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Star witness Michael Cohen directly implicates Trump in testimony at hush money trial

By MICHAEL R. SISAK, JENNIFER PELTZ, ERIC TUCKER and JAKE OFFENHARTZ, Associated Press
Published: May 13, 2024, 12:55pm
2 Photos
Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan criminal court, Monday, May 13, 2024, in New York.
Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan criminal court, Monday, May 13, 2024, in New York. (Sarah Yenesel/Pool Photo via AP) Photo Gallery

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s fixer-turned-foe, Michael Cohen, directly implicated the former president in a hush money scheme Monday, telling jurors that his celebrity client tasked him on several occasions to stifle stories about sex that he feared could torpedo his 2016 presidential campaign.

“Stop this from getting out,” Cohen, the prosecution’s star witness, quoted Trump as telling him in reference to porn actor Stormy Daniels’ account of a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier.

A similar episode occurred when Cohen alerted Trump that a Playboy model was alleging that she and Trump had an extramarital affair. The order was clear: “Make sure it doesn’t get released,” Cohen said Trump told him. The woman, Karen McDougal, was paid $150,000 in a hush money arrangement that was made after Trump was given a “complete and total update on everything that transpired.”

“What I was doing was at the direction of and benefit of Mr. Trump,” Cohen testified, later adding: “Everything required Mr. Trump’s sign-off.”

Trump hush money trial: A timeline of key events in the case

NEW YORK (AP) — The events at the center of former President Donald Trump’s hush money case date back almost two decades, with new dates coming to light as the trial plays out in a Manhattan courtroom. Here are the key moments in the case, as described in trial testimony and court documents:

January 2005: Trump marries his current wife, Melania.

September 2005: Trump is recorded bragging to “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush about grabbing women’s genitals without asking for permission. The footage isn’t aired and doesn’t become public until October 2016.

June 2006: Former Playboy model Karen McDougal says this is when she first met Trump, after “The Apprentice” filmed at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. McDougal has alleged they went on to have a 10-month affair that ended in 2007, a claim Trump denies.

July 2006: Porn actor Stormy Daniels and Trump meet at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe. Daniels alleges that they have a sexual encounter, Trump denies the claim.

May 2011: Daniels shares her claim about the encounter in an interview with In Touch magazine, but the story is not published at the time. In October, Trump fixer Michael Cohen sends an email to the publication’s general counsel saying Trump would aggressively pursue legal action if the story was printed. It does not run until 2018.

June 16, 2015: Trump announces that he will seek the Republican nomination for president.

August 2015: Trump and Cohen meet at Trump Tower with David Pecker, then CEO of National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc, also known as AMI. According to Pecker’s testimony, he says at the meeting he will act as the “eyes and ears” of the campaign, notifying Cohen of claims being made about Trump so that the rights can be purchased and the stories quashed

October 2015: Pecker learns that a former Trump Tower doorman, Dino Sajudin, is trying to sell a story that Trump had fathered a child with an employee.

Nov. 15, 2015: The National Enquirer pays Sajudin $30,000 for the rights to the rumor. The tabloid concludes that the story was not true. The woman and Trump have denied the allegations.

July 19, 2016: Trump officially becomes the Republican presidential nominee at the party’s convention.

Aug. 5, 2016: AMI buys McDougal’s story about the affair she claims she had with Trump in 2006 and 2007. The company pays her $150,000, agrees to feature her on two magazine covers and to publish 100 magazine articles authored by her.

Sept. 6, 2016: Cohen records himself briefing Trump on the plan to buy McDougal’s story from AMI. Cohen says on the tape that he’s already spoken with the Trump Organization’s finance chief, Allen Weisselberg, on “how to set the whole thing up.”

Sept. 30, 2016: Cohen signs an agreement to buy the nondisclosure part of McDougal’s contract for $125,000 through a company called Resolution Consultants LLC.

Early October 2016: Pecker tells Cohen the deal for him to buy McDougal’s nondisclosure is off. Cohen never pays the $125,000. “I said to him that the agreement, the assignment deal is off. I am not going forward,” Pecker testified.

Oct. 7, 2016: The Washington Post publishes the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape.

Oct. 8, 2016: Daniels’ representative tells the National Enquirer she’s willing to make on the record statements confirming a sexual encounter with Trump. Pecker and Howard connect Cohen with her lawyer, Keith Davidson. Over the next few days, Cohen negotiates a $130,000 deal to acquire the rights to Daniels’ story and keep her quiet.

Oct. 27, 2016: Cohen wires payment to Davidson’s law firm using a shell corporation, Essential Consultants LLC. The next day, Daniels signs a confidential settlement and nondisclosure agreement. The agreement uses the pseudonyms Peggy Peterson for Daniels and David Dennison for Trump.

Nov. 4, 2016: The Wall Street Journal publishes a story revealing McDougal’s deal with the Enquirer’s parent company, AMI. The story also mentions Daniels and says she had been in talks with a TV network to tell her story but cut off negotiations. Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks denies Trump had a relationship with either woman and says of the McDougal deal: “We have no knowledge of any of this.”

Nov. 9, 2016: Trump is elected president.

Jan. 20, 2017: Trump is sworn in as president.

January 2017: Cohen seeks reimbursement from the Trump Organization for his $130,000 payment to Daniels as well as an additional $50,000 for unrelated campaign “tech services.” Cohen provides company executives with a copy of a bank statement reflecting the wire transfer to Davidson.

Testifying in court, former Trump Organization controller Jeffrey McConney recalled meeting with the company’s longtime Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, who comes up with a plan to pay Cohen the money he’s owed, adding in a $60,000 bonus and extra funds to cover taxes he’ll owe by declaring the money as income, a total of $420,000.

Jan. 27, 2017: Cohen’s last day as a full-time Trump Organization employee, according to McConney’s testimony. Cohen begins holding himself out as Trump’s “personal attorney.”

Feb. 14, 2017: Cohen emails an invoice to McConney seeking payment “pursuant to the retainer agreement” for services rendered for January and February 2017. The invoice requested payment in the amount of $35,000 for each of those two months — the first two monthly installments of his repayment plan.

Weisselberg approves the payments and McConney sends the invoice to an accounts payable supervisor with the instructions: “Post to legal expenses. Put ‘retainer for the months of January and February 2017’ in the description.”

Jan. 10, 2018: Daniels issues a statement saying allegations she had a “sexual and/or romantic affair” with Trump are “absolutely false” and rumors that she received hush money from Trump are “completely false.”

Jan. 12, 2018: The Wall Street Journal publicly reveals Cohen’s payment to Daniels.

Jan. 30, 2018: Daniels issues another statement again denying that she had a sexual encounter with Trump.

Feb. 13, 2018: Cohen tells The New York Times that he paid Daniels out of his own pocket.

April 5, 2018: Aboard Air Force One, an Associated Press reporter asks Trump: “Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?” Trump responds, “No.”

April 9, 2018: Federal agents in New York raid Cohen’s office and a hotel room, seizing records on topics including the payment made to Daniels. Trump says: “So I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys — a good man.”

April 26, 2018: In a phone interview with “Fox & Friends,” Trump acknowledges that Cohen represented him in the “crazy Stormy Daniels deal.”

May 2, 2018: Rudy Giuliani, representing Trump as one of his lawyers, tells Fox News that Trump reimbursed Cohen for the $130,000 paid to Daniels.

May 3, 2018: Trump tweets that Cohen received a monthly retainer — “not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign” — to enter into an NDA, which are “very common among celebrities and people of wealth.”

July 24, 2018: Cohen’s lawyer releases the September 2016 tape of Cohen talking to Trump about the payments.

Aug. 21, 2018: Cohen pleads guilty in Manhattan federal court to campaign-finance violations and other charges that included arranging the hush money payments. At the hearing, he claims Trump directed him to arrange the payment. Trump is never charged with any crime related to the federal investigation. Cohen is later sentenced to three years in prison.

Aug. 22, 2018: Trump tweets: “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!”

September 2018: AMI enters into a non-prosecution agreement with Manhattan federal prosecutors in connection with its McDougal deal, according to court documents.

Aug. 1, 2019: The Trump Organization is served a grand jury subpoena from then-Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office calling for records and communications relating to the payments to Daniels and McDougal.

Nov. 3, 2020: Trump faces Joe Biden in the presidential election, ultimately losing to the Democrat.

Nov. 2, 2021: Alvin Bragg is elected Manhattan district attorney, succeeding fellow Democrat Vance and inheriting the investigation into Trump.

Jan. 23, 2023: Bragg impanels a new grand jury to hear evidence about Trump.

March 30, 2023: The grand jury indicts Trump on state charges for allegations that he falsified internal records kept by his company to hide the true nature of payments made to Cohen for helping cover up the alleged encounters. The indictment makes Trump the first former president to be charged with a crime.

April 4, 2023: Trump is arraigned. He pleads not guilty and vows to fight the charges.

April 15, 2024: Trump goes on trial in Manhattan.

Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer, is by far the Manhattan district attorney’s most important witness in the case, and his much-awaited appearance on the stand signaled that the first criminal trial of a former American president is entering its final stretch. Prosecutors say they could wrap up their presentation of evidence by week’s end.

The testimony of a witness with such intimate knowledge of Trump’s activities could heighten the legal exposure of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee if jurors deem him sufficiently credible. But prosecutors’ reliance on a witness with such a checkered past — Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the payments — also carries sizable risks with a jury and could be a boon to Trump politically as he fundraises off his legal woes and paints the case as the product of a tainted criminal justice system.

The men, once so close that Cohen boasted that he would “take a bullet” for Trump, had no visible interaction inside the courtroom. The calm was a marked contrast from their last courtroom faceoff, when Trump last October walked out of the courtroom after his lawyer finished questioning Cohen during his civil fraud trial.

This time around, Trump sat at the defense table with his eyes closed for long stretches of testimony as Cohen recounted his decade-long career as a senior Trump Organization executive, doing work that by his own admission sometimes involved lying and bullying others on his boss’s behalf.

Jurors had previously heard from others about the tabloid industry practice of “catch-and-kill,” in which rights to a story are purchased so that it can then be quashed. But Cohen’s testimony is crucial to prosecutors because of his proximity to Trump and because he says he was in direct communication with the then-candidate about embarrassing stories he was scrambling to prevent from surfacing.

Cohen also matters because the reimbursements he received from a $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels, which prosecutors say was meant to buy her silence in advance of the 2016 election, form the basis of 34 felony counts charging Trump with falsifying business records. Prosecutors say the reimbursements were logged, falsely, as legal expenses to conceal the payments’ true purpose.

Under questioning from a prosecutor, Cohen detailed the steps he took to mask the payments — which he had agreed to front — from his wife and his bank. When he opened a bank account to pay Daniels, an action he said he told Trump he was taking, he said it was for a new limited liability corporation but withheld the actual purpose.

“I’m not sure they would’ve opened it,” he said, “if it stated: to pay off an adult film star for a non-disclosure agreement.”

Cohen also gave jurors an insider account of his negotiations with David Pecker, the then-publisher of the National Enquirer who was such a close Trump ally that Cohen said he told him that his publication maintained a “file drawer or a locked drawer as he described it, where files related to Mr. Trump were located.” That effort that took on added urgency following the October 2016 disclosure of an “Access Hollywood” recording in which Trump was heard boasting about grabbing women sexually.

The Daniels payment was finalized several weeks after that revelation, but Monday’s testimony also centered on the deal earlier that fall with McDougal.

Cohen testified that he went to Trump immediately after the National Enquirer alerted him to a story about the alleged McDougal affair. “Make sure it doesn’t get released,” he says Trump told him.

Trump checked in with Pecker about the matter, asking him how “things were going” with it, Cohen said. Pecker responded: “‘We have this under control, and we’ll take care of this,’” Cohen testified.

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Cohen also said he was with Trump as Trump spoke to Pecker on a speakerphone in his Trump Tower office.

“David stated it would cost $150,000 to control the story,” Cohen said. He quoted Trump as saying: “No problem, I’ll take care of it,” meaning that the payments would be reimbursed.

To lay the foundation that the deals were done with Trump’s endorsement, prosecutors elicited testimony from Cohen designed to show Trump as a hands-on manager on whose behalf Cohen said he sometimes lied and bullied others, including reporters.

“When he would task you with something, he would then say, ‘Keep me informed. Let me know what’s going on,’” Cohen testified. He said that was especially true “if there was a matter that was troubling to him.”

“If he learned of it in another manner, that wouldn’t go over well for you,” Cohen testified.

Defense lawyers have teed up a bruising cross-examination of Cohen, telling jurors during opening statements that he’s an “admitted liar” with an “obsession to get President Trump.” Besides portraying him as untrustworthy, they’re also expected to cast him as vindictive, vengeful and agenda-driven.

Prosecutors are hoping to try to blunt those attacks by acknowledging Cohen’s past crimes to jurors during opening statements and by relying on other witnesses whose accounts, they hope, will buttress Cohen’s testimony. They include a lawyer who negotiated the hush money payments on behalf of Daniels and McDougal, as well as Pecker and Daniels.

Cohen’s role as star prosecution witness further cements the disintegration of a mutually beneficial relationship. After Cohen’s home and office were raided by the FBI in 2018, Trump showered him with affection on social media, praising him as a “fine person with a wonderful family” and predicting — incorrectly — that Cohen would not “flip.”

Months later, Cohen did exactly that, pleading guilty that August to federal campaign-finance charges in which he implicated Trump. By that point, the relationship was irrevocably broken, with Trump posting on the social media platform then known as Twitter: “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!”

Cohen later admitted lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate project that he had pursued on Trump’s behalf during the heat of the 2016 Republican campaign. He said he lied to be consistent with Trump’s “political messaging.”

He was sentenced to three years in prison, but spent much of it in home confinement.

Since the men’s fallout, Cohen has emerged as a relentless and sometimes crude critic of Trump, appearing as recently as last week in a live TikTok wearing a shirt featuring a figure resembling Trump with his hands cuffed, behind bars. The judge on Friday urged prosecutors to tell him to refrain from making any more statements about the case or Trump.

Key players: Who’s who at Donald Trump’s hush money criminal trial

NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Cohen, who was once Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer, is expected to take the stand Monday as the prosecution’s star witness in the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president.

The trial centers on allegations the former president falsified his company’s internal records to obscure the true nature of reimbursement payments to Cohen, who arranged hush money payments to bury negative stories about him during his 2016 presidential race.

The witnesses include a porn actor, a former tabloid publisher and Cohen, who went to federal prison for his role in the hush money matter and for other crimes, including lying to Congress. Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass forewarned prospective jurors that they have “what you might consider to be some baggage.”

Here’s a look at the key players in the historic first criminal trial of a former U.S. president:

DEFENDANT

DONALD TRUMP — The former president of the United States and the presumptive Republican nominee, who parlayed his success as reality television star and celebrity businessman and won the presidential election in 2016, becoming America’s 45th president. The trial involves allegations that he falsified his company’s records to hide the true nature of payments to Cohen, who helped bury negative stories about him during the 2016 presidential campaign. He’s pleaded not guilty.

WITNESSES

MICHAEL COHEN — Trump’s former lawyer and fixer. He was once a fierce Trump ally, but now he’s a key prosecution witness against his former boss. Cohen worked for the Trump Organization from 2006 to 2017. He later went to federal prison after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations relating to the hush money arrangements and unrelated crimes.

STORMY DANIELS — The porn actor who received a $130,000 payment from Cohen as part of his hush-money efforts. Cohen paid Daniels to keep quiet about what she says was a sexual encounter with Trump years earlier. Trump denies having sex with Daniels.

KAREN MCDOUGAL — A former Playboy model who said she had a 10-month affair with Trump in the mid-2000s. She was paid $150,000 in 2016 by the parent company of the National Enquirer for the rights to her story about the alleged relationship. Trump denies having sex with McDougal.

DAVID PECKER — The National Enquirer’s former publisher and a longtime Trump friend. Prosecutors say he met with Trump and Cohen at Trump Tower in August 2015 and agreed to help Trump’s campaign identify negative stories about him.

HOPE HICKS — Trump’s former White House communications director. Prosecutors say she spoke with Trump by phone during a frenzied effort to keep allegations of his marital infidelity out of the press after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape leaked weeks before the 2016 election. In the tape, from 2005, Trump boasted about grabbing women without permission.

PROSECUTORS

ALVIN BRAGG — A former civil rights lawyer and law professor, Bragg is a Democrat in his first term as Manhattan’s district attorney. He inherited the Trump investigation when he took office in 2021. He oversaw the prosecution of Trump’s company in an unrelated tax fraud case before moving to indict Trump last year.

MATTHEW COLANGELO — A former high-ranking Justice Department official who was hired by Bragg in 2022 to lead the Trump investigation. They previously worked together on Trump-related matters at the New York attorney general’s office.

JOSHUA STEINGLASS — A Manhattan prosecutor for more than 25 years, he has worked on some of the office’s more high-profile cases, including the Trump Organization’s tax fraud conviction in 2022, and cases involving violent crimes.

SUSAN HOFFINGER — The chief of the district attorney’s Investigation Division, she returned to the office in 2022 after more than 20 years in private practice with her sister, Fran. She worked with Steinglass on the Trump Organization tax fraud prosecution.

TRUMP’S LAWYERS

TODD BLANCHE — A former federal prosecutor, Blanche previously represented Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, in a mortgage fraud case — and got it thrown out. Blanche successfully argued that the case, brought by the same prosecutor’s office now taking on Trump, was too similar to one that landed Manafort in federal prison and therefore amounted to double jeopardy.

SUSAN NECHELES — A former Brooklyn prosecutor, Necheles is a respected New York City defense lawyer who represented Trump’s company at its tax fraud trial last year. In the past she served as counsel to the late Genovese crime family underboss Venero Mangano, known as Benny Eggs, and defended John Gotti’s lawyer, Bruce Cutler, in the early 90s.

EMIL BOVE — A star college lacrosse player, Bove was a veteran federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. He was involved in multiple high-profile prosecutions, including a drug-trafficking case against the former Honduran president’s brother, a man who set off a pressure cooker device in Manhattan and a man who sent dozens of mail bombs to prominent targets across the country.

THE JUDGE

JUAN M. MERCHAN — The judge presiding over the case. He was also the judge in the Trump Organization’s tax fraud trial in 2022 and is overseeing a border wall fraud case against longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon. Merchan has twice denied requests by Trump’s lawyers that he step aside from the case. They contend he is biased because his daughter runs a political consulting firm that has worked for Democrats, including President Joe Biden. Merchan has said he is certain of his “ability to be fair and impartial.”

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