Star witness Cohen directly implicates Trump in testimony at NY trial

Star witness Cohen directly implicates Trump in testimony at NY trial
Star witness Cohen directly implicates Trump in testimony at NY trial

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s fixer-turned-foe, Michael Cohen, directly implicated the former president in a cover-up scheme Monday, telling jurors that his celebrity client tasked him on several occasions to stifle stories about sex that he feared could torpedo his 2016 presidential campaign.

“Stop this from getting out,” Cohen, the prosecution’s star witness, quoted Trump as telling him in reference to adult film actress Stormy Daniels’ account of a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier.

A similar episode occurred when Cohen alerted Trump that a Playboy model was alleging that she and Trump had an extramarital affair. The order was clear: “Make sure it doesn’t get released,” Cohen told Trump told him. The woman, Karen McDougal, was paid $150,000 in a hush money arrangement that was made after Trump was given a “complete and total update on everything that transpired.”

“What I was doing was at the direction of and benefit of Mr. Trump,” Cohen testified, later adding: “Everything required Mr. Trump’s sign-off.”

Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer, is by far the Manhattan district attorney’s most important witness in the case, and his much-awaited appearance on the stand signaled that the first criminal trial of a former American president is entering its final stretch. Prosecutors say they could wrap up their presentation of evidence by week’s end.

The testimony of a witness with such intimate knowledge of Trump’s activities could heighten the legal exposure of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee if jurors deem him sufficiently credible. But prosecutors’ reliance on a witness with such a checked past — Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the payments — also carries sizable risks with a jury and could be a boon to Trump politically as he fundraises off his legal woes and paints the case as the product of a tainted criminal justice system.

The men, once so close that Cohen boasted that he would “take a bullet” for Trump, had no visible interaction inside the courtroom. The calm was a marked contrast from their last courtroom faceoff, when Trump last October walked out of the courtroom after his lawyer finished questioning Cohen during his civil fraud trial.

This time around, Trump sat at the defense table with his eyes closed for long stretches of testimony as Cohen recounted his decade-long career as a senior Trump Organization executive, doing work that by his own admission sometimes involved lying and bullying others on his boss’s on behalf.

Jurors had previously heard from others about the tabloid industry practice of “catch-and-kill,” in which rights to a story are purchased so that it can then be quashed. But Cohen’s testimony is crucial to prosecutors because of his proximity to Trump and because he says he was in direct communication with the then-candidate about embarrassing stories he was scrambling to prevent from surfacing.

Cohen also matters because the reimbursements he received from a $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels, which prosecutors say was meant to buy her silence in advance of the 2016 election, form the basis of 34 criminal counts charging Trump with falsifying business records. Prosecutors say the reimbursements were logged, falsely, as legal expenses to conceal the payments’ true purpose.

Under questioning from a prosecutor, Cohen detailed the steps he took to mask the payments — which he had agreed to front — from his wife and his bank. When he opened a bank account to pay Daniels, an action he said he told Trump he was taking, he said it was for a new limited liability corporation but withheld the current purpose.

“I’m not sure they would’ve opened it,” he said, “if it stated: to pay off an adult film star for a non-disclosure agreement.”

Cohen also gave sworn an insider account of his negotiations with David Pecker, the then-publisher of the National Enquirer who was such a close Trump ally that Cohen said he told him that his publication maintained a “file drawer or a locked drawer as he described it, where files related to Mr. Trump were located.” That effort that took on added urgency following the October 2016 disclosure of an “Access Hollywood” recording in which Trump was heard boasting about grabbing women sexually.

The Daniels payment was finalized several weeks after that revelation, but Monday’s testimony also focused on the deal earlier that fell with McDougal.

Cohen testified that he went to Trump immediately after the National Enquirer alerted him to a story about the alleged McDougal affair. “Make sure it doesn’t get released,” he says Trump told him.

Trump checked in with Pecker about the matter, asking him how “things were going” with it, Cohen said. Pecker responded: “’We have this under control, and we’ll take care of this,’” Cohen testified.

Cohen also said he was with Trump as Trump spoke to Pecker on a speakerphone in his Trump Tower office.

“David stated it would cost $150,000 to control the story,” Cohen said. He quoted Trump as saying: “No problem, I’ll take care of it,” meaning that the payments would be reimbursed.

To lay the foundation that the deals were done with Trump’s endorsement, prosecutors elicited testimony from Cohen designed to show Trump as a hands-on manager on whose behalf Cohen said he sometimes lied and bullied others, including reporters.

“When he would task you with something, he would then say, ‘Keep me informed. Let me know what’s going on,’” Cohen testified. He said that it was especially true “if there was a matter that was troubling to him.”

“If he learned of it in another way, that wouldn’t go over well for you,” Cohen testified.

Defense lawyers have teed up a bruising cross-examination of Cohen, telling jurors during opening statements that he’s an “admitted liar” with an “obsession to get President Trump.” Besides portraying him as untrustworthy, they’re also expected to cast him as vindictive, vengeful and agenda-driven.

Prosecutors are hoping to try to blunt those attacks by acknowledging Cohen’s past crimes to jurors during opening statements and by relying on other witnesses whose accounts, they hope, will buttress Cohen’s testimony. They include a lawyer who negotiated the hush money payments on behalf of Daniels and McDougal, as well as Pecker and Daniels.

Cohen’s role as star prosecution witness further cements the disintegration of a mutually beneficial relationship. After Cohen’s home and office were raided by the FBI in 2018, Trump showered him with affection on social media, praising him as a “fine person with a wonderful family” and predicting — incorrectly — that Cohen would not “flip.”

Months later, Cohen did exactly that, pleading guilty that August to federal campaign-finance charges in which he implicated Trump. By that point, the relationship was irrevocably broken, with Trump posting on the social media platform then known as Twitter: “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!”

Cohen later admitted lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project that he had pursued on Trump’s behalf during the heat of the 2016 Republican campaign. He said he lied to be consistent with Trump’s “political messaging.”

He was sentenced to three years in prison, but spent much of it in home confinement.

Since the men’s fallout, Cohen has emerged as a relentless and sometimes crude critic of Trump, appearing as recently as last week in a live TikTok wearing a shirt featuring a figure resembling Trump with his hands cuffed, behind bars. The judge on Friday urged prosecutors to tell him to refrain from making any more statements about the case or Trump.

 
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