Trump’s ex-fixer Cohen testifies about secret hush money payment to porn star

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - NEW YORK, May 14 — Donald Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen resumed testifying today at the Republican presidential candidate’s criminal trial, a day after telling jurors that Trump personally authorised him to make a hush money payment to a porn star weeks before the 2016 election.

Cohen, once so loyal to Trump that he claimed he would take a bullet for his boss, is the prosecution’s star witness. In hours of testimony on Monday, he said Trump ordered him to pay the adult film actress Stormy Daniels - “Just do it,” Cohen remembered Trump saying - to ensure her silence about an alleged 2006 sexual encounter.

Cohen’s US$130,000 (RM613,418) payment in October 2016 is at the heart of Trump’s trial, the first for a former US president, which began in New York state criminal court in Manhattan a month ago.

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

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In early testimony today, Cohen recounted an Oval Office meeting with Trump in February 2017 when the newly inaugurated president told him he would soon be receiving the first two installments of a bonus package. That package, Cohen said, included reimbursements for the Daniels payment.

Trump spoke at times with his lawyer Emil Bove, seated to his left, as 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 for retainer services.

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

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“No, ma’am,” Cohen replied.

Trump, 77, who is running against Democratic President Joe Biden in November, 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.

A day after several Republican lawmakers attended the trial in support of Trump, US House Speaker Mike Johnson joined him before Tuesday’s session and was set to address reporters outside the courthouse later.

While Cohen testified today, 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 and left him unable to respond to criticisms from people like Cohen.

The order, imposed by Justice Juan Merchan, who is overseeing the trial, prohibits Trump from making public comments about jurors, witnesses, and families of the judge and prosecutors if meant to interfere with the case.

‘A total disaster’

Yesterday, Cohen, 57, described multiple episodes in which he said Trump approved payments to keep damaging sex-scandal stories out of the public eye, lest they torpedo his presidential campaign.

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

In October 2016, he said, he learned that Daniels was shopping her story to tabloids. At the time, the Trump campaign was in crisis mode after the release of an audio recording from the TV show “Access Hollywood” 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 defense 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 that the payment was effectively a secret contribution to his campaign, violating federal and state laws.

Cohen’s own past dishonesty - he pleaded guilty to federal crimes in connection with the Daniels payment and has admitted lying under oath multiple times - is sure to prompt a bruising cross-examination from Trump’s lawyers once he concludes his direct testimony.

Defense lawyers have signaled their intention to attack his credibility, calling him a liar in their opening statement and urging jurors not to trust his word.

‘Catch and kill’

Cohen said that he, Trump and tabloid publisher David Pecker had secretly agreed in 2015 to use the National Enquirer to help Trump’s campaign.

That arrangement included a US$150,000 payment from Pecker’s company to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to buy her story about a year-long affair she said she had with Trump, Cohen said. Trump has also denied that relationship.

As in the Daniels instance, the intent was to acquire the rights to the story only to bury it, a practice Pecker called “catch and kill.”

Cohen’s most dramatic testimony concerned the chaotic final weeks of the 2016 campaign, when he arranged to pay Daniels through a phony shell company to disguise the nature of the payment.

Days before Election Day, the Wall Street Journal published a story about the McDougal hush money deal with Pecker’s company that also mentioned Daniels. Cohen testified that he and campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks frantically worked on a statement denying the story, while prosecutors showed jurors emails exchanges between them.

That testimony could undercut any defense claim that the hush money payments were not related to the campaign.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to violating federal campaign finance law by paying off Daniels and testified that Trump directed him to do so. Federal prosecutors did not charge Trump with any crime.

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. — Reuters

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