on in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

“What are you doing? We’re supposed to be your first loyalty,” Mr Cohen said.

“It was about time to listen to them,” he said.

The men were once so close that Mr Cohen boasted that he would “take a bullet” for Trump.

But as their relationship soured, Mr Cohen became one of Trump’s most vocal critics.

The two have, over the years, traded vicious barbs.

During their last courtroom face-off in October during Trump’s civil fraud trial, Trump walked out of the courtroom after his lawyer finished questioning Mr Cohen.

Throughout Mr Cohen’s evidence on 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 lawyer before returning to his recline.

Even some of the topics that have animated him the most as he campaigns did not stir his attention.

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

“I do,” Mr 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 Organisation. As I expressed before, I had some very interesting, great times.”

By Press Association

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