Michael Cohen set to take the stand in Trump’s hush money trial

Michael Cohen — the most pivotal witness in the Manhattan district attorney’s hush money case against Donald Trump — took the stand Monday for what’s expected to be at least two days of testimony against his old boss in the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president.

In the witness box, Cohen was seated about 10 feet from Trump, whom he has repeatedly mocked on social media and in interviews, including since the start of the trial. Trump is not directly in Cohen’s line of sight — he had to stand up and lean over to when asked to point Trump out to the jury. The former president had extra support in the courtroom — his son Eric Trump, Sens. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, and Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., and Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., were all in attendance for the beginning of Cohen’s testimony. Trump sat with his eyes closed soon after his former lawyer began his testifying.

Cohen is being questioned by veteran prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, who has been preparing Cohen for his testimony for about a year. He’ll be cross-examined by Trump’s lead attorney, Todd Blanche.

He began his testimony by recounting his legal career, and when he was hired by Trump in 2007. “It was all very exciting to me,” Cohen said. He made $525,000 in his first year. Asked who he reported to, he said, “Just Mr. Trump.” Cohen said they would speak “every single day, and multiple times a day.”

Cohen also said he encouraged Trump to run for president and was excited when he did so. But the man he called “boss” had a concern.

“You know that when this comes out — meaning the announcement — just be prepared. There’s going to be a lot of women coming forward,” Cohen said Trump told him.

To address those concerns, he and Trump met with the National Enquirer publisher David Pecker at Trump Tower in 2015, asking him to place positive stories about Trump and negative stories about his rivals, and to alert them to any potentially scandalous stories.  

Pecker made good on his promise soon after, alerting Cohen about a doorman who was peddling a story about Trump having a love child. Pecker testified earlier in the trial that the tale turned out to be false. Cohen said he reported what the doorman was claiming to Trump, who “told me to make sure that this story doesn’t get out.”

“You handle it,” he said Trump told him.  

The Enquirer purchased the doorman’s story for $30,000 with no intention of running it in a deal that Cohen said he tweaked to add financial penalties for the doorman if he spoke to any other outlet.

Pecker alerted him to another story in June of 2016 — a Playboy model named Karen McDougal was claiming she had an affair with Trump in 2006. Cohen said he talked to Trump about what Pecker told him and asked if he knew who McDougal was. “His response to me was, ‘She’s really beautiful,’” Cohen said. Trump also told him to kill the story, he said.

Cohen testified that he regularly updated Trump on those efforts, and the DA’s office showed phone records between Trump and Cohen in that time period in an effort to bolster him claims.

Follow live updates from Trump’s hush money trial

The road for Cohen to reach this moment has been a long one. He has been speaking with prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office off and on for the past five years, with investigators from the DA’s office even visiting him three times while he was in federal lockup in Otisville, New York, in 2019 and 2020. 

His testimony is crucial to the prosecution. Cohen, who at one point worked as Trump’s self-described “fixer,” paid $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels in the closing days of the 2016 presidential campaign so that she would not go public with her claim that she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. He has previously said he made the payment at the direction of Trump.

Trump reimbursed Cohen in a series of payments in 2017, during the first months of his presidency. Prosecutors charge that Trump falsified business records relating to those payments by classifying them as legal services pursuant to a retainer agreement; the DA says no such agreement existed.

“Cohen was not being paid for legal services. The defendant was paying him back for an illegal payment to Stormy Daniels on the eve of the election,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said in his opening statement.

Daniels testified in the trial last week.

Blanche said in his opening statement that Cohen was indeed being paid for his legal services and “cannot be trusted.”

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

“He’s a convicted felon. And he also is a convicted perjurer. He is an admitted liar,” Blanche added, referring in part to Cohen’s 2018 guilty plea to making false statements to Congress about a proposed project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Prosecutors said he’d lied in order to minimize Trump’s ties to Russia, which were being scrutinized by Congress and federal investigators at that time.

Cohen also pleaded guilty to a number of other criminal charges, including tax fraud, in what a federal judge referred to as a “veritable smorgasbord” of criminal conduct when he sentenced him to three years in prison.

Blanche also told the jury that Cohen is “obsessed” with Trump and blames him for “virtually all of his problems.”

Cohen has repeatedly mocked Trump on social media and in interviews, including since the start of the trial, leading the judge presiding over the trial to warn that Cohen could be excluded from the gag order that bars Trump from attacking witnesses if he kept it up.

In court Friday, Blanche asked Judge Juan Merchan to impose a separate gag order on Cohen for the remainder of the trial, noting that despite his public assurances that he would stop bashing Trump, Cohen recently wore a T-shirt with Trump behind bars in an orange jumpsuit during a TikTok stream.

Merchan did not grant the gag order request, but he ordered prosecutors to “communicate to Mr. Cohen that the judge is asking him to refrain from making any more statements about this case, about Mr. Trump, or about anything related to this case or the process.”

Trump has repeatedly trashed Cohen to reporters and on social media ever since 2018, when his former attorney began cooperating with authorities against him. Those comments and posts — in violation of the gag order — led to thousands of dollars in court fines against Trump.

Trump has watched Cohen testify against him before. During last year’s civil fraud trial against Trump and his company, Cohen was a key witness for the New York Attorney General’s Office. At one point, Trump stormed out during Cohen’s testimony.

Cohen’s testimony this week comes as the hush money trial is nearing the finish line. Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass told the judge on Friday that the DA only had two witnesses remaining, and said it was likely that the prosecution will rest by the end of this week.

Trial proceedings will be shortened this week — court is not in session on Wednesday, nor will there be any activity on Friday so that Trump can attend his sons high school graduation.

It’s unclear whether Trump will testify in his own defense. He is under no obligation to do so.

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