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The cross examination of Michael Cohen, Trump's ex-fixer, has begun in New York trial

Michael Cohen, former President Donald Trump's ex-fixer, leaves his apartment building in New York Tuesday morning.
Seth Wenig
/
AP
Michael Cohen, former President Donald Trump's ex-fixer, leaves his apartment building in New York Tuesday morning.

Updated May 14, 2024 at 17:20 PM ET

NEW YORK — Michael Cohen wrapped up a second day of witness testimony as the prosecution's key witness against former President Donald Trump. Once a loyal "protector" of Trump as his former "fixer," the now-staunch critic testified about receiving payments prosecutors argue are false business records.

After several weeks of testimony, jurors on Monday heard Cohen confirm two key details on the stand: Trump knew about the settlement negotiation with former adult actor Stormy Daniels to keep her allegations of an affair out of the press ahead of the 2016 election, and that Trump directed Cohen to make a settlement payment of $130,000 to her.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche began cross-examination after lunch, immediately focusing questions aimed to suggest Cohen is personally motivated to put Trump in jail as well as his well-documented history of lying.

For much of the morning, Cohen testified about how much he said he had done to "protect" Trump after he became president, including lying to Congress, misleading the Federal Elections Commission and lying to reporters by saying that he alone authorized the hush money payment to Daniels.

Later in the morning, Cohen testified about how the law had caught up with him: On April 9, 2019, his home, office and the hotel where he and his family were staying were raided by the FBI. Shortly after, Cohen said, he and then-President Trump spoke for what would be the last time.

"He said to me, 'Don't worry. I am the president of the United States ... you are going to be OK,' " Cohen recounted on the stand.

"I felt reassured, I had the president of the United States protecting me," Cohen said, looking directly at the jury, their eyes trained on him. "I would continue to stay in the camp."

But that did not last long. An attorney connected to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, then Trump's attorney, reached out to Cohen, but Cohen didn't trust him. Four months later, when presented with an 80-page potential indictment that included his wife, Cohen said he decided to plead guilty to lying to banks, tax evasion and violating campaign finance laws. This last crime, Cohen said, he did on behalf of and for the benefit of Donald Trump.

"My family, my wife, my daughter, my son all said to me, 'Why are you holding on to this loyalty? What are you doing? We are supposed to be your first loyalty,' " Cohen said about what led to his decision to plead guilty. "It was about time to listen to them."

At the end of direct examination, Cohen said he doesn't regret working for the Trump Organization. But he "violated my moral compass and I suffered a great penalty as did my family."

Cohen faced a long-awaited cross-examination targeting his character

Trump faces 34 felony counts alleging that reimbursements to Cohen for paying Daniels violated campaign finance law. Trump has pleaded not guilty, and he has denied allegations of extramarital affairs.

Prosecutors have spent weeks setting up Cohen's corroboration of Trump's knowledge of 34 allegedly falsified documents. But they also set him up as someone bullish, unlikeable and self-interested. At the same time, the defense and Trump himself have long attacked Cohen's credibility.

Blanche began a cross-examination focusing on Cohen's podcast, his history of disparaging Trump and his motivations for testifying against the former president. He asked whether Cohen has profited off of podcasts, books and social media attacking Trump.

The defense quoted statements, one as recent as April 23 — made during while the trial was getting underway — when Cohen called Trump a "dictator douchebag" and a "Cheeto-dusted cartoon villain" and showed the jury how Cohen sells T-shirts showing Trump in an orange jumpsuit behind bars. All this, the defense noted, even when the prosecutors asked Cohen to not discuss the trial.

When Blanche pressed him on how could remember conversations with Trump from 2016 but not conversations with prosecutors last year, Cohen doubled down, shooting back that he remembers all conversations with Trump.

Prosecutors could rest their case as soon as Thursday. Little is known about the defense's witness plan. Blanche indicated they may call an expert witness on Monday and may or may not still call Trump himself to the stand.

Cohen testified to Trump's knowledge of payments to Daniels

Earlier Tuesday, Cohen explained how he was reimbursed for the settlement payment to Daniels, noting that it was not for any legal services rendered. Prosecutors walked Cohen through several of the invoices at the center of the trial. One of Trump's main arguments is that he was simply paying his lawyer.

Over and over, Cohen said that he lied and ran damage control in order to protect his then-boss, including after the news broke that a settlement had been made with Daniels.

And Cohen read over statements originally made when trying to quash the media reports of the payment — which included what he now says are false claims that Trump didn't know about the deals.

During Monday's testimony, Cohen testified to alleged conversations with Trump aimed at showing that not only was Trump aware, but he was influencing the negotiations with Daniels. He testified to directly negotiating the payment for Daniels but that he kept Trump up to date about every step.

Cohen testified to various conversations he allegedly had with the former president about the deals. And he also testified to how Trump and other executives at the Trump Organization promised to pay him $420,000, which covered reimbursement for the payment to Daniels, $50,000 for some technology services, a $60,000 bonus, plus some extra to cover taxes, paid out over a year. Cohen says Trump approved it, then testified the former president said, "this is going to be one heck of a ride in D.C."

The jury has heard much of this before. Cohen's testimony comes just days after Daniels took the stand against the former president.

Jurors have also heard from former National Enquirer publisher Pecker, who first testified to the details of the deals made to flag potentially damaging stories to Cohen and Trump. And jurors heard from Keith Davidson, the lawyer who negotiated the nondisclosure agreements and settlement payments for Daniels and former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal. McDougal is not expected to be called to testify.

Davidson also testified to believing Cohen was slow-walking the payout, a suspicion Cohen confirmed on the stand.

"I was instructed to push it until after the election," Cohen said of Trump. "I was following directions."

Several former and current Trump employees, both from his flagship company and his administration, testified to the process in which Trump received personal invoices and paid personal checks — including those used to pay Cohen back.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.