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Michael Cohen: Trump hush-money scheme was ‘all about the campaign’

When Trump first ran for president he warned Cohen, "There’s going to be a lot of women coming forward,” according to the ex-lawyer's testimony.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Michael Cohen had a big job on his hands when Donald Trump announced his presidential run in 2015.

“Be prepared. There’s going to be a lot of women coming forward,” Trump told his then-lawyer, according to Cohen's testimony at Trump's Manhattan criminal trial.

Cohen sported a light pink tie and his signature thick New York accent at the witness stand Monday morning. He's at the center of prosecutors' claims that Trump illegally interfered with the 2016 presidential election and then falsified business records to cover it up.

As Trump’s longtime personal attorney, Cohen was tasked with smoothing over various issues facing the billionaire, both inside and outside of his real estate business — making his informal title as Trump's "fixer" a "fair" moniker, Cohen said Monday.

The ex-attorney testified that he often would lie for Trump out of obligation: “The only thing that was on my mind was to accomplish the task to make him happy.”

It was in 2016 that Cohen caught wind that adult film star Stormy Daniels was shopping around a story that she had sex with Trump a decade prior. Cohen said he was concerned about the impact it could have on Trump’s presidential campaign, particularly after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape that features Trump on a hot mic in 2005 bragging about his aggressive sexual advances.

“At this time, Mr. Trump was polling very, very low with women,” Cohen testified. 

Cohen said that Trump shared his concern.

“He said to me: ‘This is a disaster, total disaster’” Cohen recalled Trump saying. “‘Women will hate me. Guys may think it’s cool, but this is going to be a disaster for the campaign.’”

Prosecutors claim Trump ordered Cohen to pay Daniels $130,000 to keep her story from getting out, constituting a deliberate effort to interfere with the election, which raises falsifying business records charges from misdemeanors to felonies.

Trump holds that the sexual encounter with Daniels never happened and that he was concerned about the rumor’s impact on his family, not the election.

Cohen on Monday said that wasn’t true, however. He says he asked Trump in 2016 how his wife, Melania, was taking the news. Cohen says Trump wasn’t worried, and replied, “How long do you think I’ll be on the market for? Not long.”

“He wasn’t thinking about Melania,” Cohen concluded. “This was all about the campaign.”

Trump, whose eyes stayed locked shut for a majority of Cohen’s testimony, frowned and shook his head when Cohen said that.

In an effort to protect his boss, Cohen said he paid the $130,000 out of his own pocket, expecting to be reimbursed. Later that year, still without repayment, Cohen said Trump inexplicably cut his annual bonus by two-thirds.

“I was, even for myself, unusually angry,” Cohen said.

When it finally came time to pay Cohen back, Cohen said Trump himself signed off on a monthly payment plan with the overall cash amount doubled to account for taxes — Cohen’s reimbursements would be disguised as standard legal fees, which are taxable income.

“He approved it,” Cohen said of Trump.

Those monthly reimbursements would be precisely why Trump ended up in hot water: Each invoice, check and ledger entry in Cohen’s monthly repayment plan was a falsified business record, according to prosecutors.

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump attends his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York on Monday, May 13 2024. (Steven Hirsch/New York Post via AP, Pool)

Throughout his testimony, Cohen made it clear that the hush-money scheme was orchestrated under Trump’s watchful eye. In fact, Cohen claimed that Trump micromanaged virtually every inch of his business and political empires.

Cohen said Trump asked everyone who worked for him to “keep me informed” and “let me know what’s going on.”

“What he was saying, what everybody did is, as soon as you had a result, an answer, you would go straight back and tell him. Especially if it was a matter that was troubling to him,” Cohen said.

Trump was also paranoid, Cohen suggested in his testimony. Multiple witnesses have testified that Trump never communicated via email, but Cohen on Monday revealed what he said was the reason: Trump was worried about a paper trail.

“During certain conversations, he would comment that emails are like written papers,” Cohen said. “He knows too many people who have gone down as a direct result of emails that prosecutors can use in a case.”

Cohen still says his decade at the Trump Organization was “fantastic” and “amazing,” but since then, he’s become one of the former president’s most fervent critics. He detailed his work with Trump in his 2020 memoir "Disloyal," which Cohen has claimed prompted the Trump administration to put him back in jail during the pandemic. (A federal judge who released Cohen found his remand to have been retaliatory; Cohen's subsequent First Amendment lawsuit, however, fell flat.)

On Monday Cohen brought his story to the courtroom, testifying about some of the dirty work he did for his former boss, like negotiating invoices Trump deemed unfair or unjustified.

“Trump University fell into trouble," Cohen recalled at one point during his testimony. "There were approximately 50 vendors that had not been paid,” he added, and eventually he convinced nearly all of them to take just 20% of what they were owed.

Cohen’s persistence and results quickly impressed Trump, who moved Cohen’s office in Trump Tower to be “50 feet, maybe 60 feet” from Trump’s own, according to Cohen, who became part of Trump’s inner circle and spoke to him “every single day, and multiple times per day.”

As such, he was an integral, if unofficial, part of Trump’s team when he announced his presidential run in 2015.

Cohen said Trump told him to prepare for a barrage of negative press about Trump’s past, such as the aforementioned encounter with Daniels. Cohen corroborated witness David Pecker’s testimony that Trump entered into an agreement with the publisher of The National Enquirer to quash some of those stories.

One was that of Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who after Trump's presidential announcement started looking to sell her own story about a roughly yearlong affair she had with Trump while he was married.

“I asked him if he knew who Karen McDougal was, if he knows anything about the story,” Cohen testified. “His response to me was: ‘She’s really beautiful.’ I said: ‘Okay. But right now there’s a story that’s being shopped.’”

Cohen said that, at Trump’s direction, he orchestrated a $150,000 deal for Pecker to buy McDougal’s story to hide it from the public and protect his presidential campaign.

Cohen’s testimony is expected to span several days this week.

Trump is being charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records related to repayments he made to Cohen in the same supposed scheme. Last year, Trump pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Read daily transcripts of the Trump hush-money criminal trial here. Note there is a delay of several days before new transcripts are posted.

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Categories / Criminal, Politics

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