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From Trump’s ‘attack dog’ to star witness: Michael Cohen set to testify in hush money trial

Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump is sworn in before testifying before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill February 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. – (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) — For nearly a decade, Michael Cohen was Donald Trump’s trusted adviser, personal attorney, and self-described “attack dog with a law license.”

But Monday morning, Cohen is set to serve as the star witness in Trump’s New York criminal hush money trial, potentially delivering testimony that could cement the Manhattan district attorney’s case and send Cohen’s former boss to prison.

Prosecutors hope his testimony will support their allegations of criminal conduct against Trump in front of a jury that has already heard from 19 different witnesses and seen 200 pieces of evidence. While the jury has seen Trump’s signatures on the allegedly fraudulent checks at the center of the case, some witnesses have seemingly distanced Trump from the alleged unlawful conduct — leaving Cohen with the burden of pinning Trump to the crime.

According to prosecutors, Cohen was in the room when Trump and former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker agreed to a catch-and-kill scheme to illegally hide negative information about Trump from 2016 voters; coordinated with Pecker to kill two stories about Trump; and himself made a $130,000 payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to buy her silence about an alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Trump.

The former president, who has denied the encounter took place, is on trial for allegedly falsifying business records related to Cohen’s reimbursement in 2017.

While prosecutors have already warned the jury that many witnesses have “baggage” and have asked jurors to “keep an open mind,” Cohen’s value to the prosecution’s case could be endangered by the disbarred lawyer’s credibility issues. Cohen in 2018 pleaded guilty to tax evasion, campaign finance violations, and lying to Congress in what Cohen says was an effort to protect Trump. The former president’s lawyers have argued that Cohen perjured himself again when he testified at Trump’s civil fraud trial last year, and accuse Cohen of making his livelihood off books and podcasts that antagonize Trump.

“He has a goal, an obsession with getting Trump, and you’re going to hear that,” defense lawyer Todd Blanche told jurors during his opening statement. “I submit to you that he cannot be trusted.”

Prosecutors have attempted to preempt the defense’s attacks on Cohen by emphasizing that he was acting on Trump’s orders when he committed crimes and has since atoned for his actions.

“You’ll also learn that Cohen has publicly committed to making sure the defendant is held accountable for his role in this conspiracy,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told jurors, later adding, “I suspect the defense will go to great lengths to get you to reject his testimony precisely because it is so damning.”

Vital testimony

Cohen’s importance as a witness largely stems from his deep involvement in the alleged criminal conduct, allegedly coordinating the catch-and-kill scheme with Trump and Pecker and devising the repayment scheme with Trump and former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg.

During his opening statement, Colangelo mentioned Cohen’s name over 90 times, ultimately telling jurors that Cohen’s role was “to take care of problems for the defendant.”

Defense lawyer Todd Blanche similarly focused on the conduct of the so-called “fixer” during his opening statement, mentioning Cohen over 30 times. Blanche argued that once Cohen pleaded guilty to federal crimes in 2018, he decided “to blame President Trump for virtually all of his problems.”

“You’ll learn that Mr. Cohen has misrepresented key conversations where the only witness who was present for the conversation was Mr. Cohen and, allegedly, President Trump,” Blanche argued.

According to prosecutors, Cohen and Trump participated in the August 2015 meeting where Pecker agreed to serve as the “eyes and ears” of Trump’s presidential campaign by looking out for negative stories about Trump related to women. Pecker testified that he coordinated with Cohen after identifying two negative stories that the National Enquirer eventually spent $180,000 to kill on Trump’s behalf.

During Cohen’s testimony, jurors will likely hear a secret recording of a conversation between Cohen and Trump in September 2016 where Cohen discussed repaying Pecker for an $150,000 payment that National Enquirer parent company AMI made for the exclusive rights to former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal’s allegations of an affair with Trump, which he denies.

“I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend, David,” Cohen said in the recording, which the jurors briefly heard during the testimony of a custodial witness.

“So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?” Trump said later in the recording.

While that meeting was memorialized with a surreptitious audio recording, the jury will have to rely on Cohen’s recollection for most of his meetings with Trump, including his conversation with Trump once Cohen learned that Stormy Daniels was shopping around her allegations of an affair.

In his 2020 book “Disloyal,” Cohen wrote that Trump approved the payment to Daniels despite being “torn” about the personal and political dilemma.

“A hundred and thirty thousand is a lot less than I would have to pay Melania,” Cohen recounted Trump saying. “If it comes out, I’m not sure how it would play with my supporters. But I’d bet they think it’s cool that I slept with a porn star.”

Prosecutors allege that Cohen discussed with Trump and Weisselberg his plan to pay Daniels out of his own pocket and later get reimbursed.

“But before putting up his own money, Cohen confirmed with Trump that Trump would pay him back,” Colangelo said. “And at Trump’s request, Cohen agreed to lay out his own money for the payment to keep Stormy Daniels quiet.”

Jurors are expected to see a record of two telephone calls on October 26, 2016, when Cohen allegedly confirmed the plan with Trump before creating the shell company to pay Daniels.

“Cohen made that payment at Donald Trump’s direction and for his benefit, and he did it with a specific goal of influencing the outcome of the election,” Colangelo said.

Prosecutors also allege that Cohen and Weisselberg met with Trump in 2017 to confirm the plan to repay Cohen $420,000 for the Daniels payment and other expenses — a payment that would result in the 34 allegedly falsified records that sit at the center of the case.

Trump’s ‘pit bull’

Michael Cohen began working for Donald Trump in 2007 after he helped perform a series of legal favors for the then-reality television star.

At the time, Cohen had considered himself partially retired after amassing a small fortune as a private lawyer and an owner of multiple lucrative taxi medallions — but he said the offer from Trump excited him.

“I’d read ‘The Art of the Deal’ when it was published in the 1980s, not once but twice, and I considered the book to be a masterpiece,” Cohen wrote. “Secretly in my heart of hearts, I thought I possessed some of Trump’s best qualities.”

A resident of Trump Park Avenue, Cohen first helped Trump resolve a dispute with the building’s condo board before helping Trump settle issues with Trump International Resort’s casino board and performing other legal favors.

By 2007, Trump offered Cohen a job at the Trump Organization. Cohen accepted the role of Executive Vice President and Special Counsel to Donald Trump and moved into an office formerly occupied by Ivanka Trump.

Cohen described his own role within the company as “Trump’s spokesperson, thug, pit bull and lawless lawyer,” and once bragged that he would take a bullet for Trump.

“Over time, as Trump became a patriarchal figure to me and I fell under the trance-like spell of the real estate tycoon, I would come to understand that questions of right and wrong didn’t matter to Trump in the slightest — all that counted to him, and then to me, was winning and displaying blind loyalty,” Cohen wrote.

Cohen’s 2018 guilty plea

Cohen never formally served on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, though prosecutors say he served an integral role in the catch-and-kill scheme that helped Trump hide negative information from voters.

Cohen left the Trump Organization in 2017 to serve as the personal attorney to President Trump, though one witness testified that Cohen not getting a job in the Trump administration left him “depressed and despondent.”

“He said something to the effect of, ‘Jesus Christ, can you f—— believe I’m not going to Washington? After everything I’ve done for that f—— guy, I can’t believe I’m not going to Washington. I’ve saved that guy’s ass so many times, you don’t even know,” Stormy Daniels’ former lawyer Keith Davidson testified.

In a 2017 phone call with Davidson that Cohen secretly recorded, he vented about his relationship with Trump and the actions he took on Trump’s behalf ahead of the 2016 election.

“For me, this has not, you know, this has not been easy … What would you do if you were me?” Cohen said. “Would you write a book, would you break away from the entire Trump, you know, we’ll call it doctrine, you know, would you go completely rouge?”

In April 2018, federal agents raided Cohen’s home and office after receiving a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his probe into the Trump campaign.

At the time, Trump defended Cohen, calling the raid a “disgraceful situation.” In an April 2018 tweet — which the jury saw on Friday — Trump complained that reporters “are going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me in the hope that he will ‘flip.'” Prosecutors argue that the tweet was part of a coordinated pressure campaign from Trump to prevent Cohen from cooperating with authorities.

By August 2018 — after Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finances related to the 2018 election — Trump changed his tone on Cohen, suggesting he made “up stories in order to get a ‘deal.'”

“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” Trump said in a tweet shown to jurors.

Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison, eventually serving more than 13 months behind bars and completing his sentence in home confinement. Before he reported to prison, he testified before Congress about Trump’s business conduct, ultimately leading to the New York attorney general’s civil fraud case against Trump.

Cohen’s last time on the stand

Cohen himself served as a vital witness in Trump’s civil fraud trial last year, testifying that Trump inflated his net worth to increase his position on the Forbes ranking of billionaires. The judge in the case, Arthur Engoron, ordered Trump to pay a fine of nearly half a billion dollars with interest, after determining that the former president had engaged in a decade of business fraud.

Defense lawyers in Trump’s hush money case have argued that Cohen perjured himself again during his testimony in the civil fraud trial, further diminishing his credibility.

“And when are they going to look at all the lies that Cohen did in the last trial? He got caught lying in the last trial,” Trump said after the opening statements in his criminal trial.

In a February 2024 ruling, Judge Arthur Engoron acknowledged that while Cohen’s credibility was “significantly compromised” and the “animosity between the witness and the defendant is palpable,” his testimony was credible because it was backed by evidence.

Prosecutors in Trump’s hush money trial have similarly argued that while Cohen might have baggage, the evidence and testimony from the other witnesses will back up his testimony.

“A less-forgiving factfinder might have concluded differently, might not have believed a single word of a convicted perjurer,” Judge Engoron wrote in his decision in the fraud case. “This factfinder does not believe that pleading guilty to perjury means that you can never tell the truth. Michael Cohen told the truth.”

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