Star witness Cohen testifies against Trump in hush money trial

Former Trump lawyer’s testimony is key in ex-president’s criminal prosecution, six months before US election.

Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building on his way to Manhattan criminal court on May 13, 2024 [Julia Nikhinson/AP Photo]

The star prosecution witness in Donald Trump’s hush money trial, Michael Cohen, has accused the former United States president of taking part in a scheme to suppress negative media coverage before the 2016 election.

Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer testified on Monday that he, Trump and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker agreed to use the tabloid to boost Trump’s presidential campaign while blocking any stories that might hurt his chances.

Cohen told jurors his former boss had approved hefty payouts to stifle media coverage that he feared could be harmful to his 2016 White House campaign.

“You handle it,” Cohen said Trump told him after learning that a doorman had come forward with a false claim that Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock.

Cohen’s widely anticipated appearance in the New York courtroom signals that the prosecution’s case in the closely watched criminal trial – the first against a US president in history – is entering its final stretch.

Prosecutors said they may wrap up their presentation of evidence by the end of the week.

Cohen also testified about his role in arranging hush money payments that prosecutors said were issued on Trump’s behalf, including to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

Daniels told jurors last week that a payment of $130,000 that she received in 2016 was meant to prevent her from going public about a sexual encounter she said she had with Trump at a celebrity golf tournament a decade earlier.

Trump has denied that any such encounter took place.

The ex-president is accused of falsifying business records to reimburse Cohen for the payment on the eve of the 2016 presidential election when the story could have proved politically fatal.

Prosecutors said the reimbursements were logged as legal expenses to conceal their true purpose.

Trump, who ultimately won the 2016 election and is running for re-election in November, has pleaded not guilty.

Defence to attack Cohen’s credibility

Defence lawyers are expected to try to paint Cohen, who once said he would “take a bullet” for Trump, as untrustworthy. They are also expected to cast him as vindictive and agenda-driven.

Since their fallout, the fixer-turned-foe has emerged as a relentless and sometimes crude critic of Trump. Last week, he appeared in a live TikTok stream wearing a shirt featuring a figure resembling Trump behind bars and wearing handcuffs.

Five years ago, Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the payments and to lying to Congress. Trump’s defence will highlight the prosecution’s reliance on a witness with such a record.

Reporting from New York on Monday, Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey said Cohen “has a lot of credibility issues” that the defence will likely seize on during cross-examination later this week.

“We’ve already heard supporters of Donald Trump making that argument outside of the courthouse here today,” Saloomey said. “Republican officials who showed up to support him came out and gave a news conference, saying that Michael Cohen was a lawyer who cannot be trusted.

“Ultimately, it will come down to the jury.”

Other witnesses in the case, including Pecker and former Trump adviser Hope Hicks, have testified at length about the role Cohen played in arranging to stifle stories that were considered harmful to Trump’s 2016 candidacy.

Jurors also heard an audio recording of Trump and Cohen discussing a plan to buy the rights to a story of a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, who has said she had an affair with Trump.

The trial is taking place six months before the November election when the Republican presidential hopeful will try to defeat Democratic President Joe Biden.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies