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Michael Cohen, Trump's ex-fixer, testifies about hush money payment to Stormy Daniels

NEW YORK — Settlement payments, nondisclosure agreements and measures taken to protect Donald Trump were at the center of Michael Cohen's testimony on Monday.

Cohen, known for being Trump's ex-lawyer, took the stand in the first criminal trial against the former president. Once known as his "fixer," Cohen testified to wanting to protect Trump and his reputation and that he required Trump's approval for a $130,000 settlement to keep an adult film star quiet about an alleged affair.

After several weeks of testimony, jurors heard Cohen confirm two key details on the stand: Trump knew about the settlement negotiation and Trump directed Cohen to make that payment because of the election. But Trump's lawyers will likely try to debunk Cohen's testimony and resurface his own convictions for lying under oath.

Cohen also testified that ahead of the 2016 election he worked to keep negative stories about Trump out of the media and worked to reduce the impact of the Access Hollywood tape. Cohen said Trump at the time was polling poorly with women voters and Stormy Daniels, an adult film star, was going to come out with a story she had an affair with Trump.

"He told me to work with [David Pecker of American Media Inc.] and get control over this ... and acquire the life rights," Cohen said, adding that Trump told him to "do what you need to do to stop this getting out."

Prosecutors showed the jury text messages and phone call records paired with Cohen's testimony that he had spoken with then-candidate Trump about payoffs to a former Playboy model and Daniels — both whom alleged they had affairs with Trump. Trump has denied the affairs.

Cohen said to Trump "this was all about the campaign" and "he wasn't thinking" about his wife, Melania. Trump has said the payments to Daniel were made in order to protect his family.

Prosecutors for the Manhattan district attorney allege that Trump falsified business records to pay off Daniels as a part of a larger scheme to influence the 2016 election.

Trump faces 34 felony counts alleging that reimbursements to Cohen for paying Daniels violated campaign finance law. Trump, who pleaded not guilty, claims the trial itself is "election interference" because of how it is disrupting his 2024 bid for president. He must be present in court every day and thus isn't able to campaign when he is.

This is the second trial that Cohen in which he has testified against Trump in front of Trump. Last fall he testified in a civil fraud trial, alleging that Trump inflated the value of his assets to land better business deals.

Cohen testified to several deals the jury has heard about

While on the witness stand on Monday, Cohen testified to the deal brokered between Trump, Cohen and the leadership at American Media Inc., to collaborate on positive stories about then-candidate Trump. He also testified to hearing about two allegations about Trump — an unsubstantiated allegation that Trump had fathered an illegitimate child and an allegation that he had an affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

A former Trump doorman was paid $30,000 to keep quiet about the child out-of-wedlock story, Cohen said, and Cohen reviewed the agreement. Then he testified about purchasing McDougal's story.

"We needed to acquire the story," Cohen testified. Jurors viewed text messages between Cohen and leadership at the National Enquirer tabloid, and call records, and Cohen testified he spoke to Trump about "the Karen McDougal matter."

He then testified to negotiating the payment for Daniels. The $130,0o0 settlement was negotiated, but the payout was slow-walked, he said,

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. McDougal is not expected to be called to testify.

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 McDougal and Daniels.

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.

Cohen's testimony continues on Tuesday

Cohen's testimony continues on Tuesday when he is likely to face questions from Trump's defense team about his own criminal past.

During opening statements, Trump lawyer Todd Blanche spent time trying to discreditCohen, who has a history of perjury. This has allowed the Trump team, and Trump himself, to go after Cohen as a witness without credibility.

"When are they going to look at all the lies that Cohen did in the last trial?" Trump said in the courthouse hall in March. Prosecutors argued this statement amounted to a gag order violation.

Weeks before the trial began, New York Judge Juan Merchan issued a gag order on Trump that specifically bars him from making or directing others to make public statements about potential witnesses, jurors, court staff or family members of staff.

Last week, Merchan directed prosecutors to also ask Cohen to stop talking about the case and about Trump.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump and attorney Emil Bove attend his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 13, 2024 in New York City.
Steven Hirsch / Getty Images
Getty Images
Former U.S. President Donald Trump and attorney Emil Bove attend his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 13, 2024 in New York City.

Background on the case

In 2019, Cohen told Congress that he discussed "reimbursements" for the hush money, with Trump, early in his presidency, at the White House.

"And he says to me something to the effect of, 'Don't worry, Michael. Your January and February reimbursement checks are coming,'" Cohen told Congress. "They were FedEx'd from New York. And it takes a while for that to get through the White House system.'"

Jurors have been presented with a photo, a meeting memo, copies of FedEx receipts. The prosecution and the defense this week will be locked in the battle over whether Cohen is an unrepentant liar, as Trump claims, or whether he has lied, but in this case is telling the truth.

Cohen's journey from someone who once said he'd "take a bullet" for Trump to someone who has emerged as a key witness against the former president has been long.

In 2018, the two men had a falling out amid a federal investigation into Cohen's financial dealings and special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential race.

Prior to that, Cohen did Trump's dirty work: stiffing vendors, intimidating reporters, making secret deals. But after the Daniels' story blew up in 2018, Trump stopped paying Cohen's legal bills, and Cohen became what Trump very publicly called "a rat." The Daniels case is at the heart of the criminal case against Trump in New York.

In late 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to a raft of federal charges, including campaign finance violations related to hush money payouts to two women in exchange for their public silence about their personal relationships with Trump. He said he did that "at the direction" of Trump.

In February 2019, Cohen testified before the House Oversight Committee.

"Mr. Trump is a cheat," Cohen told lawmakers at the time. "It was my experience that Mr. Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes, such as trying to be listed amongst the wealthiest people in Forbes, and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes."

Trump has long argued that he has done no wrong and has repeatedly cast Cohen as untrustworthy. That has done little to deter prosecutors who have made Cohen's account of working for Trump a cornerstone of their case against the former president. He is expected to be one of the last prosecution witnesses against Trump this week.

Cohen's testimony to Congress could be a harbinger of what the court could hear from him in the coming says. Some of his testimony to Congress has already been corroborated. Hope Hicks, the former Trump communications aide, testified about how concerned the campaign was after the release of the Access Hollywood tape before the 2016 election.

"I don't think anybody would dispute this belief that after the wildfire that encompassed the Billy Bush tape, that a second follow up to it would have been pleasant," Cohen told Congress in 2019. "And he was concerned with the effect that it had had on the campaign, on how women were seeing him, and ultimately whether or not he would have a shot in the general election."

Copyright 2024 NPR

NPR Washington Desk
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.