Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, is testifying against him in the hush money trial

By Ximena Bustillo and NPR Washington Desk
Michael Cohen is expected to testify this week against former President Trump in New York. AFP via Getty Images

NEW YORK — Michael Cohen, known for being the ex-lawyer of Donald Trump, has taken the stand in the first criminal trial against the former president.

He is expected to bolster the prosecutors case that Trump falsified business records to pay off Stormy Daniels, the adult film star, with whom the former president is alleged to have had an affair.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Trump faces 34 felony counts alleging that he falsified New York business records to conceal damaging information to influence the 2016 presidential election. 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.

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.

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 about McDougal’s story. 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.”

Cohen’s testimony comes just days after Daniels, the other woman who received a payment, took the stand against the former president.

Daniels, also known as Stephanie Clifford, is one of two women the prosecution is alleging Trump paid off to protect his electoral prospects the first time he ran for the White House.

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 in 2018 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 whole Stormy 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.”