Trump trial: Who is the prosecution's 'star witness' Michael Cohen?

Michael Cohen - the Trump loyalist turn prosecution's star witness - could be crucial in Donald Trump's hush-money trial, ITV News' Gamal Fahnbulleh explains.

Words by ITV News Producer Georgia Ziebart

Michael Cohen - the prosecution's star witness in former President Donald Trump's hush-money trial - is set to testify this week.

Cohen - who once described himself as Trump's "spokesman, thug, pitbull and lawless lawyer" - may now deliver testimony that could render his old boss to be convicted of a crime.

Trump's former lawyer is at the centre of an alleged plot by Trump to influence the 2016 presidential election by covering up hush money payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

As the trial enters its final stretch, ITV News explains who Cohen is - and why he is arguably the most important witness in the case:

Who is Michael Cohen?

Like his former boss, Michael Cohen is a native New Yorker. Born in 1966, he had an eclectic career ranging from practicing personal injury law to operating a taxi fleet with his father-in-law.

He joined the Trump real estate business in 2006, rising through the ranks to become a part of Donald Trump's inner circle. Cohen functioned as both Trump's lawyer and, in his own words, his personal "pitbull".

Michael Cohen with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, in 2016 Credit: AP

In 2011, Cohen expressed his loyalty to Trump during an interview with ABC News, saying: "If somebody does something Mr Trump doesn't like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr Trump's benefit.

"If you do something wrong, I'm going to come at you, grab you by the neck and I'm not going to let you go until I'm finished."

What was Michael Cohen's relationship with Donald Trump?

Cohen's appearance in court will mark the peak of a bitter personal battle between himself and Trump.

But Trump's fiercest foe had once been his most loyal ally.

Despite being a registered Democrat, he actively supported his boss' interest in politics - and even created a website, 'Should Trump Run?' - to see if he should stand in the 2012 election.

At times a bully for the family-run Trump business, Cohen was known for his hot temper as he strong-armed reporters, city workers, and business partners.

He was there in the lobby of Trump Tower in June 2015, when Trump declared his candidacy for president.

When Trump did eventually make it to the White House, Cohen remained by his side.

Still, despite telling confidantes that he though he might be made White House chief of staff, Cohen was never given a West Wing job. He remained in New York when Trump moved to Washington.

But the real breakdown of their relationship began in 2018 when the FBI raided Cohen's office after information was uncovered during the Mueller investigation.

What's the significance of Cohen's prior convictions?

After the initial raid, Trump showered Cohen with affection on social media, appraising him as a "fine person", who would not "flip".

Cohen, however, did exactly that. That August, he pled guilty to federal campaign-finance charges, during which he implicated Trump.

Cohen testifying to the House Oversight and Reform Committee in 2019 Credit: AP

He admitted tax evasion, orchestrating illegal campaign contributions in the form of hush money payments, and lying to Congress about his work on a possible Trump real estate project in Moscow.

He also pleaded guilty to signing off on a home equity loan application that understated his financial liabilities.

Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison, serving just over a year before being released.

Why is Cohen's testimony so important?

The case against Trump stems from Cohen's $130,000 payment to Ms Daniels before the 2016 election. Cohen claims Trump directed the payment.

In 2018, Cohen initially said that Trump had never reimbursed him.

He later testified in Congress that Trump had told him to make the payment, and that he was reimbursed in installments - displaying a copy of a $35,000 check from Trump's bank account.

Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building on the way to Manhattan criminal court on May 13. Credit: AP

Since returning from jail, Cohen has been strongly critical of his former employer, denouncing Trump through podcasts, books, and social media posts.

Facing a US congressional committee, he testified: "I am ashamed because I know what Mr Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat."

Integral to Cohen's value as a witness is the fact that he was involved in every aspect of Trump's business and personal life, and was allegedly an accessory in his efforts to break the law.

In his autobiography, Disloyal, Cohen wrote: "I know where the skeletons are buried, because I'm the one who buried them."

What will Trump's response be?

Trump's defence hinges on his maintaining that Cohen was paid for legal work, not a cover-up, and that there was nothing illegal about the agreements he facilitated with Daniels.

Beyond that, Trump's argument against Cohen is likely to be character-based.

He and his lawyers have branded Cohen as an admitted liar and criminal who now makes a living off tearing down his former boss.

Donald Trump at his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court, Monday May 13 Credit: AP

“What the defence is going to want the jury to focus on is the fact that he’s a liar" with a blemished past, said Richard Serafini, a Florida criminal defense lawyer and former federal and Manhattan prosecutor.

Cohen himself acknowledged, in the foreword to his 2020 memoir, that people see him as "the least reliable narrator on the planet."

But prosecutor Matthew Colangelo defines Cohen as someone who "made mistakes", telling jurors they could believe him nonetheless.

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