'Beyond angry': Former Trump confidant testifies financial feud followed hush-money payment

Michael Cohen, left, the former lawyer for Donald Trump, is shown in this composite photo with the former U.S. president. Cohen testified at Trump's criminal trial in New York on Monday and will be returning to the stand on Tuesday. (Julia Nikhinson/The Associated Press, Angela Weiss-Pool/Getty Images - image credit)
Michael Cohen, left, the former lawyer for Donald Trump, is shown in this composite photo with the former U.S. president. Cohen testified at Trump's criminal trial in New York on Monday and will be returning to the stand on Tuesday. (Julia Nikhinson/The Associated Press, Angela Weiss-Pool/Getty Images - image credit)

Seated before Donald Trump was a ghost from his past life, an erstwhile ally whose testimony could land him a criminal conviction for old misdeeds.

Seated behind him, in a courtroom, were his present-day allies — elected Republicans, including a potential vice-presidential pick.

Trump's amen corner joined him in the Manhattan courthouse on Monday to offer support during the most critical testimony of the felony criminal case against him.

Michael Cohen walked prosecutors through his decade of service as Trump's legal Mr. Fix It — a solver of problems often tangentially related to his professional title as lawyer.

Most crucially, Cohen is being asked to prove key pillars of the prosecution's case: that Trump knew of payments to conceal his fling with a porn star, that he intended to cover them up and that it was done primarily for electoral reasons.

Early in Monday's testimony, Cohen recalled a head-spinning week in the 2016 presidential election that is at the heart of this case.

He described his reaction when he learned that Stormy Daniels was shopping around her story, just days after the release of an explosive Access Hollywood tape that captured Trump describing crude, unwanted sexual advances against women.

Of the decision to pay $130,000 US to keep Daniels quiet, Cohen said the motivation was politics, not about keeping the news from Trump's wife. "He wasn't thinking about Melania. This was all about the campaign," said Cohen, who summed up his own reaction at the time: "Catastrophic. This is horrible for the campaign."

Jane Rosenberg/Reuters
Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

He recalled Trump's horrified reaction upon hearing, in October 2016, that Daniels was shopping around her story — a subject of old gossip the Trump team thought it had squelched years earlier.

Cohen testified that he remembered Trump telling him: "This is a disaster, a total disaster. Women will hate me. Guys — they'll think it's cool. But this is going to be a disaster for the campaign." He said Trump ordered him to deal with it and make sure it didn't emerge before the election.

Cohen testified he lied for Trump

That electoral element is fundamental: The only reason this case is being charged as a felony is because prosecutors alleged Trump falsified business records in order to skirt other laws, including a federal campaign-spending law.

Trump and Cohen barely acknowledged each other in the courtroom. It was a rare encounter between two allies who once spoke multiple times a day.

They were so close, in fact, that Cohen testified that he downloaded all of Trump's phone contacts into his own phone, to reach anyone, at any time, at Trump's request.

WATCH | What to expect from Cohen's testimony, from former prosecutor Michael Zeldin:

Cohen described lying for Trump, bullying people and encouraging Trump to run for president in 2012, even creating a now-expired website intended to drum up interest.

He told court that Trump decided to run years in advance of 2016 but took a pass on the previous race, in part because his contract had been renewed for the reality TV show The Apprentice. He recalled Trump saying at the time: "You don't leave Hollywood. Hollywood leaves you."

As they strategized over a presidential run, Cohen said Trump warned him of inevitable sex scandals: "Just be prepared, there's gonna be a lot of women coming forward," he remembered Trump saying.

They are now such bitter foes that Cohen began his memoir with the opinion that Trump probably wishes he were dead.

Trump did not turn to look at Cohen as he walked in. In fact, the former U.S. president had his eyes closed for stretches of Monday's hearing, prompting speculation about whether he'd been dozing off.

Cohen appeared to very furtively, briefly, shoot a glance in Trump's general direction as he sat down at the witness stand.

He recalled with fondness his decade-long work with Trump. His base salary started at $375,000. And he waxed nostalgic about getting to know Trump's children — Ivanka's office at Trump Tower even became his own.

"It was fantastic," recalled Cohen, who has described Trump as a father figure. "It was a big family."

But it's not family — at least not anymore.

Trump's entourage in courtroom

On Monday, Trump's actual son, Eric, was in that courtroom, seated behind the defendant. They were surrounded by the entourage that walked in with the former president, which included Trump's new political family.

The group consisted of Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio, who has neither confirmed nor denied rampant rumours that he's being considered to become Trump's running mate in this fall's election.

While Cohen was working to elect Trump in 2016, Vance was publicly trashing him. Vance, who now says he's had a change of heart, is among the vice-presidential contenders who won't commit unconditionally to accepting the next election result.

Spencer Platt/Pool Photo/The Associated Press
Spencer Platt/Pool Photo/The Associated Press

Several vice-presidential aspirants have made those sorts of comments as Trump seeks a replacement for his previous running mate. Mike Pence is another past ally now out of Trump's favour, because Pence certified the 2020 election.

Pence has also testified against his old boss in a criminal case. Just like Cohen.

But Trump is moving forward, leading the latest opinion polls, increasingly considered the favourite in this year's rematch with President Joe Biden.

Entering the courthouse on Monday, he fretted that this is the only reason he's on trial: to damage him politically in the election lead-up.

"This is election interference at a level that nobody in this country has ever seen before," he said. Behind him entering that courtroom were Vance, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville and congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis.

They all spent part of their day tweeting and doing interviews on his behalf — and denouncing the prosecution and witness.

Prosecution's case to end this week

The prosecution is expected to rest its case this week, as the trial enters its final stretch. It said it expects to be done with Cohen sometime on Tuesday and that it expects to call only one other witness.

Cohen's credibility has been assailed by Trump's allies. They've pointed to his numerous criminal convictions, including for lying to Congress and to the federal tax agency.

He shared deeply personal details about some of those lies, including to his wife of three decades.

Julia Nikhinson/The Associated Press
Julia Nikhinson/The Associated Press

Cohen said he tried structuring complex ways to pay Daniels instead of using his own bank account, which he shares with his wife.

"I clearly could not tell her [I was paying Daniels $130,000]," Cohen testified. "That would've been a problem for me."

After the election, he said, he became livid at Trump. Cohen said his annual holiday bonus had been chopped down two-thirds from the previous year, to $50,000.

He recalled unleashing a string of expletives in a colleague's office. Not only had he not been offered a senior White House position, but now he was earning less than the previous year after having spent his own money to silence his boss's sex scandal.

"Angry. Beyond angry," Cohen testified, recalling his reaction to the cut to his bonus. "After all I had done.... It was insulting."

Trump promised to make amends. After the holidays, Cohen claims to have received $420,000 from Trump, to cover the Daniels payments and other expenses, with a bonus to cover taxes.

WATCH | Stormy Daniels details alleged sexual encounter with Donald Trump:

In his memoir, Disloyal, Cohen said he considered this a stroke of genius, writing that Trump accounted for the $420,000 as a legal fee, which he could then write off as a business expense.

"Trump's maneuver was classic, gangster," Cohen wrote in his memoir. "Trump was actually making money on the deal."

Now it's the subject of a criminal case.