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Michael Cohen, Trump's former fixer, testifies against him in the hush money trial

Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building on his way to Manhattan criminal court on Monday.
Julia Nikhinson
Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building on his way to Manhattan criminal court on Monday.

Updated May 13, 2024 at 13:16 PM ET

NEW YORK — Settlement payments, nondisclosure agreements and measures taken to protect Donald Trump were at the center of Michael Cohen's testimony on Monday morning.

Cohen, known for being the ex-lawyer of Donald Trump, took the stand in the first criminal trial against the former president. Once known as his "fixer," Cohen testified to wanting to protect Trump and his reputation.

Cohen testified that ahead of the 2016 election he worked to keep negative stories about Trump out of the media and worked to reduce the impact of the Access Hollywood Tape. Cohen said Trump at the time was polling poorly with women voters and Stormy Daniels, an adult film star, was going to come out with a story she had an affair with Trump.

"He told me to work with [David Pecker of American Media Inc.] and get control over this ... and acquire the life rights," Cohen said, adding that Trump told him to "do what you need to do to stop this getting out."

Prosecutors showed the jury text messages and phone call records paired with Cohen's testimony that he had spoken with then-candidate Trump about payoffs to a former Playboy model and Daniels — both whom alleged they had affairs with Trump. Trump has denied the affairs.

Cohen said to Trump "this was all about the campaign" and "he wasn't thinking" about his wife, Melania. Trump has said the payments to Daniel were made in order to protect his family.

Prosecutors for the Manhattan district attorney allege that Trump falsified business records to pay off Daniels as a part of a larger scheme to influence the 2016 election.

Trump faces 34 felony counts alleging that reimbursements to Cohen for paying Daniels violated campaign finance law. Trump, who pleaded not guilty, claims the trial itself is "election interference" because of how it is disrupting his 2024 bid for president. He must be present in court every day and thus, isn't able to campaign when he is.

This is the second trial that Cohen in which he has testified against Trump in front of Trump. Last fall he testified in a civil fraud trial, alleging that Trump inflated the value of his assets to land better business deals.

Cohen testifies to several deals the jury has heard about

While on the witness stand on Monday, Cohen testified to the deal brokered between Trump, Cohen and the leadership at American Media Inc., to collaborate on positive stories about then-candidate Trump. He also testified to hearing about two allegations about Trump — an unsubstantiated allegation that Trump had fathered an illegitimate child and an allegation that he had an affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

The former Trump doorman was paid $30,000 to keep quiet about the child out-of-wedlock story, Cohen said, and Cohen reviewed the agreement. Then he testified about purchasing McDougal's story.

"We needed to acquire the story," Cohen testified about McDougal's story. Jurors viewed text messages between Cohen and leadership at the National Enquirer tabloid, and call records, and Cohen testified he spoke to Trump about "the Karen McDougal matter."

He then testified to negotiating the payment for Daniels. The $130,0o0 settlement was negotiated, but the payout was slow-walked, he said,

"I was instructed to push it until after the election," Cohen said. "I was following directions."

The jury has heard much of this before. Cohen's testimony comes just days after Daniels took the stand against the former president. McDougal is not expected to be called to testify.

Jurors have also heard from former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, who first testified to the details of the deals made to report potentially damaging stories to Cohen and Trump. And jurors heard from Keith Davidson, the lawyer who negotiated the nondisclosure agreements and settlement payments for McDougal and Daniels.

Several former and current Trump employees, both from his flagship company and his administration, testified to the process in which Trump received personal invoices and paid personal checks — including those used to pay Cohen back.

Background on the case

In 2019, Cohen told Congress that he discussed "reimbursements" for the hush money, with Trump, early in his presidency, at the White House.

"And he says to me something to the effect of, 'Don't worry, Michael. Your January and February reimbursement checks are coming,'" Cohen told Congress. "They were FedEx'd from New York. And it takes a while for that to get through the White House system.'"

Jurors have been presented with a photo, a meeting memo, copies of FedEx receipts. The prosecution and the defense this week will be locked in the battle over whether Cohen is an unrepentant liar, as Trump claims, or whether he has lied, but in this case is telling the truth.

Cohen's journey from someone who once said he'd "take a bullet" for Trump to someone who has emerged as a key witness against the former president has been long.

In 2018, the two men had a falling out in 2018 amid a federal investigation into Cohen's financial dealings and special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential race.

Prior to that, Cohen did Trump's dirty work: stiffing vendors, intimidating reporters, making secret deals. But after the whole Stormy Daniels' story blew up in 2018, Trump stopped paying Cohen's legal bills, and Cohen became what Trump very publicly called "a rat." The Daniels case is at the heart of the criminal case against Trump in New York.

In late 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to a raft of federal charges, including campaign finance violations related to hush money payouts to two women in exchange for their public silence about their personal relationships with Trump. He said he did that "at the direction" of Trump.

In February 2019, Cohen testified before the House Oversight Committee.

"Mr. Trump is a cheat," Cohen told lawmakers at the time. "It was my experience that Mr. Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes, such as trying to be listed amongst the wealthiest people in Forbes, and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes."

Trump has long argued that he has done no wrong and has repeatedly cast Cohen as untrustworthy. That has done little to deter prosecutors who have made Cohen's account of working for Trump a cornerstone of their case against the former president. He is expected to be one of the last prosecution witnesses against Trump this week.

Cohen's testimony to Congress could be a harbinger of what the court could hear from him in the coming says. Some of his testimony to Congress has already been corroborated. Hope Hicks, the former Trump communications aide, testified about how concerned the campaign was after the release of the Access Hollywood tape before the 2016 election.

Copyright 2024 NPR

NPR Washington Desk
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.