Michael Cohen describes false invoices, hush money reimbursement and lies to protect Trump

ITV News US Correspondent Dan Rivers reports on the latest developments to emerge from Donald Trump's hush money trial

In his second full day on the witness stand, a subdued Michael Cohen - the Donald Trump defender turned his prime accuser - explained to a Manhattan jury on Tuesday the fake invoices he sent and the lucrative checks he received to cover up the $130,000 (£103,000) hush money payment he paid to pornographic movie actress Stormy Daniels to protect Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Cohen consistently portrayed his actions, including lies for which he went to prison, as in service of the former president and his chances of winning his first White House run.

The jury had already heard Cohen on Monday describe how he had kept Trump fully informed of his actions - with Trump’s approval - to bury the Daniels story about her 2006 sexual encounter with Trump, which he denies.

Cohen also described on Monday how Trump and his company’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, agreed to reimburse him by disguising the checks as a monthly legal retainer.

On Tuesday, Cohen was asked to review the 11 invoices and 11 checks from 2017 that form the basis of 22 of the 34 criminal counts of business fraud - the other 12 counts refer to Trump Organisation financial ledger entries.

Cohen was questioned by the defence on Tuesday. Credit: AP

The reimbursement, plus add-ons, would total $420,000 (£334,000), divided into 12 monthly increments of $35,000 (£28,000), Cohen testified, as Weiselberg and Trump told him in a Trump Tower meeting a few days before Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.

Documents in evidence show Trump Organisation controller Jeff McConney, who reported to Weisselberg, initiated the reimbursement process by emailing Cohen on February 6, 2017, using the subject line, “$$,” and requesting Cohen send a first invoice.

Two days later, Cohen happened to meet newly inaugurated President Trump in the Oval Office - a meeting memorialised in Cohen’s electronic calendar and in an email to Trump’s White House executive assistant Madeleine Westerhout - inviting Cohen to see Trump at 4.30pm on February 8, 2017.

Cohen told the jury the two men discussed his reimbursement for the Daniels deal.

“Make sure you deal with Allen,” Trump told him, Cohen testified.

Weisselberg and Trump’s son, Eric, signed the first check, drawn from the Trump trust established to hold the company’s assets during his presidency, which combined two payments.

“It would be a check for January and February,” Cohen testified that Trump told him.

The following week, Cohen emailed an invoice for the first $70,000 (£56,000) to the Trump Organisation.

It was for “the reimbursement to me of the hush money fee,” Cohen told the jury.

“Was this invoice a false record?” Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Susan Hoffinger asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Cohen replied.

Defence attorney Todd Blanche cross examines Michael Cohen on Tuesday. Credit: AP

Hoffinger methodically reviewed the 11 fake invoices Cohen submitted to the Trump Organisation.

“Did each of the monthly invoices make the same false representations that it was for services rendered pursuant to a retainer agreement?” Hoffinger asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Cohen said.

“Were any of the invoices based on the services rendered pursuant to a retainer agreement?” the prosecutor continued.

“No, ma’am, they were for reimbursement,” Cohen said.

“There was no retainer agreement, is that right?

“That’s correct.”

Hoffinger asked: “Were any of those checks for work during the months described in those check stubs?”

Cohen replied: “No, ma’am.”

Starting in April 2017, Trump himself signed nine of the 11 checks, drawn from his personal bank account, with his distinct Sharpie signature, the evidence shows.

“Were all 11 checks received by you and deposited and the amounts reflected in the checks paid out to you?” Hoffinger asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Cohen replied.

Cohen told the jury there was no reason for Trump to pay him legal fees in 2017.

The prosecutor asked: “Did you do any work in 2017 for President Trump or his wife, Melania Trump?”

“Minimal,” Cohen said, estimating the total hours he spent doing work for Trump as his personal attorney in 2017 was “less than 10," for example, reviewing an agreement with Madame Tussaud's to create a wax model of Mrs Trump.

Cohen testified he did not bill Trump and was not paid for anything by Trump in 2018.

Called to testify before Congress that year, Cohen admitted to the jury, he lied during hearings probing Trump’s activities before becoming president, such as his exploring a deal to build Trump Tower Moscow.

“Out of loyalty and in order to protect him,” Cohen testified.

Prosecutor Hoffinger asked: “Did you continue to lie about President Trump’s involvement in the Stormy Daniels payoff?”

“Yes,” Cohen said.

“Why did you do that?” said Hoffinger.

“In order to protect Mr Trump,” said Cohen.

In early 2018, after the Wall Street Journal broke the story of the Daniels hush money deal, Cohen testified, he discussed with President Trump how he would deny Trump’s role in the nondisclosure agreement.

“That I paid the money on his behalf without his knowledge,” Cohen said he would tell reporters.

Trump replied, “That’s good. Good,” Cohen testified.

Cohen said his initial statements denying any Trump reimbursement were purposely “misleading” to protect the president.

At the time, in public, Cohen described the hush money as a “private transaction”, with his own funds and no reimbursement.

He said the payment was “lawful” and “was not a campaign contribution or expenditure by anyone.”

But in April 2018, Cohen testified, his life turned upside down when FBI Agents raided the Manhattan hotel room he was living in, his Park Avenue apartment, which was being renovated, his law office, and his TD Bank safety deposit box.

He said he was “concerned, despondent, angry”, but found relief in talking to Trump that day.

Trump said, according to Cohen: “Don’t worry. I’m President of the United States. There’s nothing here. Everything is going to be okay. Stay tough. You’re going to be okay.”

“I was scared,” Cohen testified. “I wanted some reassurance that Mr Trump had my back, especially as this dealt with issues related to him.”

That phone call ended up being the last time Trump and Cohen ever talked, the witness said.

"I felt reassured, because I had the President of the United States protecting me," Cohen testified. “I remained in the camp.”

Hoffinger asked: “You stayed loyal to him and continued to lie about his involvement?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Cohen said.

Four months later, on August 21, 2018, their relationship soured when Cohen pleaded guilty to a variety of federal criminal charges, including making false statements to Congress and making an excessive campaign contribution with the Daniels $130,000 (£103,000).

Cohen told the jury he paid the hush money in October 2016 “to ensure the story would not come out, would not affect Mr Trump’s chances of becoming President of the United States.”

Hoffinger asked: “If not for the campaign, would you have paid that money to Stormy Daniels?”

Cohen replied: “No, ma’am.”

Michael Cohen worked for Trump for years. Credit: AP

Hoffinger asked: “On whose behalf did you commit that crime?”

Cohen replied: “On behalf of Mr. Trump.”

To achieve felony convictions, prosecutors must persuade the jury the business fraud was in furtherance of another crime, such as a conspiracy to interfere with an election.

Cohen also pleaded guilty to causing an unlawful corporate contribution for participating in an earlier hush money deal, in August 2016, with Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who says she had a 10-month affair from 2006 and 2007, after Trump had married his third wife, former first lady Melania Trump.

Cohen had been in cahoots with Trump-friendly tabloid owner American Media, Inc. to “catch and kill” McDougal’s story by paying her $150,000 (£119,000) for the rights and not publishing it.

“In order to ensure that Mr Trump was protected, and that story would never be released,” Cohen told the jury. “For the purpose that it also didn’t affect the presidential campaign.”

Cohen said he committed his crimes “at the direction of Donald J. Trump” and “for the benefit of Donald J. Trump”.

Cohen also pleaded guilty to crimes unrelated to Trump - tax evasion and making false statements to a financial institution.

After his pleas - “worst day of my life,” Cohen said - Trump turned on him, tweeting: “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen.”

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Trump also tweeted Cohen would “break” and “make up stories to get a ‘deal’”.

Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison, ordered to pay $1.3 million (£1 million) in back taxes, and lost his law license after 30 years in practice.

Cohen surrendered in May 2019 and was released after 13 months, due to the coronavirus pandemic, to home confinement.

Before going to prison, Cohen returned to Capitol Hill to set the record straight.

"I apologised to Congress. I apologised to the country. I apologised to my family,” Cohen testified.

Cohen said he apologised to the American public "for lying to them, for acting in a way that suppressed information that the citizenry had a right to know in order to make a determination on the individual who was seeking the highest office in the land".

Cohen has since become a cooperating witness into multiple Trump investigations.

Cohen said he regrets “lying, bullying people in order to effectuate a goal”, but not working for Trump for a decade as his fixer.

He said: “To keep the loyalty and to do the things he had asked me to, I violated my moral compass, and I suffered the penalty, as has my family."

During the start of his cross-examination on Tuesday afternoon by Trump defense attorney Todd Blanche, Cohen told the court he changed his views about Trump in the summer of 2018 following his guilty pleas.

Earlier, Cohen said, he loved his job, had a very favorable opinion of Trump, and would have taken a bullet for him.

“I was knee deep into the cult of Donald Trump,” Cohen testified. “I was not lying. It was how I felt.”

Blanche challenged Cohen’s memory and his ability to recall conversations with Trump many years ago but not conversations with the District Attorney’s office in the past year urging him to refrain talking about Trump on television.

Blanche questioned Cohen’s monetisation of his Trump ties – hosting two podcasts focused on Trump, producing TikTok videos attacking him, and penning two memoirs that have earned him $3.4 million.

"You're actually obsessed with President Trump?" Blanche asked.

"I don't know that I would characterise it as obsessed," Cohen said. "I can't recall using that word, but I can't say it would be wrong."

His cross examination will continue on Thursday May 15 - the trial is not in session on Wednesdays.

Trump’s entourage, which included US Senators from Ohio and Alabama on Monday, included on Tuesday US House Speaker Mike Johnson, Florida Congressmen Byron Donalds and Cory Mills, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, who ran for president this year, as well as former candidate Vivek Ramaswamy - who all saw fit to denounce the trial in comments outside the courthouse, following the defendant’s lead.

On his way into the courtroom on Tuesday, Trump, as the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee, condemned the trial.

Trump told reporters: “There's never been anything like this in the history of our country. It's a scam. It's election interference at a level that's never taken place before.”

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