Donald Trump

How Michael Cohen went from Trump’s fixer to a key witness against him

Author: Editors Desk, Hannah Knowles, Rachel Weiner and Shayna Jacobs Source: Bloomberg
May 14, 2024 at 06:21
Michael Cohen exits court in New York on Monday after testifying. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Michael Cohen exits court in New York on Monday after testifying. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — At first, Michael Cohen testified about all the problems he fixed for Donald Trump — the boss whose praise made Cohen feel like he was “on top of the world.”

When reporters angered Trump, Cohen threatened them. When a Miss USA contestant criticized Trump’s beauty pageant, he sprang into legal action. When Trump ran for president and warned that “there’s going to be a lot of women coming forward,” Cohen was ready, he said — working behind the scenes to suppress two women’s claims that Trump had sex with them while married.

But now those sorts of schemes had brought Trump and Cohen together in a Manhattan courtroom — as enemies avoiding eye contact. When Cohen recounted doing everything he could to protect the former president, Trump smirked.

The disbarred lawyer was now the star witness in prosecutors’ efforts to link Trump to an illegal hush money plot. He told the jury that Trump approved a secret payment to an adult-film actress in 2016 and cared more about her story affecting his presidential campaign prospects than the reaction from his wife.“He wasn’t thinking about Melania. This was all about the campaign,” Cohen testified. He said Trump told him of his marriage, “How long do you think I will be on the market for? Not long.” At the defense table, Trump shook his head.

The two men, by all accounts, despise each other. But both seemed to keep their emotions in check. Cohen, a brash personality who has taunted Trump outside of court, was calm and to-the-point as the prosecution walked through his decade of work for the former president. Trump — who is used to lashing out at anyone who challenges him — mostly sat back quietly with his eyes closed while in the courtroom. But as the former president left for the day, he angrily railed against the judge.

“They’ve kept me here for three and a half, four weeks, instead of campaigning,” Trump said to reporters in the hallway, reiterating his usual complaints that the case is politically motivated. Trump is under a gag order that bars him from responding to witness testimony. “Yet we still have the best poll numbers,” he added.

 

Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Manhattan criminal court on Monday. (Steven Hirsch/AFP/Getty Images)

 

The real fireworks could come later as the defense cross-examines Cohen and tries to convince the jury he cannot be trusted. Trump has pleaded not guilty to falsifying business records to disguise reimbursements for the hush money, and has denied having sex with the women involved in the case.

Monday’s testimony was a remarkable moment in the long arc of Cohen and Trump’s falling out, which started when Cohen was not considered for a high-level White House job in 2017 and received a significantly smaller bonus than expected — and accelerated the next year as authorities investigated Cohen and the hush money.

The case in New York may be the only one of Trump’s four criminal cases to head to trial before the 2024 election, and Cohen is a critical link in prosecutors’ case. He may be the only witness who can claim direct knowledge that Trump tried to hide the nature of a $130,000 payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels because he worried it would hurt his campaign already reeling from other damaging information.

The anticipation around Cohen’s appearance was palpable on Monday as members of the public queued up hours early to get in and watch.

The case is deeply personal for both men, with Trump viewing Cohen as someone who betrayed him and Cohen viewing the former president as a person who used him. Cohen’s ties to Trump helped land in him in federal prison. He eventually pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations stemming from the hush money and lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project that Trump pursued, along with some financial crimes unrelated to Trump.

When Cohen walked in and out of the room he looked straight ahead or elsewhere; he sneaked glances at Trump from the stand.

Cohen now bashes Trump, spars with MAGA supporters and recently appeared in a T-shirt with an image of Trump behind bars.

It’s all the more striking given the longtime loyalty Cohen laid out in great detail on Monday. He said he accepted Trump’s offer to go work for him in 2007 even though Trump owed Cohen’s law firm some $100,000 at the time.

When Cohen inquired about the outstanding bill, he said, Trump asked “if I wanted to get fired on the first day.” Cohen claimed it was never paid.

Cohen said that while he worked for Trump, they spoke every single day, sometimes multiple times. He said he had all of Trump’s phone numbers and if he couldn’t directly reach him, he had the numbers of his assistant and bodyguard, who could connect him. (He said Trump did not have an email address and often commented that people could get in trouble communicating that way).

Cohen even synced his cellphone with Trump’s, he said, so that he had all 30,000 of Trump’s contacts.

He nurtured Trump’s presidential ambitions, showing him polling that suggested some voters were interested back in 2011. At the time, Cohen said, Trump was unwilling to give up another season of his reality show “The Apprentice.” “You don’t leave Hollywood,” Cohen said Trump explained. “Hollywood leaves you.”

When Trump did launch a bid for the White House in 2015, Cohen said he helped design the famous launch at Trump Tower. He said he noticed that the crowds at Trump’s events were “very White” and set up a National Diversity Coalition for Trump in response.

Then, when potentially damaging stories loomed, he sprung into action.

 

Michael Cohen testifies on the witness stand in Manhattan criminal court on Monday. (Elizabeth Williams/AP)

 

He said he coordinated with the National Enquirer, a tabloid owned by Trump’s friend, to purchase the rights to a former Trump Tower doorman’s allegation that Trump had a secret child with a former employee. (Another witness has said the story was false). Prosecutors say the National Enquirer paid the doorman for the rights to his story with no intention to publish it, to prevent it from appearing anywhere else.

Cohen testified that he worked with the Enquirer, on Trump’s behalf, to quash two other stories in similar ways. There was former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s claims of an affair with Trump, and Daniels’s allegation that Trump had sex with her in 2006 after a golf event, despite being married.

Daniels’s account threatened to get out just before the 2016 election, Cohen recalled. Trump’s campaign was already scrambling to contain the fallout from The Washington Post’s publication of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump suggested he could kiss women without their consent and grab them by their genitals because he was a famous “star.”

“At the time, Trump was polling very, very poorly with women,” Cohen testified.

Though Trump spent much of Monday resting his eyes, he had them open as Cohen recounted a private call in which Trump raged about the potential Daniels story. “I thought you had this under control,” Cohen recalled Trump telling him. From the defense table, Trump shook his head.

Cohen claimed Trump worried aloud that while men might admire such a story, “women will hate me.”

He said he let Trump know “immediately” when he had successfully paid Daniels for her story. Cohen said he did that “so he knew the task he gave me was accomplished,” but also “to take credit, for myself, so he knew that I did this, because this was important.”

 

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