May 28th, 2024

As House Speaker heads to court with Trump, hush money witness Cohen gives more testimony


By Michael R. Sisak, Eric Tucker, Michelle L. Price And Colleen Long, The Associated Press on May 14, 2024.

Assistant district attorney Susan Hoffinger, center, questions witness Michael Cohen, far right, as Donald Trump, far left, looks on in Manhattan criminal court, Monday, May 13, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) – Donald Trump’s fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen returned to the witness stand Tuesday, testifying in detail about how the former president was linked to all aspects of a hush money scheme that prosecutors say was aimed at stifling stories that threatened his 2016 campaign.

Trump, the first former U.S. president to go on trial, was joined at the courthouse by an entourage of lawmakers that included House Speaker Mike Johnson, who claimed the case was politically motivated. Their presence was a not-so-subtle show of support meant not just for Trump but also for voters tuning in from home and for the jurors who are deciding Trump’s fate.

It was a remarkable moment in American politics as the person second in line to the presidency held a news conference outside while the proceedings were playing out, using his powerful pulpit to attack the U.S. judicial system and seeking to turn his political party against the rule of law by declaring the trial illegitimate.

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

Cohen resumed his place on the witness stand a day after placing Trump at the center of the hush money scheme. He testified Monday that Trump had promised to reimburse him for the money he fronted for the payments and that Trump was constantly apprised of the behind-the-scenes efforts to bury stories feared to be harmful to the campaign.

Jurors were following along as Manhattan prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, in a methodical and clinical fashion, walked Cohen through the process of his reimbursement for a hush money payment on behalf of Trump to the porn actress Stormy Daniels.

It was an attempt to show what prosecutors say was a month-by-month deception to mask the true purpose of the payments. Some members of the 12-person panel were taking notes and alternating their gaze back-and-forth between Hoffinger and Cohen.

As jurors were shown the paperwork and business records that make up the crux of the case, Trump’s former fixer explained the purpose of the documents. Cohen reiterated again and again that he had no retainer agreement with Trump and that the payments were reimbursements, not for legal services rendered. It’s an important distinction, because prosecutors allege that the reimbursement records falsely described the purpose of the payments as legal expenses done pursuant to a retainer.

“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.

All told, Cohen was paid $420,000, with funds drawn from a Trump personal account.

On Monday, Cohen delivered matter-of-fact testimony that went to the heart of the former president’s trial: “Everything required Mr. Trump’s sign-off,” Cohen said.

“We need to stop this from getting out,” Cohen quoted Trump as telling him in reference to Daniels’ account of a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier. The then-candidate was especially anxious about how the story would affect his standing with female voters.

A similar episode occurred when Cohen alerted Trump that a Playboy model was alleging that she and Trump had an extramarital affair. “Make sure it doesn’t get released,” was Cohen’s message to Trump, the lawyer said. The woman, Karen McDougal, was paid $150,000 in an arrangement that was made after Trump received a “complete and total update on everything that transpired.”

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

Trump has pleaded not guilty and has denied both sexual encounters.

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 checkered 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 sedate atmosphere was a marked contrast from their last courtroom faceoff in October, when Trump 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 behalf.

Trump’s lawyers will get their chance to begin questioning Cohen as early as Tuesday, where they’re expected to attack his credibility. He was disbarred, went to prison and separately pleaded guilty to lying about a Moscow real estate project on Trump’s behalf.

Trump’s defense team will likely cast him as a vindictive, agenda-driven witness. The defense told jurors during opening statements that he’s an “admitted liar” with an “obsession to get President Trump.”

Prosecutors aim to blunt those attacks by acknowledging Cohen’s past crimes to jurors and by relying on other witnesses whose accounts, they hope, will buttress his testimony.

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 direct communication with the then-candidate about embarrassing stories he was scrambling to suppress.

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 election, form the basis of 34 felony counts charging Trump with falsifying business records. Prosecutors say the reimbursements were logged, falsely, as legal expenses to conceal the payments’ true purpose.

To establish Trump’s intimate familiarity with the payments, Cohen told jurors under questioning that Trump had promised to reimburse him. The two men even discussed with Allen Weisselberg, a former Trump Organization chief financial officer, how the reimbursements would be paid as legal services over monthly installments, Cohen testified.

He said Trump even sought to delay finalizing the Daniels transaction until after Election Day so he wouldn’t have to pay her.

“Because,” Cohen testified, “after the election it wouldn’t matter” to Trump.

___

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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