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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Trump and Michael Cohen come face to face at New York fraud trial

Former President Donald Trump is confronting one of his most prominent accusers in court on Tuesday, with his former attorney Michael Cohen taking the stand to testify against him at Trump’s ongoingfraud trialin New York.

Cohen, who was Trump’s “fixer” for years, is a key witness against Trump in the New York civil case, as well as a separate Manhattan criminal case. In the civil case, Cohen was expected to testify about alleged communications with Trump and others about so-called statements of financial condition.

Wearing a dark denim-colored jacket and white button-down shirt with no tie, Cohen took the stand shortly after noon, following testimony from another witness earlier in the morning. As he entered the spacious courtroom, Trump did not turn to face him. Cohen appeared to glance over quickly.

Michael Cohen’s testimony

Cohen began by laying out various crimes to which he pleaded guilty in 2018. He told the court that he was employed by Trump when those crimes were committed. While some involved his own finances, he said he lied to Congress “for the direct benefit of Trump.”

Under questioning from the state’s attorney, Cohen explained that he wasn’t part of the legal department of the Trump Organization, and only answered to Trump.

“I reported and only worked for Trump. I was his special counsel,” he said. “Whatever created ire for him, he would bring it to me so I would resolve.”

The questioning soon turned to the statements of financial condition. The state alleges Trump fraudulently prepared the statements to inflate his personal wealth in order to obtain more favorable loan terms. Cohen testified that Trump directed him to adjust the statements to arrive at a predetermined number.

“I was tasked by Mr. Trump to increase the total assets based upon a number that he arbitrarily selected, and my responsibility along with Allen Weisselberg, predominantly, was to reverse engineer the various asset classes, increase those assets in order to achieve the number that Mr. Trump had tasked us with,” Cohen said, prompting Trump to shake his head and fold his arms across his chest. Trump mostly stared straight ahead at a monitor showing a live transcript of the proceedings and rarely looked at Cohen.

Weisselberg is the former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization and a co-defendant in the fraud case. Hetook the stand earlier in the trialand said he did not recall many key details.

Exiting the courtroom during a break in his testimony, Cohen was asked by a reporter about seeing Trump again after all these years. “Heck of a reunion,” he replied.

At least one member of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s team was on hand to watch Cohen on the stand. Cohen is the star witness in the criminal case brought by Bragg’s office, which stems from an alleged hush money payment paid to an adult film star before the 2020 election.

The case against Trump

New York Attorney General Letitia James has accused Trump, his adult sons and their company of using the statements to falsify the values of Trump properties, and ultimately Trump’s overall wealth, in order to gain undeserved loan terms that in fact did increase Trump’s wealth by hundreds of millions.

The state is demanding $250 million from the Trumps and their company — a clawback of what it calls “ill-gotten gains” — and asking a judge to order sanctions designed to limit their ability to do business in the state. Judge Arthur Engoron has already found Trump and his co-defendants liable for fraud. The trial is continuing over other allegations, including falsification of records, conspiracy and insurance fraud.

Cohen was originally expected to take the stand on Oct. 17, but his testimony was delayed due to illness. Trump, who is not required to attend the trial, did so that day and mocked Cohen, telling reporters Cohen “didn’t have the guts” to face him.

Cohen shot back at Trump in a text message to CBS News that day.

“If I was afraid of Donald, I wouldn’t have written 2 NYT bestsellers, testified before the Mueller team, seven congressional committees, 23 appearances before the Manhattan DA, and provided information to the NYAG that is the basis of this trial. Looking forward to seeing you in court very soon!” Cohen said.

Cohen testified to Congress in 2019 that Trump artificially inflated his wealth. The testimony spurred both this civil investigation and the criminal investigation led by Bragg.

The criminal probe resulted in the first indictment of a former president in American history. Trump entered a not guilty plea in April in that case, in which he’s charged with 34 felony counts of falsification of business records.

Trump has denied wrongdoing in both cases, as well as three others in which he is charged, claiming a coordinated effort by prosecutors aligned with his political foes to prevent him from being president again. Trump is seeking a return to the White House in the 2024 election.

Trump and attorneys for him and his co-defendants, who all deny wrongdoing in the case, have derided Cohen as a flawed witness who shouldn’t be trusted, due to his criminal history. Cohen entered a guilty plea in 2018 to federal campaign finance violations and tax evasion.

For years, prior to that case, Cohen was among Trump’s most trusted employees and advisers — a “fixer” relied on to solve pressing issues both in and out of the public eye.

Cohen is now a fierce adversary of Trump. He hosts a podcast that frequently focuses on Trump’s legal troubles, laced with biting, derogatory criticism of the former president.

Ash Kalmar contributed reporting.

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