‘Make sure it doesn’t get released;’ Star witness Michael Cohen implicates Trump in hush money case

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 approved hefty payouts to stifle stories about sex that he feared could be harmful to his 2016 White House campaign.

“You handle it,” Cohen quoted Trump as telling him after learning that a doorman had come forward with a claim that Trump had fathered a child out-of-wedlock. The Trump Tower doorman was paid $30,000 to keep the story “off the market” even though the claim was ultimately deemed unfounded.

A similar episode occurred after Cohen alerted Trump that a Playboy model alleged that she and Trump had an extramarital affair. Again, the order was clear: “Make sure it doesn’t get released,” Cohen said Trump told him. The woman was paid $150,000 to stay quiet.

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 may wrap up their presentation of evidence by the end of the week.

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. Politically, Trump is likely to seize on prosecutors’ reliance on a witness with such a checkered past — Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the payments and to lying to Congress — as he raises money off his legal woes and paints the case as the product of a tainted criminal justice system.

Though jurors have heard from others about the tabloid industry practice of “catch-and-kill,” in which rights to a story are purchased so it can be quashed, Cohen’s testimony is especially important to prosecutors because of his proximity to Trump and because he says he was directly coordinating with the then-candidate about the payments.

Besides payments to the doorman and to McDougal, another sum went to porn actor Stormy Daniels, who told jurors last week that the $130,000 she received was meant to prevent her from going public about a sexual encounter she says she had with Trump in a hotel suite a decade earlier.

The reimbursements Cohen received from that payment form the basis of the charges against Trump — 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. Prosecutors say the reimbursements were logged as legal expenses to conceal the payments’ true purpose, violating the law.

To lay the foundation that the deals were done with Trump’s endorsement, prosecutors elicited testimony from Cohen — who spent a decade as a Trump Organization senior executive — 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.”

Prosecutors are expected to try to blunt those attacks by eliciting detailed testimony from Cohen about his past crimes. They have also called other witnesses whose accounts, they hope, will buttress Cohen’s testimony. Those witnesses included a lawyer who negotiated the hush money payments on behalf of Daniels and McDougal; a tabloid publisher who pledged to be the Trump campaign’s “eyes and ears”; and Daniels herself.

Trump sat silently with his eyes closed as Cohen’s testimony covered the payoff to the doorman and other aspects of the hush money machinations. He did not appear to make eye contact with Cohen as the lawyer took the stand.

Cohen’s role as star prosecution witness further cements the disintegration of a mutually beneficial relationship that was once so close that the attorney famously said he would “take a bullet for Trump.” 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.”

Defense lawyers are expected to exploit all the challenges that accompany a witness like Cohen. Besides painting him as untrustworthy, they’re also expected to cast him as vindictive, vengeful and agenda-driven.

Since their 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.

“He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump go to prison,” Trump attorney Todd Blanche said during opening statements. “He has talked extensively about his desire to see President Trump’s family go to prison. He has talked extensively about President Trump getting convicted in this case.”

No matter how his testimony unfolds, Cohen is indisputably central to the case, as evidenced by the fact that his name was mentioned during opening statements more than 130 times — more than any other person.

Other witnesses, including former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker and former Trump adviser Hope Hicks, have testified at length about the role Cohen played in arranging to stifle stories that were feared to be harmful to Trump’s 2016 candidacy. And jurors heard an audio recording of Trump and Cohen discussing a plan to purchase the rights to McDougal’s story.

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