Michael Cohen implicates Trump in hush money case

Donald Trump’s fixer-turned-foe, Michael Cohen, has directly implicated the former United States president in a hush money scheme, telling jurors that his celebrity client approved hefty payouts to stifle stories about sex that he feared could be harmful to his 2016 White House campaign.

“You handle it,” Cohen quoted Trump as telling him after learning that a doorman had come forward with a claim that Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock.

The Trump Tower doorman was paid US$30,000 ($45,000) to keep the story “off the market” even though the claim was ultimately deemed unfounded.

Michael Cohen (left) and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, on a 2016 visit to a pastors leadership conference. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, File)

A similar episode occurred after Cohen alerted Trump that a Playboy model alleged that she and Trump had an extramarital affair. Again, the order was clear.

“Make sure it doesn’t get released,” Cohen said Trump told him.

The woman, Karen McDougal, was paid US$150,000 ($227,000) 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.

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

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.

Donald Trump, left, and attorney Michael Cohen, are pictured at a stop at the Roundabout Diner in April 2011. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

But prosecutors’ reliance on a witness with such a checkered past — Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the payments — also carries sizeable risks with a jury.

In addition, it could be a boon to Trump politically as he raises money off his legal woes and paints the case as the product of a tainted criminal justice system.

Though jurors have heard from others about the tabloid industry practice of “catch-and-kill,” in which rights to a story are purchased so it can be quashed, 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.

Besides payments to the doorman and to McDougal, another sum went to porn actor Stormy Daniels, who told jurors last week that the $130,000 she received was meant to prevent her from going public about a sexual encounter she says she had with Trump in a hotel suite a decade earlier.

Cohen also matters because the reimbursements he received from that payment form the basis of the charges against Trump — 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. Prosecutors say the reimbursements were logged, falsely, as legal expenses to conceal the payments’ true purpose.

Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building on his way to Manhattan criminal court, on Monday, May 13, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

Cohen gave jurors an insider account of his negotiations with David Pecker, the then-publisher of the National Enquirer, and the newspaper’s top editor about suppressing stories harmful to Trump, an 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 finalised several weeks after that revelation, but much of Monday’s testimony centred on the deal earlier that fall with McDougal.

Pecker earlier testified that he had pledged to be the “eyes and ears” of the Trump campaign and was such a loyalist that he told Cohen that his publication maintained a “file drawer or a locked drawer as he described it, where files related to Mr Trump were located”, according to testimony Monday.

Cohen testified that he went to Trump immediately after the National Enquirer alerted him to a story about the alleged McDougal affair.

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.

Former President Donald Trump sits at the defense table while David Pecker, shown on the video screen, testifies about Karen McDougal in Manhattan criminal court, Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP) (AP)

“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 be reimbursed.

To lay the foundation that the deals were done with Trump’s endorsement, prosecutors elicited testimony from Cohen — who spent a decade as a Trump Organisation senior executive — 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 was especially true “if there was a matter that was troubling to him”.

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

Defence 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”.

Prosecutors are expected to try to blunt those attacks by eliciting detailed testimony from Cohen about his past crimes. They have also called other witnesses whose accounts, they hope, will buttress Cohen’s testimony.

Those witnesses included a lawyer who negotiated the hush money payments on behalf of Daniels and McDougal, as well as Pecker and Daniels.

Trump sat silently with his eyes closed as Cohen’s testimony covered the payoff to the doorman and other aspects of the hush money machinations. He did not appear to make eye contact with Cohen as the lawyer took the stand.

Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

Cohen’s role as star prosecution witness further cements the disintegration of a mutually beneficial relationship that was once so close that the attorney famously said he would “take a bullet for Trump”.

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.

“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” Trump posted on the social media platform then known as Twitter.

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”.

Defence lawyers are expected to exploit all the challenges that accompany a witness like Cohen. Besides portraying him as untrustworthy, they’re also expected to cast him as vindictive, vengeful and agenda-driven.

Since their 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.

“He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump go to prison,” Trump attorney Todd Blanche said during opening statements.

“He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump’s family go to prison. He has talked extensively about President Trump getting convicted in this case.”

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