Michael Cohen ensnares Trump in Stormy Daniels scheme

NEW YORK — The jury that will decide former President Trump’s fate in his hush money trial finally heard on Monday from Michael Cohen, who provided some of the strongest implications yet of his former client’s role in the scheme at the heart of the case.

As he’s done many times before, Cohen recounted his role in several so-called catch-and-kill deals to keep unflattering stories about Trump out of the public eye during the 2016 campaign.

But the retelling of that story to jurors over an entire court day pinned the blame on his former boss more than any other witness who has taken the stand so far. That clearly angered Trump, who afterward gave some of his most vehement remarks about his innocence, reading out articles from legal allies and slamming the judge in response to what he’d just sat through for hours.

Inside the courtroom however, the atmosphere itself was more subdued than had been expected between the two allies-turned-foes who have been at each other’s throats for years.

Cohen appeared careful to not lose his temper, speaking slowly and looking dejected and even anxious on the stand. He made a handful of audible sighs as prosecutors for hours asked him to detail his conversations negotiating hush money deals during Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Trump, meanwhile, kept his eyes closed for much of Cohen’s testimony — a marked departure from their last faceoff, which ended with the former president storming out of the courtroom where his ex-personal attorney was testifying against him in a civil case.

But Trump’s visibility was stark when he first entered the courtroom where his criminal trial was taking place Monday morning, followed by a small entourage of more than 15 people comprised of Republican lawmakers, Secret Service agents, lawyers and campaign allies.

Three sitting members of Congress — Sens. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) and JD Vance (R-Ohio) and Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) — were among the group, as was Trump’s son Eric Trump and his legal spokeswoman, Alina Habba. Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird (R) also sat in.

Trump at the end of the day gave shoutouts to many of them, reading from a list of his allies’ statements that Trump had marked up with a Sharpie during the afternoon proceedings. But he also grew angry during remarks to reporters staking out the courthouse hallway.

“We have a corrupt judge,” Trump told reporters in the hallway of the court house, raising his voice. “And we have a judge who’s highly conflicted. And he’s keeping me from campaigning.”

“He’s a corrupt judge. And he’s a conflicted judge and he oughta let us go out and campaign and get rid of this scam,” Trump alleged.

Cohen’s testimony this week tying Trump directly to the payments could make-or-break the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s (D) case against Trump and help determine whether the former president becomes a felon.

Bragg, who has sparingly attended the trial, sat in for some of the day’s proceedings, seated in his usual spot in the gallery behind Trump.

Trump and Cohen largely avoided eye contact in the courtroom, except for when the ex-fixer was asked to identify his former boss; Cohen stood up at the stand to get a better look.

Cohen entered and exited the room quickly, breathing deeply to the point where it was audible, and almost always keeping his eyes away from Trump as he walked past the defense table. The former president was whispering with his attorney, not paying attention to Cohen when he slipped by.

On the stand, Cohen appeared anxious at times, fidgeting and constantly moving his gaze as he looked out at the packed courtroom waiting for jurors to arrive after each break.

The former president’s ex-fixer began his testimony by recalling how he got the job.

Cohen said that, after reviewing a legal matter for Trump, the then-business mogul questioned whether he was happy at his “sleepy old firm.” He was “honored” and “taken by surprise” when Trump asked him to leave there to come work for him.

The job for Trump, according to Cohen, was doing “whatever concerned him. Whatever he wanted.” He’d become one of Trump’s most fiercely loyal aides, earning a nickname as Trump’s “pit bull” for aggressively pursuing threats to Trump’s image.

When Trump decided to run for president, Cohen said the men met with then-National Enquirer publisher David Pecker to discuss how the tabloid could help the campaign.

As Pecker testified earlier in the trial, he agreed to “keep an eye out” for any negative stories about Trump and to try to stop those stories from coming out, Cohen said.

“If we can place positive stories about Mr. Trump, that would be beneficial, and if we could place negative stories about some of the other candidates, that would also be beneficial,” Cohen explained.

When Trump decided to run for president, he warned his fixer to “be prepared” for “a lot of women” to come forward with stories involving him. They did.

Some of Cohen’s most notable comments Monday concerned his perception of the “Access Hollywood” tape — in which Trump described grabbing women inappropriately and seemingly without their consent — and how several affair allegations would impact Trump’s standing among women voters.

Following the tape’s release, Cohen testified, Trump told him to spin it as “locker room talk” because that’s what “Melania had thought it was.” The former president shook his head in disagreement at the comment that referred to Trump’s wife, Melania Trump.

Cohen said Trump was polling “very poorly” with women at the time. The “Access Hollywood” tape was already clouding Trump’s presidential prospects when it became clear that adult film actress Stormy Daniels’s story of an alleged affair was resurfacing.

Trump feared it could be a “disaster” for the campaign, Cohen said. He ordered Cohen to delay publication of the story until after the election.

“This is a disaster. Total disaster,” Trump said, according to Cohen. “Women are going to hate me.”

Cohen also said that days later, during negotiations over Daniels’s allegation of an affair, he asked Trump “how things are gonna go upstairs” with Melania if the salacious story emerged.

“Don’t worry,” Trump responded, according to Cohen. “How long do you think I’ll be on the market for? Not long.”

The testimony undercuts a core element of Trump’s defense — that he aimed to hide the affair from his wife, not American voters. To prove Trump guilty of the felony business record falsification charges he faces, prosecutors must show he acted in furtherance of another crime: influencing the election.

Though Cohen has long publicly expressed a desire to see Trump convicted — even wearing a shirt showing Trump behind bars during a recent TikTok live stream — Cohen in recent days indicated that he wasn’t looking forward to testifying.

His most irritated moment on the witness stand came as he recalled receiving his 2016 bonus, only to learn it had been cut by two-thirds its usual amount.

“I was truly insulted, personally hurt. I didn’t understand it,” Cohen said. “It made no sense, after all that I had gone through in terms of the campaign, as well as the things at the Trump Organization and laying out $130,000 on his behalf to protect him.”

He described himself as “unusually angry” over the apparent snub and took the matter to chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, describing in “some uncolorful language” how “truly pissed off and angry” he was.

Cohen’s testimony could grow feistier under cross-examination by Trump’s attorneys, who have indicated that they’ll take any measures necessary to undermine his credibility.

Prosecutors have suggested they will finish their direct examination Tuesday, before defense attorneys get their chance to question him.

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