Former 'fixer' admits stealing from Trump as a form of 'self help' at New York hush money trial

Donald Trump, bottom left corner, watches as defence attorney Todd Blanche cross-examines Michael Cohen (AP)
Donald Trump, bottom left corner, watches as defence attorney Todd Blanche cross-examines Michael Cohen (AP)

Donald Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen testified on Monday that he stole money from the former US president’s company as a form of “self- help”.

The startling admission could chip away at his credibility as a star witness at Trump’s hush money trial in New York.

Questioned by Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche, Cohen acknowledged stealing from the Trump Organization by including a reimbursement to a technology company in his bonus package and pocketing most of the money.

“So you stole from the Trump Organization, right?” Blanche asked during a barrage of questions.

“Yes sir,” testified Cohen, 57 – who once said he would take a bullet for Trump,

Cohen said he paid roughly $20,000 (£15,734) of the $50,000 (£39,335) that Trump's company owed to the tech company in cash, handing it off in a brown paper bag at his office. He said he kept the rest.

He was reimbursed $100,000 (£78,671) total by the Trump Organization for that payment.

Under questioning by prosecutors a bit later, Cohen testified he stole the money because he was upset about his annual bonus being cut after he fronted $130,000 (£102,273) of his own money to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels, who was threatening shortly before the 2016 election to go public with her account of an alleged sexual encounter with Trump.

“I just felt it was almost like self-help,” Cohen said.

Cohen is the final and most important witness for New York prosecutors as they seek to convince a jury that Trump broke the law by covering up that payment to Daniels.

Donald Trump returns to the courtroom after a lunch break during his hush money trial (Getty Images)
Donald Trump returns to the courtroom after a lunch break during his hush money trial (Getty Images)

Cohen testified last week that Trump signed off on the payment and worried that her story would hurt his appeal to women voters.

That undermined Trump’s legal team which argued that he was seeking only to protect his family from embarrassment.

But as a convicted felon and admitted liar, Cohen is a problematic witness.

Prosecutors have supported his testimony with documentary evidence, while Trump’s defence have sought to undermine Cohen’s credibility through his cross-examination.

Cohen’s testimony was expected to conclude on Monday. After that, Trump's lawyers will have a chance to present evidence and witnesses of their own.

It was unclear whether Trump would take the witness stand.

Defence lawyers often opt not to call witnesses or present their own evidence when they believe prosecutors have failed to make their case.

At the outset of Monday’s hearing, Justice Juan Merchan said he expected the prosecution and Trump’s side to wrap up their presentations this week and make their closing arguments next week followed by jury deliberations.

Trump, the first former president to face a criminal trial, has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up the payment to Daniels, who had threatened to go public with her account of an alleged 2006 sexual encounter - a liaison Trump denies.

Outside the courtroom, Trump, 77 - the Republican candidate for president in November - has blasted the trial as a politically motivated effort to hobble his attempt to take back the White House from Democratic President Joe Biden.

Inside the courtroom, Trump has sat at the defendant’s table listening to Daniels tell her account of their time together in lurid detail.

Other witnesses, including Cohen, have discussed efforts to bury unflattering stories at a time Trump faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.

Trump’s lawyers said last week they did not think they would need much time unless Trump opted to testify.

“That's another decision that we need to think through,” Blanche said on Thursday, the last day the trial convened.

If he chooses to testify, Trump will have the opportunity to convince jurors that he was not responsible for the paperwork at the heart of the case, and rebut Daniels’ detailed account of their meeting in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump (REUTERS)
Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump (REUTERS)

He would not be restrained by a gag order that bars him in other settings from criticizing witnesses, jurors and relatives of the judge and prosecutors.

However, he would face cross-examination by prosecutors, who could try to expose inconsistencies in his story. Any lies told under oath could expose him to further criminal perjury charges.

Trump last appeared as a witness in a civil business-fraud trial last year, delivering defiant and rambling testimony that aggravated Justice Arthur Engoron, who was overseeing the case. Engoron would go on to order him to pay $355 million (£279.2 million)in penalties after finding he fraudulently overstated his net worth to dupe lenders.

The hush money trial is widely seen as the least consequential of the four criminal prosecutions Trump faces, but it is likely the only one to go to trial before the election.

Trump faces charges in Washington and Georgia of trying to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden and charges in Florida of mishandling classified documents after leaving the White House in 2021. He has pleaded not guilty in all three cases.