Michael Cohen testifies Trump saw Stormy Daniels story as 'total disaster' for 2016 campaign

Michael Cohen is the key witness in Donald Trump's hush money trial, ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers reports

Michael Cohen, the attorney and fixer for Donald Trump for a decade, told a Manhattan jury on Monday that his former boss regarded pornographic movie actress Stormy Daniels’ story about Trump having an extramarital fling with her as a “total disaster” for his first White House run in 2016 – and the former president at every juncture approved Cohen’s efforts to pay her hush money.

“Catastrophic - that this is horrible for the campaign,” was Trump’s reaction, according to Cohen after he first informed him that Daniels’ attorney was shopping her story a month before Election Day.

Cohen spent the whole day testifying as a prosecution witness in Trump’s trial for falsifying business records to cover up reimbursements to Cohen for the $130,000 he paid to prevent Daniels from going public about a one-night stand with Trump in 2006 in Nevada, 18 months after Trump had married former First Lady Melania Trump and four months after she had given birth to their son, Barron.

“This is a total disaster,” Trump said, according to Cohen, when they next discussed the story. “Women are going to hate me. Guys may think it’s cool. But this will be a disaster for the campaign.”

The 2016 hush-money deal was the second time Cohen had squelched Daniels' story. Five years earlier, Cohen had worked collaboratively with Daniels’ attorney Keith Davidson to have an online article about the encounter taken down.

Former President Donald Trump reacts as Michael Cohen testifies in Manhattan criminal court on May 13, 2024, in New York. Credit: AP/Elizabeth Williamson

Cohen testified he spoke to Trump about Daniels in 2011, saying: “I asked if he knew who she was - he told me that he did."

He also testified that Trump told him he had met Daniels at a celebrity golf tournament, but Cohen said when he asked Trump if he had a sexual encounter with Daniels, Trump did not respond.

When the story reemerged in the fall of 2016, Trump instructed him: “Purchase the life rights. We need to stop this from getting out,” Cohen testified.

According to Cohen’s testimony, Trump told him: "I want you to just push it out as long as you can. Just get past the election, because if I win, it will have no relevance, because I'm president, and if I lose, I don't even care."

When he inquired about the Trump marriage, Trump replied cryptically, “‘Don’t worry,' He goes, he goes, 'How long do you think I’ll be on the market for? Not long,’" Cohen testified. "He wasn’t thinking about Melania. This was all about the campaign.”

The 34 criminal counts – one each for the 11 checks, 11 invoices, and 12 Trump Organisation ledger entries allegedly used to cover up his reimbursing Cohen for the Daniels hush money -- can be considered felonies if the jury decides the records were intended to conceal another crime, such as a conspiracy to interfere with the 2016 election.

By October 17, 2016, the Daniels hush-money deal almost fell apart, because no one had paid her the agreed upon $130,000.

People lay hands in prayer on Trump as Michael Cohen looks on during a visit to the Pastors Leadership Conference on September 21, 2016. Credit: AP

Due to the delay, Davidson informed Cohen their deal was dead, and Daniels was leaning toward selling the rights to her story to The Daily Mail.

Speaking to Trump over the phone about the snafu, Cohen testified, Trump told him a wealthy friend had advised him: “It’s $130,000. You’re a billionaire - just pay it."

Cohen testified he continually discussed the Daniels nondisclosure agreement (NDA) over the phone with Trump and Trump Organisation Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, and Cohen’s phone records showed calls to Trump and Weisselberg on and around the milestone dates of the Daniels deal developments.

Trump told Cohen to discuss payment options with Weisselberg, who told Cohen he could not afford to shell out the hush money himself, Cohen testified.

“I ultimately said, ‘I’ll pay it,’” Cohen said.

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll make sure you get paid back,” Weiselberg said, according to Cohen.

When Cohen and Weisselberg informed Trump that Cohen would “front the money,” Cohen testified: “He was appreciative.”

“Good. Good,” Trump said, according to Cohen.

Cohen opened a First Republic Bank account for a limited liability company (LLC) he created, Essentials Consulting, transferred funds from the home equity line of credit (HELOC) he shared with his wife, and wired the Daniels money to her attorney, Davidson.

Cohen told the jury he never would have paid Daniels without Trump’s assurance of reimbursement.

“I was doing everything and more in order to protect my boss, which is something I’d done for a long time, but I would not lay out $130,000 for an NDA needed by somebody else,” Cohen testified. “Everything required Mr Trump’s signoff, and I wanted the money back.”

The NDA was finalised on October 27, but Trump did not sign the paperwork.

Instead, Cohen wrote the initials “EC” for Essential Consultants on the line where there was a pseudonym, “David Dennison,” for Trump. Daniels was referred to as “Peggy Peterson.”

Cohen testified he called Trump.

“So, he would know the task he gave to me was finished, accomplished, done," Cohen said. “It was also for credit for myself."

In mid-January 2017, Cohen testified, Trump and Weisselberg informed him how he would be reimbursed for the Cohen hush money deal – as income, instead of expenses - by doubling the $130,000 to $260,000 to cover his taxes, plus $50,000 in other expenses owed and a $60,000 bonus, totaling $420,000, to be paid in 12 monthly installments of $35,000 to be invoiced as a retainer for legal services, as Cohen would serve as the president’s personal attorney.

Of Trump, Cohen said: “He approved it.”

Daniels testified over two days for eight hours last week and was preceded on the witness stand by Davidson and former Cohen banker Gary Farro, and the Cohen bank documents were already in evidence.

Cohen, 57, worked until 2017 for the Trump Organisation, as Executive Vice President and Special Counsel to Donald J Trump, answering only to “the boss.”

As Cohen identified Trump in the courtroom, the defendant’s eyes were closed, as they were for much of his testimony.

Cohen said his base salary was $375,000 a year, with bonuses around $525,000, and the job was “fantastic.”

“An amazing experience in many, many ways. There were great times,” Cohen testified. “For the most part, I enjoyed the responsibilities that was given to me.”

In 2007, Cohen took over the office used by Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, and later moved closer into an office about 50 feet from Trump’s.

Cohen said he and Trump spoke “every single day and multiple times a day” in person or cell phone, as he handled real estate and personal matters for him.

“Mr Trump never had an email address,” Cohen testified. Cohen put a premium on keeping Trump, who he described as a “micromanager,” informed.

"It was actually required," Cohen testified. "As soon as you had a result, an answer, you could go straight back and tell him, especially if it was a matter that was troubling to him."

Cohen said: "If you didn't immediately provide him with the information, and he learned it in another manner that wouldn't go over well for you."

As a hard-nosed negotiator, Cohen admitted, sometimes he lied for Trump “to accomplish the task to make him happy.”

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When Trump launched his presidential campaign in June 2015, Cohen testified, Trump warned him: “Just be prepared – there’s going to be a lot of women coming forward.”

Cohen recounted a key meeting at Trump Tower two months after Trump launched his first presidential campaign

He attended with Trump and David Pecker, the former CEO of American Media, Inc. (AMI), which published the popular supermarket tabloid The National Enquirer, and other magazines. Pecker was the first trial witness.

Cohen said the trio agreed that “if we can place positive stories that would be beneficial, that if we could place negative stories about some of the other candidates, that would also be beneficial.”

Asked by Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Susan Hoffinger what Pecker vowed to do, Cohen testified: “What he said was he could keep an eye out for anything negative about Mr Trump, and that he would be able to help us know in advance what was coming out and try to stop it from coming out.”

The latter promise was first put to the test when AMI was approached by a Trump Tower doorman shopping a story.

“That there was a love child,” Cohen testified.

The doorman alleged Trump had fathered a girl with a housekeeper, Cohen told Trump.

“I went to him immediately,” Cohen said. “To get his direction on what he wanted me to do.”

Trump told him to make sure the story doesn’t get out, telling him: “You handle it,” according to Cohen.

Cohen said he worked with Pecker and National Enquirer editor-in-chief Dylan Howard to buy and bury the story for $30,000.

Cohen said Trump was grateful for the so-called “catch and kill” deal.

“Absolutely,” Cohen said. “I reviewed it to make sure Mr Trump was fully protected.”

He had suggested a $1 million penalty if the doorman violated the nondisclosure agreement - in perpetuity: “They own the story forever, and it can never come out.”

Cohen said he “immediately” informed Trump of a more serious story shopped to AMI in June 2016 about Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who alleged having a 10-month affair with Trump from 2006 to 2007.

“Boss, I got to talk to you,” Cohen recalled telling Trump. “Told him about what I had just learned. I asked him if he knew who Karen McDougal was.”

Cohen continued: “His response to me was, ‘She’s really beautiful.’”

Asked how Trump told him to act, Cohen testified, the former president said: “Make sure it doesn’t get released.”

Cohen discussed with Pecker and Howard how AMI might acquire the McDougal story in order to bury it – another catch and kill – and about a week later, in Trump’s office, Cohen heard Trump speaking to Pecker over speaker phone.

“We have this under control, and we'll take care of this,” Pecker told Trump, Cohen recalled.

The cost of the McDougal deal was $150,000.

Trump replied: “No problem. I’ll take care of it,” Cohen testified. “He was going to pay him back.”

Cohen said Pecker described the deal - promising McDougal 24 bylined articles and two fitness magazine covers - as “bulletproof.”

Cohen testified he updated Trump: “Effectively the story has now been caught.”

“Fantastic. Great job,” Trump told him, Cohen testified.

After AMI sealed the McDougal deal, Pecker pressed Cohen about payback.

Cohen testified, Trump told him: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”

To prove to Pecker that he was trying to make AMI whole, Cohen went so far as to surreptitiously record a conversation with Trump.

Using the voice memo function, he held his cell phone in his hand as he walked into Trump’s office and stood on the opposite side of his desk.

When Cohen brought up “financing” the AMI reimbursement through an LLC, Trump advised, “Pay with cash,” according to the recording played for the jury.

“To avoid some kind of paper transaction, but I thought that was not the best way to do it.” Cohen testified. But Trump never reimbursed AMI.

When the first Men’s Fitness issues with McDougal on the cover sold very well, Pecker dropped the matter.

Cohen’s testimony will continue on Tuesday, May 14.

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