Trump trial: Cohen testifies that hush-money payment violated election law

<span>Michael Cohen departs home to testify in hush-money trial on Monday.</span><span>Photograph: Andrea Renault/Star Max/GC Images</span>
Michael Cohen departs home to testify in hush-money trial on Monday.Photograph: Andrea Renault/Star Max/GC Images
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Prosecutors in the Manhattan district attorney’s office rested their case on Monday after Michael Cohen, whose $130,000 hush-money payment to the adult film star Stormy Daniels is at the heart of the criminal case against Donald Trump, testified that he knew the payment violated federal election law.

The conclusion of the prosecution’s case-in-chief led to Trump’s legal team to start their defense case, including calling as a witness Robert Costello, a lawyer close to Trump’s associates who almost came to represent Cohen after he was charged by federal prosecutors with tax evasion in 2018.

Related: Trump’s hush-money trial: Here’s what’s happened in the case so far

Costello recalled that he advised Cohen to cooperate with federal prosecutors in that case and offer any information he had on Trump. Cohen lamented: “I swear to God, Bob, I don’t have anything on Donald Trump,” and that Trump “knew nothing” about the hush-money payments.

Whether the jury credits Costello’s testimony over Cohen’s remains unclear.

Costello was a disrespectful witness and briefly turned the trial chaotic; he was reprimanded by the presiding judge, Juan Merchan, for muttering under his breath “ridiculous” and “jeez” and sighing loudly when the judge sustained the prosecution’s objections.

The testimony from Costello was in direct conflict with Cohen’s recollection of the extent of Trump’s involvement and knowledge in the hush-money scheme, including that he had told Trump he was going ahead with paying hush-money to Daniels on a call in October 2016.

Cohen added that he knew the payment to Daniels violated federal election law – even though he claimed otherwise in 2018. The implication was that Trump, by extension, must also have believed to some extent that the hush-money violated the Federal Election Campaign Act.

Cohen’s evidence marked an important moment as Trump’s criminal trial hurtles to a conclusion, since it was the closest the prosecution has come to tie Trump to the alleged falsification of business records with an intent to commit a second crime, including the federal campaign contributions law.

“Is that a truthful sentence,” asked the prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, referring to a letter Cohen had sent to the Federal Elections Commission stating that the $130,000 payment was done in his personal capacity and therefore not a campaign contribution or expenditure.

“No ma’am,” Cohen replied.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of felony falsification of business records. Prosecutors must prove Trump authorized what he knew to be hush-money repayments to be falsely labeled as “legal expenses” in the Trump Organization’s records, with an intent to commit a second, election crime.

The criminal case against Trump – the first against a US president – stems from his attempts to suppress negative stories about alleged sexual encounters he had with Daniels and others for fear that they could negatively affect his campaign just weeks before the 2016 election.

Trump is almost certain not to testify in his own defense, based on his lawyers’ comments in court. After Costello is finished, the defense is likely to rest their case, although calendar issues may mean the judge adjourns trial until 28 May, when the jury could start deliberations.

Earlier on Monday, the prosecution attempted to undercut the Trump team’s contention that Cohen lied whenever it suited his needs, such as when he lied to a federal judge in 2018 that he was not pressured into pleading guilty to tax evasion – which he later disavowed.

The prosecution suggested that lying to the judge in 2018 was not comparable to lying on the stand in Trump’s trial, as Trump’s lawyers have argued, because unlike in 2018 the current case does not involve Cohen or his wife facing potential jail time.

“Is this different?” Hoffinger asked Cohen, referencing the 2018 incident.

“The other one, it was, my life was on the line … my liberty,” Cohen said. “I was the defendant in that case, and here I’m just a non-party subpoenaed witness.”

The pushback from prosecutors on re-direct-examination came after Trump’s lead defense lawyer, Todd Blanche, completed his cross-examination of Cohen, suggesting he concocted an illicit repayment plan for the money with Trump’s lieutenants – but not the former president himself.

Blanche suggested that Cohen and the former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg between themselves devised a complicated scheme to repay Cohen of the Daniels hush money and other expenses that came from his own pocket.

The defense also suggested that Cohen concocted the idea to “gross up” the repayment, which prosecutors have said Trump approved and violated state tax law, in order to increase the amount of money he got from the Trump Organization in 2016, after his bonus was lower than in 2015.

Blanche ran through the scheme whereby Cohen billed the Trump Organization for $50,000 for money he had supposedly fronted for RedFinch, an IT company. But Cohen admitted on the stand he only paid RedFinch $20,000, meaning he kept $30,000, which was then “grossed up” to $60,000.

In doing so, Cohen’s bonus for 2016 would have ultimately totaled $120,000, after adding the $60,000 from the repayment scheme to the $60,000 bonus he was formally given. That meant his remuneration for 2016 – which Cohen had complained was too low – would have come close to his 2016 bonus of $150,000.

“So you stole from the Trump Organization?” Blanche asked, his voice reaching a crescendo. “Yes, sir,” Cohen conceded.

Cohen has been perhaps the most crucial witness in the case, as he remains the only person to have tied Trump directly to the hush-money deal. But he is a far from ideal person to provide evidence, because of the fertile ground for the defense to question his honesty and motivations.

The motivation for Cohen to lie in his trial testimony, Blanche suggested last week, was to see Trump go to jail after the then-president abandoned him when federal prosecutors charged him with felony tax evasion and false statements six years’ ago.

Cohen lied at trial about several things from the time of the hush-money deal, Blanche suggested: lying that he didn’t want a White House job, contradicting his private messages at the time, and lying that he didn’t want a pardon, when he asked his lawyers to look into such a possibility.

Blanche then accused Cohen of lying about key testimony, noting that Cohen had said on direct examination that when he called Trump’s then bodyguard Keith Schiller on 24 October 2016 it was to apprise Trump that he was moving forward with paying hush-money to Daniels.

Blanche offered an alternative explanation. Relying on Cohen’s texts to Schiller, Blanche suggested Cohen actually dialed Schiller to complain about prank calls from a 14-year-old – and that the call of one minute and 30 seconds was too short for him to have told Trump about the deal.