June 15th, 2024

Prosecution rests in Donald Trump’s hush money case, and defense now gets its turn to call witnesses

By Michael R. Sisak, Jennifer Peltz, Jake Offenhartz And Alanna Durkin Richer, The Associated Press on May 20, 2024.

NEW YORK (AP) – Prosecutors rested their hush money case against Donald Trump on Monday, turning it over to the former president’s lawyers for a chance to call witnesses.

The prosecution’s final witness, at least for now, was also their most important: Trump attorney-turned-adversary Michael Cohen, who the defense over several hours of cross-examination sought to paint as a serial fabulist who is on a revenge campaign aimed taking down Trump.

Cohen testified Monday that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from Trump’s company, an admission defense lawyers hope to use to undermine Cohen’s credibility as a key prosecution witness in the former president’s hush money trial.

Back on the witness stand for a fourth day, Cohen told jurors that he stole from the Trump Organization after his 2016 holiday bonus was slashed to $50,000 from the $150,000 he usually received. Cohen claimed to have paid $50,000 to a technology firm for its work artificially boosting Trump’s standing in a CNBC online poll about famous businessmen. Cohen said he gave the firm only $20,000 in cash in a brown paper bag, but he sought reimbursement from Trump for the full amount, pocketing the difference.

“So you stole from the Trump Organization?” defense attorney Todd Blanche asked.

“Yes, sir,” Cohen replied. Cohen said he never paid the Trump Organization back. Cohen has never been charged with stealing from Trump’s company.

Cohen’s testimony underscores the risk of prosecutors’ reliance on the now-disbarred attorney, who admitted on the witness stand to a number of past lies, many of which he claims were meant to protect Trump. Cohen also served prison time after pleading guilty to various federal charges, including lying to Congress and a bank and engaging in campaign-finance violations related to the hush money scheme. And he has made millions of dollars off critical books about the former president, whom he regularly slams on social media in often profane terms.

But when pushed by Blanche, Cohen stood by his recollection of conversations with Trump about the $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels that’s at the center of the case.

“No doubt in your mind?” Blanche asked about whether Cohen specifically recalled having conversations Trump about the Daniels matter. No doubt, Cohen said.

Prosecutors got another shot to question their star witness after the defense wrapped up their cross-examination. Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger took a dig at the defense strategy to go after Cohen, asking him: “I know you might feel like you’re on trial here after cross-examination, but are you actually on trial here?”

“No, ma’am,” Cohen replied.

Whether the defense succeeds at undermining Cohen’s credibility could determine Trump’s fate in the case. Cohen tied Trump directly to the hush money scheme, recounting meetings and conversations with his then-boss about stifling negative stories in the waning weeks of the 2016 campaign.

The defense’s first witness is a paralegal who works in defense attorney Blanche’s law office. Trump’s team also plans to call as a witness Robert Costello, a lawyer who advised Cohen several years ago before the two had a falling out. Costello testified last year before the grand jury that indicted Trump after asserting that he had information that undermined Cohen’s credibility. Costello told reporters afterward he came forward to make clear that he did not believe Cohen.

“If they want to go after Donald Trump and they have solid evidence, then so be it,” Costello said at the time. “But Michael Cohen is far from solid evidence.”

After more than four weeks of testimony about sex, money, tabloid machinations and the details of Trump’s company recordkeeping, jurors could begin deliberating as soon as next week to decide whether Trump is guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president.

The charges stem from internal Trump Organization records where payments to Cohen were marked as legal expenses. Prosecutors say they were really reimbursements for the payment to Daniels to keep her from going public before the 2016 election with claims of a sexual encounter with Trump. Trump says nothing sexual happened between them.

Trump has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers say there was nothing criminal about the Daniels deal or the way Cohen was paid.

“There’s no crime,” Trump told reporters after arriving at the courthouse Monday. “We paid a legal expense. You know what it’s marked down as? A legal expense.”

Trump’s allies, including several who joined him at the courthouse Monday, quickly seized on Cohen’s admission on the witness stand. Former Trump administration official Kash Patel told reporters that Monday marked the first time in six weeks of trial proceedings that “we finally have a crime” – Cohen stealing money from the Trump Organization.

“We also have a victim. That victim is Donald J. Trump,” Patel said.

Blanche grilled Cohen about his initial public denials that Trump knew about the Daniels payoff. After The Wall Street Journal reported in January 2018 that Cohen had arranged the payout to the porn actor more than a year earlier, Cohen told journalists, friends and others that Trump had been in the dark about the arrangement.

He did not change his account until after federal authorities in April 2018 searched Cohen’s home, office and other locations tied to him. Four months later, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations and other charges and told a court that Trump had directed him to arrange the Daniels payment.

Known for his hot temper, Cohen remained mostly calm on the witness stand despite sometimes heated interrogation by the defense about his misdeeds and the allegations in the case.

Prosecutors will have have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses once Trump’s witnesses are done. Judge Juan M. Merchan, citing scheduling issues, said he expects closing arguments to happen May 28, the Tuesday after Memorial Day.

Defense lawyers said they have not decided whether Trump will testify. And Trump did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about whether his lawyers have advised him not to take the stand. Defense attorneys generally are reluctant to put their clients on the witness stand and open them up to intense questioning by prosecutors, as it often does more harm than good.


Richer reported from Washington. Associated Press reporters Jill Colvin and Michelle Price in New York and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

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