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Michael Cohen faces tough questioning from Trump’s lawyers at hush money trial

Michael Cohen faces tough questioning from Trump’s lawyers at hush money trial
Michael Cohen arrives at his home after leaving Manhattan Criminal Court on May 13. Photographer: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

NEW YORK, May 14 (Reuters) - Donald Trump's lawyers sought to use Michael Cohen's words against him on Tuesday, grilling him about insulting social media posts and television appearances to try to undermine his testimony that Trump authorized a hush money payment to a porn star.

By Jack Queen, Jody Godoy and Joseph Ax

Under aggressive questioning from Trump attorney Todd Blanche, Cohen acknowledged calling the former president a “dictator douchebag” on TikTok and said he had persisted in commenting on the case even after prosecutors expressed frustration about it.

Cohen, Trump’s former fixer and now the prosecution’s star witness, spent about nine hours on the witness stand on Monday and Tuesday answering prosecutors’ questions. In detail, he testified that Trump ordered him to pay adult film star Stormy Daniels in 2016 to stay quiet about an alleged 2006 sexual encounter, lest it torpedo his presidential campaign.

But Cohen’s checkered history – he served time in federal prison for various crimes, including the hush money payment, and has admittedly lied under oath – is a prime target for Trump’s lawyers, who have cast him as a liar with an ax to grind. Cross-examination by Trump’s lawyers began after a break for lunch.

The defense showed jurors pictures of Trump-themed merchandise for sale on Cohen’s website, including shirts with an illustration of Trump behind bars and mugs reading, “Send him to the big house, not the White House.”

As Blanche peppered Cohen with questions, Trump occasionally exchanged notes with his lawyers before assuming his customary posture, leaning back with his eyes closed. At one point, his mouth appeared to hang slack for a moment.

Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Daniels in October 2016 is at the heart of Trump’s historic trial, now in its fifth week.

Prosecutors say Trump paid Cohen back after the election by creating false records indicating they were for legal fees. Those disguised reimbursements provide the basis for the 34 counts of falsifying business records that Trump faces.

Trump, 77, the 2024 Republican presidential candidate, has pleaded not guilty and denies any sexual encounter with Daniels. He has characterized the case as a partisan attempt to interfere with his campaign to take back the White House he lost in 2020 to Democratic President Joe Biden.

Earlier on Tuesday, Cohen described an Oval Office meeting in February 2017 where Trump told him that Cohen would soon receive the first monthly installments of a bonus package, which Cohen said included reimbursements for the Daniels payment.

Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger walked Cohen through a series of invoices and checks – some signed by Trump himself – that Cohen said were falsely marked as paying to retain him for legal services.

“There was no retainer agreement, was there?” Hoffinger asked.

“No, ma’am,” Cohen replied.

Cohen, 57, said he lied multiple times to Congress during an investigation into Trump’s Russia ties, eventually pleading guilty to perjury. He also told jurors he lied repeatedly about the payment to Daniels, telling journalists Trump had no involvement.

In 2018, after the Justice Department began investigating the Daniels payment, FBI agents raided Cohen’s home. He said he called Trump in a panic.

“He said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m the president of the United States … you’re going to be OK,'” Cohen said. That was the last time they spoke directly, Cohen added.

Instead, Cohen testified, a lawyer named Robert Costello who was close to Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani offered a “back channel” to Trump. In emails shown to jurors, Costello passed along Giuliani’s assurances that he had “friends in high places.”

Meanwhile, Trump was defending Cohen on social media and decrying the idea that he might “flip” and cooperate with prosecutors.

It all added up to a “pressure campaign” to keep Cohen in line, he said. But he eventually decided to cooperate after speaking with his family.

Cohen pleaded guilty to federal crimes in 2018, including offenses related to the Daniels payment, and said he was acting at the behest of Trump, who was not charged.

“I regret doing things for him that I should not have,” Cohen said on Tuesday when asked to reflect on his many years working for Trump. “To keep the loyalty and to do the things that he asked me to do, I violated my moral compass. And I suffered the penalty – as has my family.”

 

‘A TOTAL DISASTER’

A day after several Republican lawmakers attended the trial in support of Trump, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson joined him and later criticized the case outside the court.

While Cohen testified on Tuesday, a mid-level appeals court denied Trump’s latest effort to throw out a gag order that Trump asserted violated his right to free speech. The judge imposed the order to prevent Trump from interfering with the case.

On Monday, Cohen said Trump approved multiple payments to keep damaging sex-scandal stories out of the public eye.

“Everything required Mr. Trump’s sign-off,” Cohen said.

In October 2016, Cohen said, he learned Daniels was shopping her story to tabloids. At the time, the Trump campaign was in crisis mode after the release of an audio recording in which Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals.

“He said to me, ‘This is a disaster, a total disaster. Women are going to hate me,’ Cohen told jurors Trump had said.

Cohen testified that Trump was solely concerned about the impact Daniels’ story could have on his White House bid – and not, as Trump’s lawyers have suggested, about the effect on his wife and family. That distinction is crucial to the prosecution’s case.

Under New York law, falsifying business records can be elevated from a misdemeanor to a felony if the crime helped conceal another offense. In Trump’s case, prosecutors have argued the payment was effectively a secret contribution to his campaign, violating federal and state laws.

The Manhattan trial is considered less consequential than three other criminal prosecutions Trump faces, all of which are mired in delays.

The other cases charge Trump with trying to overturn his 2020 presidential defeat and mishandling classified documents after leaving office. Trump pleaded not guilty to all three.

(Reporting by Jack Queen, Jody Godoy and Joseph Ax; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Howard Goller)

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    The fact that Speaker Johnson appeared outside the court to back The Chump shows how low the Republicans have descended. I despair for the world if that slimeball gets back into power, I really do.

  • Manie Mulder says:

    Trump is a convicted rapist, a convicted fraudster, a conman, a narcissist, and a pathological liar. How can any sane person vote for him?

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