Cohen admits to stealing and other takeaways from day 19 of Trump’s trial

The prosecution rested its case in former US president’s New York hush-money trial, as the defence finished cross-examining Cohen.

Former President Donald Trump attends his New York hush-money trial on May 20 at the Manhattan Criminal Court [Sarah Yenesel/Pool via AP]Published On 20 May 202420 May 2024

Disbarred lawyer Michael Cohen has completed his testimony before a New York criminal courtroom, as the case against his boss, former United States President Donald Trump, approaches its likely end.

Monday marked Cohen’s fourth and final day on the witness stand. His words were the last witness testimony the prosecution called before resting its case.

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Now, the trial shifts towards the defence, as it seeks to rebut allegations that Trump falsified business records to conceal a hush-money payment to a former adult film actress – and thereby bolster his chances in the 2016 presidential election.

In October 2016, Cohen transferred $130,000 to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels to buy her silence about an affair she alleged she had with then-candidate Trump.

Cohen has maintained that he made the payment at Trump’s command, and that Trump then reimbursed the payment through surreptitious means, filing it under “legal expenses”.

But on Cohen’s last day on the stand, the defence sought to puncture that narrative, attacking Cohen’s credibility by drawing attention to instances where he lied and stole.

The defence has consistently maintained that Trump had nothing to do with the payment. Trump himself has denied any wrongdoing and refuted Daniels’s allegation of an affair.

Day 19 of the New York hush-money trial also marked the start of a short week. Not only is the witness list for the defence expected to be relatively brief, but the court is scheduled to break early this week to accommodate the Memorial Day holiday in the US.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the case. Here are the takeaways from Cohen’s final day of testimony.

Former President Donald Trump told reporters outside the Manhattan Criminal Court on Monday that the prosecution has ‘no case’ [Sarah Yenesel/Pool via AP]

Cohen admits to stealing from Trump Organization

Before ending its cross-examination of Cohen on Monday, the defence landed a significant blow to his credibility, getting him to admit that he had stolen $30,000 from Trump’s namesake company.

Defence lawyer Todd Blanche asked Cohen outright: “You stole from the Trump Organization, right?”

Cohen offered his standard response, “Yes, sir.”

The theft came after Cohen hired the technology company Red Finch to help boost Trump’s numbers in an online poll from CNBC, ranking the best businessmen of the past half-century.

Cohen testified that Trump was “upset” that he had landed towards the bottom of the poll. By hiring Red Finch, Cohen explained that he and Trump could manipulate the poll: The tech company would cast false votes on Trump’s behalf using different IP addresses.

Red Finch was originally slated to be paid $50,000 for its services, Cohen explained.

But he told the jury that he instead paid Red Finch $20,000 to “placate” its owner and then pocketed the rest, after Trump decided to reduce his holiday bonus.

“I was angered because of the reduction in the bonus, and so I just felt like it was self-help,” Cohen said.

Blanche pressed the issue during his cross-examination: “Have you paid back the Trump Organization the money you stole from them?”

“No, sir,” Cohen said.

Trump’s entourage in the courtroom took the admission as a major coup for his defence.

“This just got interesting: Michael Cohen is now admitting to stealing money from our company,” Trump’s second son Eric posted on social media.

Kash Patel, an official under Trump’s administration, told reporters outside the courtroom that “we finally have a crime”.

“We also have a victim,” he added. “That victim is Donald J Trump.”

Kash Patel told reporters that Cohen’s testimony shows Trump to be a ‘victim’ in the case [Seth Wenig/AP]

Cohen reveals he made millions from media appearances

The defence has long maintained that Trump himself is not guilty of falsifying business records, but that figures like Cohen and the Trump Organization’s former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, were responsible for any misdeeds.

As the defence team brought its cross-examination of Cohen to a close, it sought to paint a portrait of Cohen’s alleged greed, highlighting the ways he profited from his association with Trump.

Cohen testified that, after Trump was elected president in 2016, he made about $4m from consulting contracts, including with AT&T, a telecommunications company seeking a merger at the time.

In 2018, however, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other federal crimes, including lying to Congress. He was sentenced to prison as a result.

But when he was transferred to home confinement in 2020, he took on an increasingly public role as a Trump critic. Cohen testified that, starting in 2020, he made approximately $4.4m from tell-all books and podcast appearances.

The defence also asked Cohen about a reality TV show called The Fixer he had been shopping to networks, though, he added, no studio has picked it up yet.

Michael Cohen leaves his New York City home to attend his fourth day of testimony at the Manhattan Criminal Court on Monday [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

Cohen cross-examination ends, prosecution rests

In the final minutes of Cohen’s cross-examination, the defence tried to impress upon the jury that there were holes in the former lawyer’s testimony.

While Cohen has maintained that the hush-money payments were falsely logged as “legal expenses”, the defence has maintained the label is accurate, as Cohen was in fact Trump’s personal lawyer.

The defence also questioned whether Cohen could accurately recollect his conversations with Trump from October 2016, the month when the hush-money payment was made.

“Notwithstanding everything you’ve said over the years, you have specific recollection of having conversations with then-candidate Donald J Trump about the Stormy Daniels matter?” Blanche, the defence lawyer, asked.

Cohen answered his usual “yes, sir”.

“No doubt in your mind?” Blanche asked again. “No doubt,” Cohen responded.

The cross-examination ended shortly thereafter, and the prosecution briefly stood to question Cohen one last time.

Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger took the opportunity to point out that Trump’s actions were on trial, not Cohen’s.

“I know you might feel like you’re on trial here after cross-examination, but are you actually on trial here?” she asked Cohen.

“No, ma’am,” he replied.

The prosecution also asked Cohen to reflect upon what speaking out against Trump has cost him.

“My entire life has been turned upside down as a direct result,” Cohen responded, citing a decline in his family’s wellbeing as well as his professional prospects.

“I lost my law license, my businesses, my financial security, which I was fortunately enough early to have been able to obtain.”

With that, the prosecution rested its case.

A protester holds up a sign on Monday denouncing Donald Trump’s behaviour during the 2016 election [Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

Defence calls its first witnesses, including feisty Costello

With the prosecution’s case at an end, it was time for the defence to take its turn to call witnesses.

The first was a paralegal named Daniel Sitko, who works for Blanche, the defence lawyer.

Sitko presented a chart that offered an overview of the phone calls between Cohen and Robert Costello, a lawyer who previously offered to transmit messages between Cohen and Trump.

The defence only questioned Sitko long enough to establish that Cohen’s communications with Costello were frequent, particularly in 2018 when he faced legal troubles.

Then, the defence’s second witness took the stand: Costello himself.

The decision to call Costello was not without controversy. The prosecution objected to his inclusion: Cohen has admitted to lying to Costello, and for his part, Costello has taken a prominent public role in questioning Cohen’s credibility.

Costello was also a late addition to the defence’s list of possible witnesses, and Judge Juan Merchan was forced to rule quickly about how much of Costello’s testimony he would allow.

Merchan said Costello could “offer some rebuttal” to Cohen’s testimony, but the judge added he would not allow the situation to become a “trial within a trial”.

But right away, Costello’s appearance on the witness stand was tense: The lawyer audibly reacted when the prosecution raised objections to his testimony, saying “jeez” and calling the situation “ridiculous”.

It was enough to earn a stern rebuke from Judge Merchan, who briefly cleared the courtroom to address Costello directly.

“Mr Costello, I want to discuss proper decorum in my courtroom. When there’s a witness on the stand, if you don’t like my ruling, you don’t say ‘jeez’,” Merchan said. “You don’t give me side eye, and you don’t roll your eyes.”

Costello was ultimately allowed to resume his testimony, which centred on allegations that Cohen lied about Trump’s knowledge of the hush-money payments.

“Michael Cohen said numerous times that President Trump knew nothing about those payments, that he did this on his own, and he repeated that numerous times,” Costello said.

Illinois Representative Mary Miller joins Trump supporters outside the Manhattan Criminal Court on May 20 to speak to the press [Seth Wenig/AP Photo]

Trump’s court entourage includes Hells Angels

The day ended with Costello’s fiery appearance on the witness stand, and the prospect of further questioning from prosecutors on Tuesday.

While much of the court’s attention was focused on the final witnesses in the trial, members of Trump’s entourage also caught the media’s eye.

Seated among Trump’s inner circle was Chuck Zito, the former president of the New York chapter of the Hells Angels bikers club.

Now an actor, Zito faced his own criminal charges and served a prison sentence from 1985 to 1991.

Also in the audience were Congress members like Representative Andrew Clyde of Georgia.

“What needs to happen is this particular judicial-type system needs to be defunded,” Clyde said, calling for federal funding to be cut to Manhattan’s courts.

Trump himself spoke to the press outside of the courtroom, revisiting familiar themes that the prosecution was politically motivated, and complaining about the “freezing cold” setting.

“They have no case. They have no crime,” Trump said, adding that the judge was “corrupt” and “interfering with an election”.

Trump is expected to face President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in November’s presidential race.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies