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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Cohen tells jurors of Oval Office deal to pay back the hush money

Michael Cohen, once a lawyer and fixer for Donald Trump, while testifying about then President Trump to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 27, 2019. Cohen is now testifying in court about paying Stormy Daniels $130,000 to suppress her story of a sexual encounter with Trump in the former president’s criminal trial over alleged falsification of business records to cover up the expense. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

By Ben Protess, Jonah E. Bromwich and Maggie Haberman

Little more than two weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, he and his personal lawyer sat in the Oval Office and sealed a deal that prosecutors say was a crime.

“He asked me if I was OK, he asked me if I needed money,” the lawyer, Michael Cohen, recalled Tuesday from the witness stand at Trump’s criminal trial.

He soon began receiving monthly checks — most bearing Trump’s signature, and, according to Cohen, all works of fiction. Trump was reimbursing Cohen for paying off a porn actor, Stormy Daniels, but the check stubs described the payments as part of a legal “retainer” agreement.

The men did not discuss specifics at that White House meeting, but Cohen testified that the plan to fake the records had been cooked up weeks earlier in New York.

The testimony was a pivotal moment for prosecutors. They charged Trump with falsifying the checks and other records, and Cohen’s recounting of the Oval Office arrangement drove those accusations home, offering the jury its first and only personal account tying the former president to the documents at the crux of his case.

And yet, Trump’s legal team soon sought to sweep the revelation aside as he began to question Cohen and attack his credibility. Trump denies falsifying the records and maintains he never had sex with Daniels.

In the early phase of cross-examination, a defense lawyer, Todd Blanche, portrayed Cohen as out of control and bent on exacting revenge on Trump after his patron abandoned him.

Blanche emphasized Cohen’s voluminous television appearances and insult slinging on social media — all of which he did in defiance of the prosecution’s wishes and at Trump’s expense. He also noted that Cohen maintains a financial interest in attacking Trump, arguing that he cashed in on their feud with a podcast and a pair of books.

“Do you want President Trump to get convicted in this case?” Blanche asked.

“Sure,” Cohen replied smoothly, keeping his composure as the questioning gained steam.

Confronted with his past praise of his boss, Cohen shot back, “At that time, I was knee-deep into the cult of Donald Trump.”

But that near-filial relationship imploded when Cohen came under federal investigation for the hush money and other matters. Trump turned his back on Cohen, who then vowed to flip on the man he had once loyally served and proudly called “boss.”

Yet Cohen did not receive anything in return for his testimony against Trump. He has already served more than a year in federal prison, making him an unusual cooperating witness.

“I made a decision,” he said on the stand Tuesday, that “I would not lie for President Trump anymore.”

The case against Trump — the first criminal trial of an American president — stems from three hush-money deals that Cohen helped arrange before the 2016 presidential election. Two involved women shopping stories of sexual encounters with Trump, most notably Daniels.

On Monday, Cohen testified how he had paid $130,000 out of his own pocket to silence Daniels’ story on the eve of the election. Once Trump was sworn in as president, he repaid Cohen for the hush money, as well as another expenditure and an overdue bonus.

Trump, who faces probation or up to four years in prison, is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to the payments of Cohen, one for each document involved: 11 checks, 11 invoices and 12 ledger entries.

All 34 records referred to the supposed retainer, while the invoices and ledger entries portrayed the payments to Cohen as ordinary “legal expenses.” But Cohen asserted that there was no retainer agreement, and he had not accrued any legal expenses, offering crucial testimony in the prosecution’s favor.

“In truth, was this invoice for any service you rendered in those two months pursuant to a retainer agreement?” a prosecutor, Susan Hoffinger, asked Cohen on Tuesday.

“No, ma’am,” he replied.

“Was this invoice a false record?” she continued, underscoring the point for the jury.

“Yes, ma’am,” he confirmed, and added that the check stubs were false as well.

And asked the purpose of the checks, he explained, that in part they represented “the reimbursement to me for the hush-money fee.”

His account of the records — and description of his Oval Office meeting with Trump — marked a high point for the prosecution’s case.

Before he took the stand, the jury heard that Trump wanted to cover up a series of sex scandals and was intimately involved in all matters of money. Witnesses said that Trump had an imperative political need to eliminate any trace of the hush-money deal with Daniels — but they had no direct knowledge of whether Trump falsified records to do so.

Under New York law, prosecutors need only show that Trump “aided” a crime, or “caused” his company to file false records. Armed with Cohen’s testimony, prosecutors can argue that Trump broke the law even if he merely knew about the records and did not stop the fakery.

Cohen, of course, does not make a perfect prosecution witness.

Over the decade he worked for Trump, he behaved like a bully and a harried errand boy, threatening Trump’s enemies and carrying out his every wish. Their roles were symbiotic, with Trump the mercurial boss and Cohen his ruthless enforcer.

But Trump’s lawyers argue that he caused more problems than he fixed, and that the jury cannot trust him. The have noted that Cohen is a convicted liar, though he argues he lied out of loyalty to Trump.

Under questioning from prosecutors, Cohen recounted his gradual falling out with Trump, tracing it to the spring of 2018, when federal authorities were bearing down on him.

Soon after the FBI searched Cohen’s home and office, he received a call from Trump, he recalled.

“He said to me, ‘Don’t worry. I’m the president of the United States. There’s nothing here. Everything’s going to be OK. Stay tough.’”

The call, Cohen explained, “reinforced my loyalty and my intention to stay in the fold.”

By summer 2018, he no longer was. “My family, my wife, my daughter, my son, all said to me, ‘Why are you holding on to this loyalty? What are you doing? We are supposed to be your first loyalty,’” he said.

When Cohen pleaded guilty that August to federal campaign finance violations over the hush-money deals, he pointed the finger at his former boss, saying he acted at his direction. Cohen, who also pleaded guilty to tax evasion and another personal financial crime unrelated to Trump, called it the “worst day of my life.”

He eventually served more than a year in prison, including a stint in solitary confinement.

But his testimony this week offered him a shot at public redemption, and perhaps, personal revenge.

“I regret doing things for him that I should not have, lying, bullying people in order to effectuate the goal,” Cohen said on the stand, adding that he “violated my moral compass and I suffered the penalty. That is my failure.”

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1 Comment

Deborah Marchant
Deborah Marchant
5 days ago

To help explain why there is a Trump cult, here is a lecture that is available for tolerant and open-minded individuals to watch.

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