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Donald Trump’s lawyers attack Michael Cohen’s credibility at hush money trial

He testified that Trump ordered him to pay adult film star Stormy Daniels in 2016 to stay quiet about an alleged 2006 sexual encounter, lest it torpedo his presidential campaign, and then approved a plan to reimburse Cohen through a series of bogus invoices.

Former US president Donald Trump gives end of the day remarks after exiting the courtroom during his hush money trial in New York on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

But Cohen’s checkered history – he served time in federal prison for various crimes, including the hush money payment, and has admittedly lied under oath – offered Trump’s lawyers an obvious target, once they were free to question Cohen themselves.

Through about two hours of cross-examination, Blanche had yet to ask Cohen about the US$130,000 payment at the heart of the case, instead combing methodically through Cohen’s extensive public comments about Trump over the years to underscore his transformation from Trump loyalist to foe and his pattern of deception.

Blanche also suggested Cohen was motivated by money, revenge and notoriety rather than justice, asking Cohen about the millions of dollars he earned from two tell-all memoirs and the millions of subscribers to his frequently anti-Trump podcast.

The defence showed jurors pictures of Trump-themed merchandise for sale on Cohen’s website, including mugs reading: “Send him to the big house, not the White House.”

Cohen is the prosecution’s star witness at Trump’s historic trial, which started on April 15 and appears to be nearing an end; prosecutors told the judge on Tuesday that Cohen would be their final witness. His cross-examination will resume on Thursday, after a scheduled day off for the trial on Wednesday.

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

Trump, 77, the 2024 Republican presidential candidate, has pleaded not guilty and denies any sexual encounter with Daniels. He has characterised the case as a partisan attempt to interfere with his campaign to take back the White House he lost in 2020 to Democratic US President Joe Biden.

Former US president Donald Trump watches as Michael Cohen is cross examined by defence lawyer Todd Blanche on Tuesday. Courtroom sketch: Jane Rosenberg via Reuters

Earlier on Tuesday, Cohen described an Oval Office meeting in February 2017 where Trump told him that Cohen would soon receive the first monthly instalments of a bonus package, which Cohen said included reimbursements for the Daniels payment.

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 to retain him for legal services.

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

“No, ma’am,” Cohen replied.

Cohen, 57, said he lied multiple times to Congress during an investigation into Trump’s Russia ties, eventually pleading guilty to perjury. He also told jurors he lied repeatedly to journalists and others about the Daniels scandal.

In 2018, after the US Justice Department began investigating the Daniels payment, FBI agents raided Cohen’s home. He said he called Trump in a panic.

“He said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m the president of the United States … you’re going to be OK,’” Cohen said. That was the last time they spoke directly, Cohen added.

Instead, Cohen testified, lawyer Robert Costello, who was close to Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani, offered a “backchannel” to Trump. In emails shown to jurors, Costello passed along Giuliani’s assurances that he had “friends in high places”.

Meanwhile, Trump was defending Cohen on social media and decrying the idea that he might “flip” and cooperate with prosecutors. It all added up to a “pressure campaign” to keep Cohen in line, he said. But he eventually decided to cooperate after speaking with his family.

US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (centre) and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy (third from left) listen as former US president Donald Trump talks to reporters as he arrives for his criminal trial in New York on Tuesday. Photo: EPA-EFE

Cohen pleaded guilty to federal crimes in 2018, including offences related to the Daniels payment, and said he was acting at the behest of Trump, who was not charged.

“I regret doing things for him that I should not have,” Cohen said on Tuesday when asked to reflect on his many years working for Trump. “To keep the loyalty and to do the things that he asked me to do, I violated my moral compass. And I suffered the penalty – as has my family.”

A day after several Republican lawmakers attended the trial in support of Trump, US House Speaker Mike Johnson joined him and later criticised the case outside the court.

While Cohen testified on Tuesday, a mid-level appeal court denied Trump’s latest effort to throw out a partial gag order that Trump asserted violated his right to free speech. The trial judge imposed the order to prevent Trump from interfering with the case.

On Monday, Cohen said Trump approved multiple payments to keep damaging sex-scandal stories out of the public eye.

In October 2016, Cohen said, he learned Daniels was shopping her story to tabloids. At the time, the Trump campaign was in crisis mode after the release of an audio recording 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 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 misdemeanour to a felony if the crime helped conceal another offence. In Trump’s case, prosecutors have argued the payment was effectively a secret contribution to his campaign, violating federal and state laws.

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.

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