Michael Cohen, key to Trump case, tells jurors of seedy hush-money plot

Michael Cohen, former lawyer for Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump departs his home in Manhattan to testify in Trump's criminal trial over charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016, in New York City, U.S., May 13, 2024. REUTERS/Mike Segar

NEW YORK — Michael Cohen, the do-anything fixer who once boasted of burying Donald Trump’s secrets and spreading his lies, took the stand at the former president’s criminal trial Monday and exposed those machinations to the jury and the world.

Narrating the prosecution’s case in tell-all detail, Cohen painted a damning portrait of his and Trump’s dealings. He decoded their shady vernacular and spotlighted the conduct at the center of the first criminal trial of an American president: the silencing of women who had stories of sex with Trump to tell and to sell.


Cohen recalled playing an intimate role in concealing or spinning away scandals that could have torpedoed Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. None was bigger than when a porn actor, Stormy Daniels, shopped her story of a sexual liaison with Trump. That account posed a “catastrophic” threat, Cohen explained, threatening to compound Trump’s struggle to attract women voters.

“Total disaster,” Cohen quoted Trump saying. “Women will hate me.”

As jurors jotted copious notes, Cohen said that Trump did not confirm whether Daniels’ story was true, but acknowledged knowing her and called her “a beautiful woman.” And when Cohen was unable to quash the story promptly, Trump blamed him.

“I thought you had this under control,” Cohen recalled Trump’s saying, drawing a scoff and a laugh from the defendant, who had been shaking his head through much of the testimony.

Cohen’s star turn marked the climax of prosecutors’ case as they formally introduced the jury to a witness who has loomed over the trial and could trigger the former president’s downfall. He illustrated the architecture of the evidence, offering firsthand corroboration of what jurors have heard from other witnesses and weaving a sprawling cast of characters into a single narrative.

In a crucial passage of testimony, Cohen directly tied Trump to a hush-money deal that kept Daniels quiet. Trump, he said, initially conveyed a general instruction: “Just take care of it.” But once Trump decided to strike the deal with Daniels, he ordered Cohen, “Just do it.”

Cohen ultimately did it — paying $130,000 in hush money to Daniels, silencing her in the campaign’s critical waning days. Once Trump was in the White House, he reimbursed Cohen, and, according to prosecutors, orchestrated a plan to falsify records that disguised the repayment as ordinary legal expenses. The prosecutors, who are expected to conclude their case this week, charged the former president with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, a scheme they say he engineered to salvage his election chances.

On the stand Monday, Cohen recounted how he had conspired with Trump and the longtime publisher of The National Enquirer, David Pecker, to protect the Trump campaign.

They plotted, Cohen said, to promote flattering stories and suppress damaging ones through so-called catch-and-kill deals, the tabloid practice of buying the rights to a story and withholding it. One woman, Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, accepted $150,000 from the Enquirer to keep quiet about her story of an affair with Trump, a deal Cohen helped arrange.

Cohen said serving as Trump’s bulldog for a decade leading up to the election was the fulfillment of a youthful dream.

“Working for him especially during those 10 years was” — he paused, as if to emphasize the past tense — “an amazing experience in many, many ways.”

Cohen’s loyalty disintegrated in 2018 as federal authorities scrutinized his involvement in the hush-money deals, and Trump shunned him. But until then, Cohen told jurors, he adopted a take-no-prisoners approach to Trump’s dirty work, bullying enemies with a single-minded servitude to the man he called “boss.”

“The only thing that was on my mind was to accomplish the task, to make him happy,” he recalled.

Cohen’s testimony brought the men face to face again Monday. It was an only-in-New York collision of spotlight-seeking showmen, bombastic personalities expert in operating the twin engines that propel the city: media and money. Though hailing from different worlds — Trump a real estate scion, Cohen the child of a Holocaust survivor — they were creatures of the same ecosystem, sharing a gritty argot and tough-guy personas that belied fragile egos.

Trump bestowed a sense of importance on Cohen, allowing his hangdog fixer to bask in reflected glory. When he received Trump’s praise, Cohen testified, it was “like I was on top of the world.”

In return, Cohen has said, he acted the part of a “thug.” He would bully and cajole Trump’s enemies, both real and perceived. He threw tantrums and deployed profanity as punctuation.

“It was whatever concerned him, whatever he wanted,” Cohen said, including threatening litigation against a Miss USA contestant and calling reporters seeking changes to unflattering articles.

Asked by a prosecutor, Susan Hoffinger, whether he acted in a “threatening manner,” Cohen replied, “I would say so,” though not all the time.

He also became something of an alter ego to his fame-hungry boss. Cohen learned from him, imitated him and even had Trump’s voluminous list of contacts synced into his phone for ease, he explained from the stand Monday.

But Trump steered clear of email, Cohen noted, out of fear he would create a paper trail for prosecutors. “He would comment that emails are like written papers,” Cohen said, adding that, Trump knew “too many people who have gone down as a direct result of having emails that prosecutors can use in a case.”

For weeks leading up to the testimony, prosecutors had inured the jury to Cohen’s outsize personality, prone to both tirades and charm, as they elicited testimony from witnesses who had little love for the former fixer.

That move that may have been designed to neutralize the defense’s attack on Cohen as a liar motivated by a deep-seated desire for revenge. He is also, as the defense is fond of noting, a felon: In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to federal crimes, some related to the hush-money payment.

Prosecutors are offering Cohen nothing. Unlike a traditional cooperating witness who trades testimony for leniency, he has already spent more than a year in federal prison. Since then, he has cast himself as an anti-Trump crusader, dedicating two books, a podcast and countless television appearances to seeking what he once called a “way to right some of the many wrongs I committed at his behest.”

On Monday, Cohen seized the moment, delivering a steady performance that could offer him a measure of public redemption and personal revenge. But next, the defense will cross-examine Cohen, and it could be brutal. Trump’s lawyers are expected to seize on his credibility, or, as they see it, his lack thereof.

It was not the two men’s first reunion in a Manhattan courtroom — Cohen testified last year in Trump’s civil fraud trial. The former president’s criminal lawyers are likely to accuse Cohen of lying on the stand then.

Trump, who faces probation or as long as four years in prison, has cast himself as a victim of prosecutorial overreach. And even as the judge has imposed a gag order that prevents him from attacking Cohen and other witnesses, he has summoned political allies to the courthouse to do his bidding for him.

On Monday, he was traveling with an even heavier entourage of Republican officials than normal, including two U.S. senators (JD Vance and Tommy Tuberville) a congressmember (Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island) and two state attorneys general. He also had his son, Eric Trump, who sat two rows behind his father, glaring at Cohen and posting social media attacks.

Cohen’s story on the stand included no heroes, and the prosecution did not try to sugarcoat it. Even Cohen appeared disgusted at one point: He shook his head and darted his eyes as prosecutors played a surreptitious recording he had made of a conversation with Trump about the hush-money deal with McDougal.

Cohen hammered home the recording’s significance, translating veiled messages to a rapt jury. On the recording, Cohen and Trump discussed how to repay their “friend David,” a reference to Pecker.

Cohen also revealed more private conversations, recalling that Trump had remarked how “really beautiful” McDougal was. When Cohen warned that she was poised to go public, he said, Trump told him to “make sure it doesn’t get released.”

Cohen said Trump greeted the news of the Enquirer deal with a single word: “fantastic.”

The bargain with Daniels, hashed out in the campaign’s final month, was less smooth. Pecker refused to pay her, putting the onus on Trump, and therefore Cohen. When Trump was slow to decide, hoping the threat would subside after Election Day, Cohen said that he used every imaginable excuse to stall Daniels’ lawyer.

“I was following directions,” Cohen explained.

But Daniels became impatient and threatened to walk away.

Cohen tried to coax the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer to pay, but that failed as well.

Finally, Cohen said, he decided to pay out of his own pocket.

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