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Trump lawyer who paid Stormy Daniels says he ‘lied and bullied’ to keep former president happy

Michael Cohen, the magnate’s confidant for a decade, testified how he colluded to prevent ‘catastrophic’ scandals from coming to light during the 2016 White House campaign

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's former confidant, leaves his home Monday for the Manhattan criminal court.Mike Segar (REUTERS)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

He once claimed he would be shot by Donald Trump. Now Michael Cohen is the silver bullet for prosecutors in the first criminal trial against the former president of the United States for paying hush money to porn actress Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress and screenwriter who in 2016 received $130,000 in exchange for keeping quiet about her alleged affair with Trump. The man who was trusted by the Republican presidential candidate for a decade appeared Monday in the criminal court in Manhattan hearing the case as a star witness for the prosecution, where he testified that he would have done anything for his former employer: “The only thing that was on my mind was to accomplish the task to make him happy,” Cohen said.

Among those tasks was to quash any stories that might hurt Trump, such as alleged affairs with Daniels and the former Playboy model Karen McDougal. The key witness in the trial — the only one able to prove that Trump was directly involved in the accounting falsification to keep the payments secret — described in detail the plot orchestrated with his former boss and the editor of the tabloid National Enquirer to buy and shelve these stories in what according to prosecutors constituted a “criminal scheme to corrupt the 2016 presidential election.”

Prosecutors have indicated they could finish presenting their case as early as this week. After Cohen, another witness is scheduled to be called by the prosecution. Then, the defense can call any others it wishes before closing arguments begin. Judging by the speed of the process so far, it could be concluded within a matter of days.

Cohen said Monday he had lied and even “bullied” on behalf of Trump, with whom he had a strangely paternal relationship. The former president followed the first part of Cohen’s testimony with his eyes closed; after the noon break, he was seen leafing through papers. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison in 2018 over the hush money paid to Daniels — of which he served 13 months due to the coronavirus pandemic with a further year under house arrest — in violation of campaign finance laws. The purpose of the payment was to avoid a scandal that could have proven “potentially catastrophic” to Trump’s presidential campaign. The uproar caused in September 2016, a month before the payment to Daniels, by the release of the Access Hollywood tape — a catalog of Trump’s profanities about women — convinced them of the need to buy Daniels’ silence.

The relationship between the two deteriorated after the beginning of Trump’s presidency, and broke down completely after Cohen released a recording in which he and Trump are heard discussing how they would go about burying the story of McDougal’s alleged affair with the real estate magnate in 2006, something the former president also denies. Later, Cohen testified before a House committee on Trump’s involvement in the hush money scheme, in which David Pecker, editor of the National Enquirer and a personal friend of Trump, is also a protagonist. Pecker’s was one of the most cited names in Monday’s session (he himself testified in the second week of the trial). The three men decided in August 2015, shortly after Trump launched his bid for the White House, to bury all information that could prove injurious to the Republican. The collaboration between the Trump Organization and the National Enquirer allegedly involved the creation of accounting departments, front companies, and misleading invoices.

Former President Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures to the crowd during a campaign rally in Wildwood, N.J., Saturday May 11, 2024. Associated Press/LaPresse (APN)

$150,000 dollars to buy silence

The populist tone of the National Enquirer convinced them to spread positive stories about Trump, “which would be beneficial to his campaign,” and “negative stories about some of the other candidates.” But above all, stories were bought and suppressed, such as one concerning a janitor who threatened to talk about an alleged illegitimate child of Trump, to whom Pecker paid $30,000. McDougal’s silence cost $150,000. Trump thought it was “fantastic, a great job,” although Pecker complained because it was difficult for him to justify the hefty payment to his company, Cohen recalled.

In a country where business failures and legal entanglements bury no one’s future, Cohen can stand before the jury as someone who has openly acknowledged his crimes and paid for them with jail time. But it will also be made clear to the jury — the defense will make a point of it — that the now disbarred lawyer not only pleaded guilty to lying to Congress during investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia, around which the former president’s first impeachment trial revolved when he was still in the White House, but recently affirmed under oath that he was not entirely truthful in admitting some of those falsehoods either. Cohen’s reputation as a redoubtable liar is candy for the defense, which has tried unsuccessfully to prevent him from testifying by arguing that he has perjured himself more than once.

The animosity between Trump and his former right-hand man is mutual: if Cohen called his ex-boss “a racist, a con man and a cheat” in an appearance before Congress in 2019, Trump has not spared Cohen the coarsest epithets either, although he is forbidden from holding forth due to the gag order imposed by Judge Juan Merchan. He did not even offer a response on Monday to journalists who asked him loudly in the hallway if Cohen is a liar. The former president’s walk in and out of the courtroom has become a loudspeaker for his sophistry.

Instead, the presumptive Republican nominee boasted of the lead he holds over his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in five swing states in the latest poll released. He also reiterated his belief that the trial against him is a political witch hunt and thanked his supporters for their backing at rallies such as the one he held Saturday on a New Jersey beach: “We have thousands of people and 100,000 people in New Jersey. They would like to show their support. It’s like an armed camp outside. You can’t get one person within three blocks of this courthouse,” he said ahead of Cohen’s testimony.

“It’s a disgrace to the country. I’m campaigning now instead of sitting in a very cold courthouse all day long. This is a Biden prosecution. It’s election interference at a level that nobody in this country has ever seen before,” Trump concluded before entering the courtroom surrounded by supporters including Congressmen JD Vance and Nicole Malliotakis and his son Eric.

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