Michael Cohen testimony ties Donald Trump to hush money payment

Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump, with wife Melania Trump, announces his bid for president at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on Nov. 15, 2022.

NEW YORK – Former lawyer Michael Cohen, the key witness in Donald Trump’s hush money trial, began testifying Monday against his ex-boss – unspooling what prosecutors hope will be a critical thread of evidence tying the presumptive Republican presidential nominee directly to an illegal scheme to conceal a 2016 payment to an adult-film actress.

After years working as a hotheaded, sharp-tongued attack dog for Trump, Cohen was calm and collected in his first day on the witness stand in Manhattan criminal court, where he told the jury about financial transactions that are now the basis for 34 charges against Trump for allegedly falsifying business records.

He is expected back Tuesday to answer more questions.

Cohen’s testimony is critical to the prosecution because much of the evidence so far suggesting Trump agreed to falsify his business records is circumstantial, or based on a handful of the many documents that crossed Trump’s desk. Cohen is probably the only person whose testimony at the historic first trial of a former U.S. president will include what Trump allegedly said and knew about the payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels.

Under oath, Cohen said he was directed by Trump to give her money to stay quiet.

“Just do it,” Trump told Cohen, the lawyer testified. What the jury makes of those three words, and several other critical parts of Cohen’s testimony, may determine whether they find Trump guilty.

For two men who have been locked in a vicious public fight for years, each blaming the other for their legal woes, the highly-anticipated courtroom confrontation began with a civil and professional tone. Cohen’s appearance on the witness stand, in a blue suit and pink tie, was a far cry from his online video this month in which he wore a T-shirt with an image of Trump behind bars.

The atmosphere will likely change after prosecutors complete their direct questioning of Cohen, and defense lawyers begin their cross-examination – a high-stakes legal showdown years in the making, and one with significant potential consequences for Trump.

Cohen’s reputation as a foul-mouthed bully preceded him to the stand, as the jury heard from multiple witnesses about his often frantic, expletive-filled phone calls during and after Trump’s 2016 campaign. A far humbler Cohen admitted as much in his testimony, saying he sometimes threatened litigation or other hardball tactics to get what his boss wanted, whether he was dealing with a potentially damaging front-page news story or a fender bender with a taxi.

Testifying with a hangdog gaze and a thick Long Island accent, Cohen rarely made eye contact with Trump on Monday, preferring to look at prosecutor Susan Hoffinger as she asked him questions. Trump watched Cohen intermittently – at times shaking his head in apparent disagreement, disgust or both.

But he did nothing Monday morning to prompt the kind of scolding he elicited from the judge last week as Daniels described their interactions during a celebrity golf event in Lake Tahoe.

Cohen, who served time in prison for lying to Congress, among other things, and was disbarred for his admitted crimes, recounted telling Trump in October 2016 that Daniels was shopping around her story of their alleged sexual encounter a decade earlier. At that moment, Trump’s presidential campaign was still reeling from The Washington Post’s recent revelation that he had bragged during an “Access Hollywood” taping about grabbing women’s genitals.

“Women will hate me. Guys, they think it’s cool, but this is going to be a disaster for the campaign,” Trump said about the Daniels allegation, according to Cohen’s testimony.

Cohen told jurors that the candidate wanted him to buy the rights to Daniels’s story so the alleged sexual encounter would not come to light before the election, which was just weeks away.

“I thought you had this under control,” Trump complained to his lawyer, Cohen testified – an apparent reference to Cohen’s success five years earlier keeping the story of a tryst between Trump and the adult-film star from becoming public. Trump has denied the two had sex.

Prosecutors need to prove that Trump was directly involved in falsifying business records and that he did so to keep Daniels from sharing her story before the election.

Trump’s defense team has said that he was not directly involved in the payment and has maintained that Trump’s concern about the story becoming public was based on how his wife would react.

But Cohen said that as the two men discussed it at the time, Trump was far more worried about the campaign than his marriage.

“How are things going to go upstairs?” Cohen said he asked Trump – an oblique reference to Trump’s wife, Melania, who lived with him in a penthouse apartment in Trump Tower, where Trump’s offices also were located.

“Don’t worry,” Trump said, sounding unbothered, according to Cohen’s testimony.

“He wasn’t thinking about Melania, this was all about the campaign,” Cohen continued.

According to Cohen, Trump said he had friends who had advised him that given his wealth, it would be worth it to pay Daniels to stay quiet. “Just do it,” Trump allegedly told his lawyer, instructing Cohen to “figure it out” with the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg.

Cohen also testified that Weisselberg, now in jail for lying in a civil fraud case about Trump’s business, had helped pay off another woman who alleged that she had an affair with Trump.

He said Weisselberg suggested to him that they disguise the Daniels transaction through a golf tournament or “somebody who was having a family affair,” such as a wedding or bar mitzvah. When that idea didn’t pan out, Cohen said, he suggested that Weisselberg pay the money, noting that Trump’s loyal CFO made a seven-figure salary.

But Weisselberg said he had too many children in private school to shell out $130,000, so Cohen agreed to put up the money himself, he testified.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get paid back,” Trump said, according to Cohen.

After brokering a deal in late October to give Daniels $130,000, Cohen said he tried to stall on actually paying the money “because after the election, it wouldn’t matter.”

Much of that calculation was built around the widely-held assumption that Trump would lose the presidential election to Democrat Hillary Clinton. When he won, the problem transformed from a campaign scandal into a White House one.

Cohen described a meeting with Trump and Weisselberg that took place shortly before Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, in which Cohen said Trump approved the repayment plan for a $130,000 payoff to Daniels, including that it be classified as a legal cost.

The witness said Weisselberg explained to Trump at that meeting that Cohen would receive $420,000 in all. The money would be broken up into monthly installments over a year and would also cover a boost to Cohen’s annual bonus, payment for another expense he fronted, and an overall boost to the total so he would still be fully reimbursed after paying income tax.

Trump “approved it and turned around and said this is going to be one heck of a ride in D.C.,” Cohen testified.

Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger asked Cohen directly whether it was in front of Trump that Weisselberg said they would call the reimbursement for a hush money payment to Daniels a “retainer for legal services.”

Cohen confirmed Trump was there and said he had the impression that Trump and Weisselberg had worked out the repayment details in advance, before he was called into the room. That testimony, too, could prove pivotal, because he’s the only witness who has directly tied Trump to a scheme to mis-categorize the payment.

Throughout the day, Cohen appeared relaxed, even joking at times about what he’d done. He testified about setting up a shell company to pay Daniels. Asked whether he told his bank why he was forming the company, Cohen chuckled and said no.

“I’m not sure that they would have opened it if I stated, to pay off an adult-film star for a nondisclosure agreement,” he said.