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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    House speaker heads to court with Trump as hush money witness Cohen gives more testimony

    Michael Cohen testifies as a Wall Street Journal article is displayed on a screen in Manhattan criminal court, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in New York. Donald Trump's fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen returned to the witness stand Tuesday, testifying in detail how former president was linked to all aspects of a hush money scheme that prosecutors say was aimed at stifling stories that threatened his 2016 campaign. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

    New York — Donald Trump's fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen returned to the witness stand Tuesday, testifying in detail about how the former president was linked to all aspects of the hush money scheme that prosecutors say was an illegal effort to purchase and then bury stories that threatened his 2016 campaign.

    Trump, the first former U.S. president to go on trial, was joined at the courthouse by an entourage of GOP lawmakers that included House Speaker Mike Johnson and others considered vice presidential contenders for Trump's 2024 campaign. Their presence was a not-so-subtle show of support meant not just for Trump, but also for voters tuning in to trial coverage and for the jurors deciding Trump’s fate.

    As proceedings began, Johnson held a news conference outside the courthouse, using his powerful pulpit to attack the U.S. judicial system. It was a remarkable moment in American politics as the person second in line to the presidency sought to turn his political party against the rule of law by declaring the Manhattan criminal trial illegitimate.

    “I do have a lot of surrogates, and they’re speaking very beautifully," Trump said before court as the group gathered in the background. "And they come ... from all over Washington. And they’re highly respected, and they think this is the greatest scam they’ve ever seen."

    Meanwhile, a New York appeals court on Tuesday upheld a gag order barring Trump from talking about witnesses, a prosecutor and the judge's daughter, finding that Judge Juan M. Merchan “properly determined” that Trump’s public statements “posed a significant threat to the integrity of the testimony of witnesses and potential witnesses in this case as well.”

    Cohen resumed his place on the witness stand as prosecutor Susan Hoffinger worked to paint him as a Trump loyalist who committed crimes on behalf of the former president.

    Cohen told jurors that he lied to Congress during an investigation into potential ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign to protect Trump. He also described for jurors the April 2018 raid by law enforcement on his apartment, law firm, a hotel room where he stayed and a bank where he stashed valuables.

    “How to describe your life being turned upside-down. Concerned. Despondent. Angry," he said.

    “Were you frightened?” Hoffinger asked.

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    But he said he was heartened by a phone call from Trump that he said gave him reassurance and convinced him to remain “in the camp.”

    He said to me, ‘Don’t worry. I’m the president of the United States. There’s nothing here. Everything’s going to be OK. Stay tough. You’re going to be OK,’” Cohen testified.

    Cohen told jurors that “I felt reassured because I had the president of the United States protecting me ... And so I remained in the camp.”

    But their relationship soured, and now Cohen is one of Trump’s most vocal critics. His testimony is central to the Manhattan case.

    Cohen testified that after paying out $130,000 to porn actress Stormy Daniels in order to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual encounter, Trump promised to reimburse him. He said Trump was constantly apprised of the behind-the-scenes efforts to bury stories feared to be harmful to the campaign.

    Jurors followed along as Hoffinger, in a methodical and clinical fashion, walked Cohen through that reimbursement process. It was an attempt to show what prosecutors say was a lengthy deception to mask the true purpose of the payments. As jurors were shown business records and other paperwork, Cohen explained their purpose and reiterated again and again that the payments were reimbursements for the hush money. They weren't for legal services he provided or for a retainer, he said.

    It's an important distinction, because prosecutors allege that the Trump records falsely described the purpose of the payments as legal expenses. These records form the basis of 34 felony counts charging Trump with falsifying business records. All told, Cohen was paid $420,000, with funds drawn from a Trump personal account.

    “Were the descriptions on this check stub false?” Hoffinger asked.

    “Yes,” Cohen said.

    “And again, there was no retainer agreement,” Hoffinger asked.

    “Correct,” Cohen replied.

    Trump has pleaded not guilty and also denies that any of the encounters took place.

    During his time on the witness stand, Cohen delivered matter-of-fact testimony that went to the heart of the former president’s trial: “Everything required Mr. Trump’s sign-off,” Cohen said. He told jurors that Trump did not want Daniels’ account of a sexual encounter to get out. At the time, Trump was especially anxious about how the story would affect his standing with female voters.

    A similar episode occurred when Cohen alerted Trump that a Playboy model was alleging that she and Trump had an extramarital affair. “Make sure it doesn’t get released,” was Cohen’s message to Trump, according to testimony. The woman, Karen McDougal, was paid $150,000 in an arrangement that was made after Trump received a “complete and total update on everything that transpired.”

    “What I was doing, I was doing at the direction of and benefit of Mr. Trump,” Cohen testified.

    Prosecutors believe Cohen's insider knowledge is critical to their case. But their reliance on a witness with such a checkered past — Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the payments — also carries sizable risks with a jury.

    The men, once so close that Cohen boasted that he would “take a bullet” for Trump, had no visible interaction inside the courtroom. The sedate atmosphere was a marked contrast from their last courtroom faceoff in October, when Trump walked out of the courtroom after his lawyer finished questioning Cohen during his civil fraud trial.

    Throughout Cohen’s testimony Tuesday, Trump reclined in his chair with his eyes closed and his head tilted to the side. He shifted from time to time, occasionally leaning forward and opening his eyes, making a comment to his attorney before returning to his recline. Even some of the topics that have animated him the most as he campaigns didn't stir his attention.

    Trump's lawyers will get their chance to question Cohen as early as Tuesday, when they're expected to attack his credibility. He was disbarred, went to prison and separately pleaded guilty to lying about a Moscow real estate project on Trump's behalf.

    Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.

    Michael Cohen, right, leaves his apartment building in New York, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Cohen, former President Donald Trump’s fixer-turned-foe is returning to the witness stand for a bruising round of questioning from the former president’s lawyers. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
    Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building on his way to Manhattan criminal court in New York, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
    Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building on his way to Manhattan criminal court in New York, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
    Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building in New York, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Cohen, former President Donald Trump’s fixer-turned-foe is returning to the witness stand for a bruising round of questioning from the former president’s lawyers. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
    Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP)
    Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP)
    Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. . (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP)
    Former President Donald Trump returns to proceedings after a break in his trial at Manhattan criminal court, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, Pool)
    Former President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he exits the courtroom during a break at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP)
    Eric Trump looks on as his father, former President Donald Trump arrives at Manhattan criminal court in New York, on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Curtis Means/Pool Photo via AP)
    From left U.S Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Republican Congressman Cory Mills of Florida listen as former President Donald Trump talks with reporters outside Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Curtis Means/Pool Photo via AP)
    Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media outside Manhattan criminal court in New York, on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Curtis Means/Pool Photo via AP)
    Former President Donald Trump appears at Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Mark Peterson/Pool Photo via AP)
    Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media outside Manhattan criminal court before his trial in New York, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Mark Peterson/Pool Photo via AP)

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