Cohen denounces Trump during courtroom face-off
By Jonah E. Bromwich, Ben Protess and Kate Christobek
For five years, Michael Cohen has waged battle with Donald Trump from afar: on social media, on cable television and in the pages of his books.
But on Tuesday, Cohen confronted his onetime boss from the witness stand in a Manhattan courtroom, attacking the former president as a criminal and a cheat and defending his own credibility under a barrage of questions.
Cohen, once Trump’s loyal fixer and now his antagonist, was testifying in a civil fraud case that threatens to upend the former president’s family business and undermine his public image as a businessperson. It was the first time the men had come face to face since 2018, and the reunion was tense: Trump, seated feet away at the defense table, scoffed and shook his head in apparent frustration.
Cohen had been called to testify about Trump’s annual financial statements, which are at the heart of the civil case that New York Attorney General Letitia James brought against Trump. Trump, Cohen testified, directed him to “reverse engineer” the statements to reach the former president’s desired net worth.
Although Cohen had leveled similar accusations before, he had not, until now, made them in the presence of the former president, a man he once idolized. Cohen nonetheless began calmly and in a clear voice, his New York accent emphasizing his statements about his role at the family real estate business, the Trump Organization, where he reported directly to Trump.
“I was tasked by Mr. Trump to increase the total assets based upon a number that he arbitrarily elected,” Cohen testified, saying that it was his responsibility to “increase those assets in order to achieve the number.”
Later in the day, the temperature rose when Cohen was cross-examined by one of Trump’s lawyers, Alina Habba. She called Cohen’s credibility into question, noting that he had admitted to lying under oath when he pleaded guilty to federal crimes in 2018, wrongs that he had said he committed on Trump’s behalf.
“You have lied under oath numerous times, Mr. Cohen — isn’t that correct?” Habba asked, referring to his previous guilty pleas.
“That’s correct,” Cohen said.
Their exchange devolved. Several times, Cohen made legal objections from the witness stand; in a trial, only lawyers trying the case can make objections. At other times, he refused to respond to questions, saying instead, “Asked and answered.” Cohen, who has lost his law license, even cited court cases in his defense.
The cross-examination was expected to continue Wednesday.
The reunion of Trump and Cohen took place on a stage that has become familiar to them both: a courtroom. In the years since their last encounter, Cohen has gone to prison and testified against Trump before Congress and a grand jury. For his part, Trump, who has called Cohen a “rat” and a liar, has been impeached twice, voted out of office and indicted four times.
The buildup to the testimony had the hype of a heavyweight fight. When Cohen delayed, citing a health problem, Trump claimed that Cohen “didn’t have the guts.” Cohen fired back, posting a mocked-up image of himself and the former president captioned “Let’s get you back to your cell.”
During a midday break Tuesday, Cohen acknowledged the tension. “Heck of a reunion,” he said.
And after court ended, Trump gave his own review of the testimony, declaring that Cohen had been “totally discredited” and was a “disgraced felon.”
Cohen’s appearance is expected to kick off a more explosive phase of the trial, which began three weeks ago. James has accused Trump of inflating the value of his assets by billions of dollars to obtain favorable treatment from banks and insurance companies.
Judge Arthur F. Engoron has already ruled that Trump fraudulently misvalued his properties. The trial will determine whether he has to pay a hefty penalty and whether his conduct violated other laws.
With the central claim resolved, the trial had been a tedious proceeding, punctuated by Trump’s occasional visits, during which he used the camera-lined courthouse hallway as a campaign stop in his run for another term in the White House.
His lawyers have made it clear that they will appeal key rulings by Engoron, who will decide the case. There is no jury. The lawyers have argued that valuations are subjective and that others were to blame.