In testimony, Michael Cohen recounts how reimbursements from Donald Trump were paid

In testimony, Michael Cohen recounts how reimbursements from Donald Trump were paid
In testimony, Michael Cohen recounts how reimbursements from Donald Trump were paid
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Former US president Donald Trump speaks to members of the media with his attorney, Todd Blanche, while supporters appear in the background at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 14.Craig Ruttle/Reuters

Donald Trump’s lead defense lawyer portrayed Michael Cohen as an “obsessed” former toady of his client who is now out for revenge at Mr. Trump’s criminal hush-money trial on Tuesday.

As he began his cross-examination of Mr. Cohen, Todd Blanche sought to discredit Mr. Trump’s former fixer and the prosecution’s star witness during Mr. Cohen’s second day of testimony in a Lower Manhattan courtroom.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Cohen described an Oval Office meeting in February, 2017, at which the newly inaugurated president confirmed details of reimbursing Mr. Cohen for paying off porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election.

He declared all of the documents related to the reimbursement, including several checks personally signed by Mr. Trump, were “false records.” And he reiterated that the payoff was done “at the direction of Donald J. Trump” so Ms. Daniels “would not effect Mr. Trump’s chances of becoming president.”

The prosecution’s 19th and final witness, Mr. Cohen’s testimony is meant to prove its case that the former president orchestrated the payment to improperly influence the 2016 election and then covered it up by falsifying business records.

So Mr. Blanche, in an early afternoon of questioning, cast Mr. Cohen as motivated by anger and a desire to make money off his association with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Blanche then had Mr. Cohen confirm a long list of insults he has lobbed at Mr. Trump on social media, in cable television appearances and on his two podcasts. These included saying Mr. Trump belonged in a “cage” like an “animal,” and calling him a “Cheeto-dusted cartoon villain.” On his website, Mr. Cohen sells T-shirts that show Mr. Trump in handcuffs wearing an orange jumpsuit.

“Do you want President Trump to get convicted in this case?” Mr. Blanche asked. “Sure,” Mr. Cohen replied. The former fixer also confirmed that he made US$3.4-million from two books about Mr. Trump. He acknowledged that prosecutors have repeatedly asked him to stop attacking Mr. Trump in public statements during the trial.

Mr. Blanche then led Mr. Cohen through a history of his dealings with Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen, who had been a long-time admirer of the real estate magnate, caught his eye by buying multiple units in one of his condo buildings and successfully fighting a bid by other owners to take Mr. Trump’s name off it. Mr. Trump then hired him.

Mr. Blanche suggested Mr. Cohen was “obsessed with president Trump.” Mr. Cohen replied: “I wouldn’t say obsessed. I admired him tremendously.” Confronted with a string of obsequious statements Mr. Cohen made while he worked for Mr. Trump, he said “at that time, I was knee-deep into the cult of Donald Trump.”

On Tuesday morning, the prosecution finished its examination of Mr. Cohen by having him place Mr. Trump squarely at the center of schemes to pay off Ms. Daniels and Playboy playmate Karen McDougal, who both say they had sex with Mr. Trump.

Recounting his February, 2017, White House visit, Mr. Cohen said Mr. Trump “asked me if I needed money” and then confirmed that Mr. Cohen would get “a check for January and February” as part of an installation plan to pay him back for the US$130,000 he gave Ms. Daniels to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Mr. Cohen said the payments were disguised as legal retainers but were not actually that.

In the year he was receiving the reimbursements, he said, he did little work for Mr. Trump. Instead, he sold his access to the then-president to various companies for US$4-million in “consulting” fees.

When details of the payment to Ms. Daniels became public in early 2018, Mr. Cohen orchestrated a plan for Ms. Daniels to deny it, including drafting a statement for her saying the story was untrue. It all came crashing down in April of that year, Mr. Cohen said, when the FBI raided his hotel room.

A phone call with Mr. Trump that day was the last time the pair spoke. “‘Don’t worry. I’m the president of the United States. There’s nothing here. Everything’s going to be okay. Stay tough. You’re going to be okay,’ ” Mr. Cohen quoted Mr. Trump as telling him .

Afterward, he said, Mr. Trump set up a convoluted arrangement in which Mr. Cohen could contact him through another lawyer, Robert Costello. In emails presented to the court Tuesday, Mr. Costello told Mr. Cohen he had a “back channel” to Mr. Trump and “friends in high places.” Mr. Trump continued to pay Mr. Cohen’s legal bills. Mr. Cohen said he finally turned on Mr. Trump after his wife and two grown children confronted him.

In contrast with his typically aggressive personality, Mr. Cohen was relatively subdued and under control on the stand.

The former president on Tuesday again brought a large entourage with him to the courthouse. House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters that the prosecution of Mr. Trump was a “sham.” Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who is vying to become Mr. Trump’s vice-presidential running mate, complained that court was “straight out of a Kafka novel.”

In the long lineup of members of the public outside the courthouse, one woman sold her spot in the public gallery for US$350.

Inside the courtroom, prosecutors tried to pre-empt defense attacks on Mr. Cohen’s character by having him detail his criminal convictions and serial lying. He went to prison for breaking election laws in relation to the Daniels payment, a separate tax evasion case and lying to Congress about an attempt by Mr. Trump to build a tower in Moscow. Mr. Cohen also admitted lying about that matter to special counsel Robert Mueller during his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Mr. Cohen said that, despite everything, he had some “very interesting great times” working for Mr. Trump and “I don’t regret” taking the job.

“I regret doing things for him that I should not have – lying, bullying people,” Mr. Cohen said. “To keep the loyalty and to do the things that he had asked me to do, I violated my moral compass and I suffered the penalty.”

The trial continued on Thursday, when Mr. Blanche said he expected to spend all day on cross-examination of Mr. Cohen. He said the defense was still trying to decide whether to call one expert witness next week and whether to have Mr. Trump take the stand.

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