May 20, 2024

It was a big day for Alvin Bragg and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office as the prosecution called its star witness, Michael Cohen, to the stand to testify in the case against former President Donald Trump. Cohen, of course, served as Trump’s personal attorney and was a key figure in negotiating the non-disclosure agreement with Stormy Daniels (through her then-attorney, Keith Davidson), arranging the payment to Daniels himself. It is Trump’s subsequent payments to Cohen, categorized as “legal expenses,” which the prosecution asserts were, in fact, reimbursement for the NDA payment and, thus, should have been categorized as a campaign expense because the true motivation for the arrangement was to benefit Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Allegedly. 

So, after a somewhat eventful few days of testimony last week (including that of Daniels), the prosecution kicked off Monday with Cohen, who was admonished by Judge Juan Merchan to zip it regarding the trial.


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Trump was joined in court Monday morning by his son, Eric, attorney Alina Habba, and several Republican politicians, including Sen. J.D. Vance (OH), Sen. Tommy Tuberville (AL), and Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (NY). 

Prior to calling the jury into the courtroom, Judge Merchan announced his ruling on an evidentiary matter involving former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg. Merchan ruled that prosecutors would not be allowed to introduce evidence of Weisselberg’s severance agreement, noting that “It doesn’t move the ball.” 

Once the jury was brought in, the prosecution called Cohen to the stand. They started out with questions about his background, how he got into law, and his investment in taxi medallions. Cohen testified that he first began working with Trump while living at Trump World Tower after helping with a co-op board takeover. Cohen was at his prior firm at the time. When he presented the $100,000 bill for legal fees, Trump offered him a job as EVP for the Trump Organization but also discouraged him from asking about the bill. 

Cohen says that Trump asked whether he was happy at his “sleepy, old firm,” and then asked whether Cohen wanted to work for him.

“And I was honored, I was taken by surprise,” Cohen says.

“He offered me the position of EVP Trump Org. and special counsel to Donald J. Trump, whereby I would only answer to him and I would work on issues that were of concern to him,” Cohen says.

Trump never paid him for the bill from Trump Entertainment Resorts. “He asked me if I wanted to get fired on the first day if I asked about the bill,” Cohen says, while smiling at the memory.

From that point, Cohen worked directly for Trump, answering to him, rather than the Trump Organization’s general counsel’s office. 

Cohen was tasked with, among other things, renegotiating bills for Trump, contacting the press regarding unfavorable coverage, or promoting positive coverage. Cohen testified that Trump never maintained an email address. 

“During certain conversations, he would comment…(that) emails are like written papers. He knows too many people who have gone down as a direct result of having emails that prosecutors can use in a case.”

Cohen’s office was moved closer to Trump’s and he spoke with him multiple times a day without the need for an appointment. Trump expected to be updated and kept informed when Cohen was tasked with doing something. 

“If you didn’t immediately provide him with the information and he learned it in another manner that wouldn’t go over well for you.”

Cohen characterized Trump as a micromanager and himself as a fixer. He described his 10 years working for Trump as “fantastic.” He called Trump “Boss” or “Mr. Trump.” Cohen testified he would sometimes lie or bully people for Trump. 

Cohen turned his cell phones over to the DA’s office when they requested them. At some point, Trump’s contacts were synced into his phone. Cohen had over 30,000 contacts in his phone. 

Cohen knew former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker before he knew Trump — they had mutual friends. Cohen sometimes communicated with Pecker via Signal, particularly for confidential discussions. Cohen testified he was not familiar with the “catch and kill” practice of suppressing stories prior to Trump’s presidential bid. 

Cohen was asked about Trump’s potential 2012 presidential run — they looked into it in 2011 and set up a website to test the enthusiasm but Trump ultimately opted not to run that cycle. 

“There were several large real estate projects that he had acquired as well as another season of the ‘Apprentice.’ As Mr. Trump told me, ‘you don’t leave Hollywood, Hollywood leaves you,’” he testifies.

Per Cohen, Trump warned there would be “a lot of women coming forward” with stories once he announced his run. Cohen didn’t have a formal role in the 2016 campaign but acted as a surrogate, speaking to the press.  

Cohen described the 2015 meeting at Trump Tower between Pecker and Trump. 

“What was discussed was the power of the National Enquirer in terms of being located at the cash register of so many supermarkets and bodegas that if we can place positive stories about Mr. Trump that would be beneficial,” Cohen said.

“And if we can place negative stories about some of the other candidates that would also be beneficial,” Cohen added.

When the story from the doorman regarding Trump allegedly having fathered a child out of wedlock began circulating, Trump asked Cohen to handle it. The plan was for AMI to purchase the story for $30,000 and take it off the market. Per Cohen, Trump was grateful it was. Cohen suggested including a liquidated damages clause in the agreement (requiring payment of $1,000,000 in the event it was breached).

Cohen testified he was contacted by Pecker or editor Dylan Howard about the Karen McDougal story, which he felt would have a “significant” impact on the campaign. When he alerted Trump to it, Trump instructed him to make sure it wasn’t released, which he interpreted as meaning he should acquire the story, as they did with the doorman’s. 

On June 16, 2016, Howard advised Cohen they would be meeting with McDougal and her attorney in a few days. Phone records show a two-and-a-half-minute phone call between Cohen and Trump that day as well. Cohen asked for an update from Howard as soon as the meeting with McDougal was over. Cohen was present in Trump’s office for a call between Trump and Pecker (on speakerphone) in which Pecker asserted the situation was under control. 

The deal was finalized in August of 2016. Trump’s reaction upon being advised of that was “Fantastic. Great job.”

Per Cohen, Pecker was concerned about being reimbursed for the $150,000 paid to McDougal. Trump’s response when Cohen alerted him to this was, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”

Cohen testified he recorded a 2016 conversation between Trump and himself to placate Pecker. He does not believe Trump knew he was recording it. 

The recording offered the public a glimpse at the confidential discussions between Trump and Cohen, and it confirmed Trump had contemporaneous knowledge of a proposal to buy the rights to the story of McDougal.

Cohen told Trump about his plans to set up a company and finance the purchase of the rights from American Media, which publishes the National Enquirer. The recording captured what appeared to be a routine business conversation of several matters on their agenda.

The audio is muddled and the meaning of Trump’s use of the word “cash” is disputed by the two sides.

Cohen asserts the recording was cut off by an incoming phone call from a Capital One bank branch manager. He denies doctoring the recording. 

Cohen testified that all financial transactions went through Weisselberg, and he recalls 10-12 conversations with Weisselberg regarding the McDougal arrangement. 

Cohen set up  Resolution Consultants, LLC, to handle the McDougal matter and any other information AMI had regarding Trump. Cohen denies that he would maintain the rights to the story. 

“No ma’am. I had no reason to own the life rights,” Cohen said while explaining, “What I was doing was at the direction and for the benefit of Mr. Trump.”

Phone records show another call between Cohen and Trump on September 29, 2016, lasting seven minutes. Cohen testified he was letting Trump know the deal was resolved. 

Originally, AMI was to be reimbursed for $125,000 of the $150,000, but after the National Enquirer made good money on McDougal’s Men’s Health cover, Pecker relented and said they didn’t need to be reimbursed. 

Cohen learned about the “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016 when Hope Hicks called him to alert him. In addition to speaking with Hicks, Cohen had two phone calls with Trump on October 8, 2016. 

“He wanted me to reach out to all my contacts in the media. We needed to put a spin on this. The spin he wanted put on it was that this is locker room talk, something that Melania had recommended or at least he told me that’s what Melania had thought it was and use that in order to get control over the story and to minimize its impact on him and his campaign.”

Cohen believed the tape to be “quite damaging” and likely “significantly impactful” with women voters. 

Dylan Howard let Cohen know that Stormy Daniels was shopping her story. Cohen believed the story would be “catastrophic” for the campaign. Trump told him to take care of it. Howard connected Cohen and Daniels’ attorney, Keith Davidson. 

According to Cohen, Trump said (regarding the Daniels story): “Women are going to hate me … Guys may think it’s cool, but this is going to be a disaster for the campaign.” Per Cohen, Trump was worried about the campaign, not Melania. 

Trump said at the time, according to Cohen:

“I want you to just push it out as long as you can just get past the election. Because if I win it will have no relevance because I’m president. And if I lose, I don’t even care.”

Cohen adds: “He wasn’t even thinking about Melania. This was all about the campaign.”

Trump smirks and shakes his head at that remark.

Cohen testified he was instructed (by Trump) to delay the payment for the Daniels deal until after the election. 

Cohen identified the paperwork used to set up the account for Resolution Consultants, LLC. He testified that he lied on the forms, indicating it was a management consultant company. Cohen set up the second company, Essential Consultants, LLC, after realizing he knew someone with a company already named “Resolution Consultants” and didn’t think his using the same name would be appreciated. 

Cohen was asked about an email exchange with Davidson regarding the deal being called off. 

According to Cohen, he called Trump and left a voicemail regarding his concerns. 

Michael Cohen called Trump at 5 p.m. on October 17, 2016.

The call log shows it lasted for eight seconds and Cohen says he left a voicemail.

“I called Mr Trump in order to advise him of the situation that because I didn’t forward the funds, (Stormy Daniels) is now declared the agreement void, that we were not going to be in a position to delay post the election, which is what he wanted me to do. And that the matter, the story, was going to go to the Daily Mail,” Cohen testified.

Cohen testified Melania texted him the next morning and asked him to “call DT on his cell.” Cohen called Trump but believes it was on his office landline. 

“He stated to me that he had spoken to some friends, some individuals, smart people, and that it’s $130,000. You’re a billionaire, just pay it,” Cohen testified.

“There’s no reason to keep this thing out there so do it. He expressed to me, just do it. Meet up with Allen Weisselberg and figure this whole thing out,” Cohen said.

According to Cohen, Weisselberg asked about having AMI fund the payment, but Cohen told him they would not. (Per Pecker’s testimony, AMI did not want to be involved in the matter.) He did, however, ultimately ask Pecker if he would fund it, and he declined. 

Per Cohen, the goal was to keep Trump’s name separate from the matter, so he and Weisselberg discussed fronting the money. 

Eventually then-Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg suggested that Michael Cohen front the money to Stormy Daniels, Cohen says.

Weisselberg said he wasn’t financially in a position to do it, citing prep school and camp bills for his four grandkids.

Cohen says he and Weisselberg informed Trump that Cohen would front the money, and Trump was “appreciative.”

“He stated to me, ‘don’t worry, you’ll get the money back,’” Cohen testified.

Cohen opted to fund the payment via a home equity loan rather than via his personal account to avoid raising questions with his wife. (SIDE NOTE: It’s unclear how his wife wouldn’t also have become aware of a home equity loan.)

Cohen insists he sought and received Trump’s approval before proceeding with the payment. He requested a wire transfer to Davidson’s account. The transfer identifies the purpose as “retainer,” which Cohen testified was not truthful. 

Upon receipt of the signed agreement from Daniels, Cohen immediately notified Trump (on October 28, 2016). 

“One, so that he would know the matter – the task he gave to me – was finished, accomplished, done,” Cohen says.

It was also for “credit for myself, so he knew it was done and I finished it.”

“This was important,” Cohen adds.

As indicated during prior testimony, the agreement used pseudonyms (Peggy Peterson and David Dennison). There was a one-page side agreement (which Cohen held onto) identifying the parties’ true identities. Trump did not sign the agreement. Cohen initialed it for “Essential Consultants.” 

The Wall Street Journal article regarding Karen McDougal ran on November 4. Cohen exchanged numerous calls with Hope Hicks that day, trying to assess how to spin it. Cohen, Hicks, and Pecker all discussed and coordinated in order to put out a statement. They knew ahead of time about the article and that it would also mention Daniels. 

Cohen also spoke with Keith Davidson multiple times that day. Cohen believed someone on Davidson’s “side” had leaked the story. Davidson put out a statement denying the story to appease Cohen and Trump. Cohen also demanded that Dylan Howard of the National Enquirer put out denials. 

Cohen testified he spoke to Trump that evening on the phone to reassure him the matter was being handled. Trump was upset about the potential negative impact on the campaign. 

The day after the WSJ story came out, Cohen texted Hicks:

“Even CNN not talking about it. No one believes it and if necessary, I have a statement by Stormy (Daniels) denying everything and contradicting the other porn stars statement. I wouldn’t use it now or even discuss with him as no one is talking about this or cares!”

Cohen acknowledged his services as special counsel to Trump were no longer needed once Trump was elected. However, he was disappointed he wasn’t offered a role in the Trump White House as chief of staff. Alternatively, he hoped to retain a role as personal attorney to the president. 

“Mr. Trump was an enigma. He was a businessman no one knew what his position was,” he says.

Cohen says he thought he could monetize the position and knowledge of Trump. “Because of my close proximity to him for a decade, I did understand him,” Cohen says.

Cohen says he brought in an attorney who helped him pitch the idea to Trump.

He presented Trump with a 3-page memo explaining why Trump needed a personal attorney and why it should be Cohen. They met for about an hour about it, Cohen testifies.

Trump did make Cohen his personal counsel shortly before the inauguration. 

Cohen was, by his own account, “unusually angry” and insulted that his Christmas bonus was slashed by two-thirds, particularly after his fronting the payment for the NDA. He shared his anger with Pecker. Trump called him right before New Year’s and told him not to worry about the bonus — that he’d take care of it. 

After the New Year, Cohen spoke to Weisselberg about reimbursement for the $130,000 and Weisselberg requested the paperwork from the wire transfer. Cohen provided Weisselberg with the First Republic document, and Weisselberg made handwritten notes on it. 

According to Cohen, though the $420,000 payment was designed to be for future legal services, it was actually reimbursement for the $130,000 payment to Daniels. (The $420,000 included $130,000 for the NDA reimbursement, $50,000 reimbursement for tech services from Red Finch, a $60,000 bonus, and $180,000 to cover the taxes.) 

Weisselberg told Cohen to invoice them. 

“What he stated to me is, ‘Each month just send an invoice to us. And just mark down for legal services rendered pursuant to the agreement, and we’ll get you a check out.'”

Cohen testified he didn’t expect to be paid for his role as personal counsel to the president — he expected to make money from other companies hiring him as a consultant. He never put together a retainer agreement for future legal services.

That ended testimony for the day. Cohen will return to the stand on Tuesday for further direct examination. 

Overall take: So far, there’s nothing earth-shattering coming from Cohen. Jonathan Turley certainly isn’t bowled over by it. 


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