Key takeaways as ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testifies in New York trial

Cohen testifies in former president’s hush-money trial about efforts to quash negative stories before 2016 election.

Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's one-time lawyer, departs his home in Manhattan to testify in the former president's criminal hush-money trial on May 13 [Mike Segar/Reuters]

Michael Cohen, the key prosecution witness in Donald Trump’s hush-money case, has testified against the former United States president in one of the most widely anticipated days in court since the trial began.

Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, told the court on Monday that he lied and bullied on behalf of his former boss.

“It was what was needed in order to accomplish the task,” said Cohen, periodically glancing over at Trump, who was slouched in his chair at the defendant’s table in the New York City courtroom.

Prosecutors have accused Trump of falsifying business records related to hush-money payments made before the 2016 election, which he won.

The prosecution’s case hinges on a $130,000 payment Cohen made to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the vote, in an effort to keep her from speaking publicly about a 2006 sexual encounter she says she had with Trump.

The former president has denied that any such encounter took place. He also has rejected the charges against him as politically motivated. The trial has come as Trump campaigns for re-election in November.

Here are the key takeaways from Cohen’s testimony on day 16 of the trial.

Cohen says he did ‘whatever’ Trump wanted

Cohen, 57, testified on Monday that it was fair to describe his role as being a fixer for Trump, testifying that he took care of “whatever he wanted”.

Rather than work as a traditional corporate lawyer, Cohen reported directly to Trump and was never part of the general counsel’s office for the Trump Organization.

Among his duties were renegotiating bills from business partners, threatening to sue people and planting positive stories in the press, he said.

Trump, he added, communicated primarily by phone or in person and never set up an email address.

“He would comment that emails are like written papers, that he knows too many people who have gone down as a direct result of having emails that prosecutors can use in a case,” Cohen said.

Michael Cohen is questioned by a prosecutor as Donald Trump looks on, in this courtroom sketch
A courtroom sketch shows Cohen being questioned by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger as Trump sits with his eyes closed on May 13 [Jane Rosenberg/Reuters]

Cohen details effort to quash bad press

Cohen testified that — at a meeting in 2015 with Trump and David Pecker, then-publisher of the National Enquirer — the trio discussed using the supermarket tabloid to boost Trump’s candidacy while attacking his rivals.

According to the testimony, Trump told Pecker to let Cohen know if he became aware of negative press that might arise, and the three men agreed that Pecker would try to suppress any such stories.

As Trump prepared to announce his campaign for president, he allegedly told Cohen that there would be “a lot of women coming forward”.

Cohen further explained that, as Trump’s then-lawyer, he sought to harness the power of the National Enquirer for his boss’s benefit, given its high visibility next to the cash registers at tens of thousands of supermarkets across the US.

He testified that he went to Trump immediately after the National Enquirer alerted him to a story being peddled about an alleged affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Cohen recalled going to Trump’s office and asking him if he knew McDougal or anything about the story. Cohen said Trump then told him to make sure that the story doesn’t get released.

Cohen said he thought the story would have a “significant” impact on Trump’s presidential campaign if it were to be published.

The McDougal news came shortly after the National Enquirer paid $30,000 to squash a doorman’s false rumour that Trump had a child out of wedlock. “You handle it,” Cohen remembers Trump telling him after learning that the doorman had come forward.

Cohen’s testimony on Monday echoed similar claims from Pecker, the publisher, earlier in the trial. Pecker testified about the so-called “catch-and-kill” scheme to suppress stories that could negatively affect Trump before the 2016 vote.

Publisher pressed him for reimbursement, Cohen says

After the National Enquirer paid $150,000 to suppress McDougal’s story, Cohen testified that the tabloid’s publisher was hounding him to get Trump to reimburse him for the cost.

Cohen recounted meeting Pecker at his favourite Italian restaurant and the publisher being upset about not being repaid for burying the story about Trump’s alleged affair with the ex-Playboy model.

Pecker was concerned, Cohen said, that “it was too much money for him to hide from the CEO of the parent company” and he’d already laid out $30,000 to suppress the doorman’s story.

Cohen added that, at some point, Pecker had also expressed to him that his company, American Media Inc, had a “file drawer — or a locked drawer as he described it — where files related to Mr Trump were located”.

Cohen said he was concerned because the publisher’s relationship with Trump went back years and that Pecker was in the running to head another media company. Cohen feared what would happen to the files if Pecker left.

Donald Trump waves as he attends his hush money trial
Trump attends the sixteenth day of his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 13 [Steven Hirsch/Pool via Reuters]

Trump furious at Daniels’ claims, Cohen says

Cohen also told jurors on Monday that Trump was furious that Daniels, the adult film star, was shopping a story about the sexual encounter she says she had with the ex-president.

“He said to me, ‘This is a disaster, a total disaster. Women are going to hate me,'” Cohen testified. “‘Guys, they think it’s cool, but this is going to be a disaster for the campaign.'”

Cohen explained he learned that Daniels was selling her story at a critical moment for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. An audio recording had just been leaked from the TV show Access Hollywood, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals.

The tape left the Trump campaign scrambling to contain the damage only weeks before Election Day in November 2016.

The ex-president’s defence team has suggested the payment to Daniels could have been made to spare Trump and his family embarrassment, not to boost his campaign. But Cohen testified that Trump appeared solely concerned with the effect on his presidential bid.

“He wasn’t thinking about Melania. This was all about the campaign,” said Cohen, referring to Trump’s wife. At the defence table, Trump shook his head.

Cohen added that he recalled Trump saying, “Just get past the election, because if I win, it will have no relevance because I’m the president, and if I lose, I won’t really care.”

‘Just do it,’ Cohen says Trump told him

Cohen also provided detailed testimony about the hush-money payment that he made to Daniels, which is at the heart of the prosecution’s case.

Cohen said Trump urged him to delay sending payment to Daniels’s lawyer until after the election, telling him that the story would no longer matter. In October 2016, with Daniels’s story about to come out, Cohen said Trump told him to finally pay up.

“He expressed to me: Just do it,” Cohen testified, saying Trump advised him to meet Trump Organization executive Allen Weisselberg and figure it out. Weisselberg baulked at paying, however, so Cohen said he decided to come up with the money himself.

“I ultimately said, ‘OK, I’ll pay it,’” Cohen testified, explaining that he resisted paying out of his own pocket, but eventually relented after Trump promised him, “You’ll get the money back.”

Trump’s lawyers have argued that Cohen acted on his own, a notion he rejected on the witness stand. “Everything required Mr Trump’s sign-off,” Cohen said on Monday.

Cohen also described during his testimony how he set up a shell company — falsely listed as a “real estate consulting company” — to facilitate the payment through a bank across the street from Trump Tower.

Prosecutors showed phone records to jurors indicating that Cohen called Trump’s line twice on the morning he visited the bank.

Trump’s defence team is expected to challenge Cohen’s credibility during cross-examination later this week and paint him as a liar who cannot be trusted.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal charges related to the hush-money payments, as well as for lying to Congress. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies