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Prosecution rests in Trump’s hush money trial; defense now gets its turn to call witnesses

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen heads to Manhattan criminal court in New York on Monday.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)
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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 its most important: Trump attorney-turned-adversary Michael Cohen, whom the defense, over several hours of cross-examination, sought to paint as a serial fabulist on a revenge campaign.

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.

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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 testified that he told Trump he had 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 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 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 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. He has made millions of dollars off books critical of the former president, whom he regularly slams on social media in 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 recalled specific conversations with Trump about the Daniels matter. No doubt, Cohen said.

Prosecutors got another shot to question their star witness after the defense wrapped up its 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?”

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“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 presidential campaign.

Attorney Robert Costello was called to the witness stand by the defense Monday afternoon.

Before Costello took the stand, Judge Juan M. Merchan ruled that he would allow the defense to question the attorney about two allegedly inconsistent statements in Cohen’s testimony and “offer some rebuttal” to the testimony.

Costello testified that in a meeting shortly after federal authorities searched Cohen’s home, office and hotel room in April 2018, a “manic” Cohen asked about an “escape route” from his legal problems.

“He kept on pacing back and forth, left and right,” Costello said. “He said, ‘My life is shattered, my family’s life is shattered. I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”

Costello said he told Cohen the matter could be resolved quickly “if he had truthful information about Donald Trump and he cooperated.”

“I swear to God, Bob, I don’t have anything on Donald Trump,” Cohen replied, according to Costello.

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Costello added that Cohen had lamented, “I don’t understand why they’re trying to put me in jail” over nondisclosure agreements and disclosed that he’d arranged one with Daniels.

However, Costello said, Cohen told him Trump “knew nothing” about the hush money paid to the porn actor.

“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 testified.

Costello aggravated Merchan repeatedly during his testimony by making comments under his breath and continuing to speak after objections were sustained — a signal to witnesses to stop talking.

At one point, frustrated as he was again cut off by a sustained objection, Costello remarked, “Jeez.”

“I’m sorry? I’m sorry?” a peeved Merchan asked.

“Strike it, I’m —.” Costello replied, cutting himself off.

At another point, he called the exercise “ridiculous.”

After excusing the jury, Merchan told the witness: “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.’ … You don’t give me side eye, and you don’t roll your eyes.”

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For several minutes, there were no reporters in the courtroom or video access to the proceedings in the overflow room.

Jurors and reporters returned a short time later.

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 he is guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president.

Defense lawyers said they have not decided whether Trump will testify. Trump did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about whether his lawyers have advised him not to take the stand.

Sisak, Peltz, Offenhartz and Richer write for the Associated Press.

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