Trump’s former ‘thug’ Michael Cohen set for testimony in hush money case

May 13, 2024, 8:13 AM

Michael Cohen Trump trial...

Michael Cohen leaves for a break during the civil business fraud trial of former President Donald Trump at New York Supreme Court, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

(AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

(CNN) — Michael Cohen once described himself as Donald Trump’s “spokesman, thug, pit bull and lawless lawyer.”

But this week, he has a new role. He will be the star witness for prosecutors trying to prove Trump illegally falsified business records after paying off adult film actress Stormy Daniels as part of an alleged election interference scheme in 2016.

Cohen’s testimony is set to be the critical moment of the hush money trial that could make Trump the first ex-president to be convicted of a crime. His appearance will mark the zenith of a bitter personal feud between two brash New Yorkers obsessed with betrayal and revenge. And it marks one of the most lurid twists yet in the presumptive Republican nominee’s legal morass that is entwined with the 2024 election.

Related reading: Here are the key players in Trump’s hush money trial

Trump’s former fixer wrote in his autobiography that he craved reflected influence and notoriety from Trump, so he adopted the real estate magnate’s methods — including bullying, lying and mocking the rule of law — to serve him. He once vowed to take a bullet for his boss. But his testimony will be his latest attempt to atone for this Faustian pact after he paid the price, including with a spell in prison, for his years as a kingpin in Trump’s orbit.

In many ways, Cohen is the mirror image of Trump — a colorful braggart and social media provocateur who craved power and riches and was prepared to pay any price and to intimidate anyone to get them. Cohen, who worked for the Trump Organization cleaning up the mess from the family’s personal scandals and busted business deals, facilitated the $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels, he says, on the orders of his boss. Trump has denied having an affair with Daniels, whose testimony last week about their alleged liaison at Lake Tahoe in 2006 seemed excruciating for the ex-president. He has pleaded not guilty in this case and to three other criminal indictments.

Cohen’s value as a witness is that he was involved in every aspect of Trump’s business and personal life, knew all his secrets, and was allegedly an accessory in his efforts to break the law and thwart accountability. In his book “Disloyal,” Cohen wrote, “I know where the skeletons are buried because I was the one who buried them.”

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said in his opening statement that “Cohen made that payment at the defendant’s direction, and he did it to influence the presidential election.” After the election, Trump is accused of working out a scheme in the Oval Office to reimburse Cohen for the hush money payment in installments disguised as billing for legal services. “The defendant falsified those business records because he wanted to conceal his and others’ criminal conduct,” Colangelo said, adding that both Cohen and the prosecution will be up-front about mistakes Cohen has made in the past.

Cohen’s friend and fellow former Trump acolyte Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as the ex-president’s White House communications director, said the former fixer will be able to prove the criminality of campaign interference. “I think unfortunately for Donald Trump, Michael Cohen has the receipts for everything that went on,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Friday. “They’re smoking gun receipts, and he’s going to provide very compelling, very honest, very direct testimony.”

How Trump’s legal team will seek to discredit Cohen

But like Trump, Cohen has a long history of trashing the truth, and since turning on his onetime mentor, he has sought to monetize his campaign against him with books – including one called “Revenge” – podcasts and television appearances. He is, therefore, vulnerable to a savage cross-examination by Trump’s attorneys, who will lambast him as an unreliable witness on a quest for payback as they seek to sow reasonable doubt over Trump’s culpability in the mind of at least one juror.

Trump’s attorneys will argue that his payments to Cohen were a legal retainer and that paying someone to stop what they say are unfounded rumors about the ex-president is not illegal. In his opening statement, Trump lawyer Todd Blanche suggested Cohen sought revenge because he was not given a job in the new president’s administration in 2017. He also accused Cohen of an unhealthy obsession with Trump.

“He criticizes President Trump. He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump go to prison. He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump’s family go to prison. He has talked extensively about President Trump getting convicted in this case,” Blanche said.

Trump’s former fixer was sent to prison after pleading guilty to lying to Congress about a possible Trump business project in Russia, for orchestrating illegal campaign contributions in the form of hush money payments and on various tax evasion charges.

How prosecutors built a foundation under Cohen’s testimony

This issue of credibility is why prosecutors have spent days building a foundation for Cohen’s testimony, taking jurors through inner workings of the Trump Organization including with bank records, text messages and evidence from the firm’s former employees as they seek to prove 34 counts that allege Trump falsified financial records to hide the hush money payments. The testimony from Daniels was designed to illustrate the incident Trump allegedly tried to keep from voters in his successful White House campaign eight years ago.

Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean said on “CNN Newsroom” on Saturday that the government case against Trump was “very powerful” and that “they have built such a structure that Michael Cohen can come in and testify and he is largely corroborated already.”

Cohen has tried to counter defense claims that he has ulterior motives for seeking vengeance against Trump by styling his decision to flip on the former president as a quest for redemption and an attempt to warn the public about the danger Trump poses if he is elected in November.

At a dramatic congressional hearing in 2019, Cohen painted a stunning portrait of the mob-like world in which his former boss did business and said that “my loyalty to Mr. Trump has cost me everything.” He testified that everything he did — from organizing the suppression of tabloid news stories unflattering to Trump, to bullying business rivals and closing deals — was in the service of one thing: “Everybody’s job at the Trump Organization is to protect Mr. Trump,” he said, adding that he had been directed by his boss to threaten people more than 500 times. “I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat,” Cohen said.

The Trump worshipper-turned-enemy was a small-time lawyer and businessman who made his fortune in New York taxi medallions before he came to the future president’s attention when he was looking for an enforcer along the lines of the late and notorious New York lawyer Roy Cohn.

Trump, who will sit just feet away from his former henchman in the courtroom this week, has been equally unflattering about Cohen. He’s spent months lacerating his former lawyer’s character on social media. And Cohen’s appearance on the witness stand will likely prove one of the biggest tests of Trump’s capacity to avoid infringing the gag order protecting key witnesses and court staff that he has already been fined $10,000 for violating 10 times. Last week, Judge Juan Merchan directly warned Trump that future violations could force him to impose jail time.

It will not be the first time the two former partners meet in court. Cohen was a key witness in Trump’s civil fraud trial in New York last fall that resulted in a near half-billion-dollar judgment against the ex-president, his adult sons and the Trump Organization. In what Cohen described as a “heck of a reunion,” he testified that he manipulated Trump’s financial statements to “reverse-engineer” them to hit an arbitrary net wealth figure in a key moment in the prosecution case.

He also sparred heatedly with Trump’s lawyers, who tried to discredit him in cross-examination in a way that underscores the risk prosecutors will take putting him on the stand in the hush money trial — which, unlike the civil fraud case, is being heard by a jury.

It is becoming clearer that this trial — seen by legal experts as the weakest criminal threat facing the former president — may be the only one to go to a jury before November’s election. The three other cases are all effectively on hold. The Supreme Court is deliberating the former president’s sweeping immunity claims arising from his federal election interference indictment, and a Trump-appointed judge in Florida has postponed his classified documents trial after dragging her feet on adjudicating pretrial motions and disputes. The election interference case in Florida has become mired in a controversy over whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should be disqualified from the case.

While the hush money trial harks back to the 2016 election, its end game could play a significant role in the destiny of the White House eight years later. There is no clear sign yet that proceedings have had any impact on Trump’s standing in the race after he brandished his indictments to bolster his claims that he’s the victim of election interference himself. This helped him crush the GOP primary field, and some polls suggest that some Republicans could think twice about voting for him in a neck-and-neck race with President Joe Biden if he’s a convicted felon. But the ex-president would be sure to use any acquittal to argue that all of the cases against him are equally meritless.

Cohen’s testimony, therefore, may have consequences far beyond the courtroom.

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Trump’s former ‘thug’ Michael Cohen set for testimony in hush money case