Michael Cohen Testifies That Donald Trump Approved Of Plan To Reimburse Him For Hush Money Payment — Update

UPDATE: Donald Trump approved a plan to repay hush money for Stormy Daniels to his lawyer Michael Cohen in a meeting at Trump Tower days before his inauguration as president, Cohen told jurors today.

As part of the package, Trump raised Cohen’s holiday bonus after Cohen complained bitterly that he’d been shorted, the lawyer testified.

More from Deadline

Trump then said, “This is going to be one heck of a ride in D.C.,” Cohen recalled. The so-called “fixer” for Trump took the stand this morning as the prosecution’s key witness in their case against the former president.

The meeting was also attended by Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, who brought with him a bank statement that had the financial arrangement scrawled on it in Weisselberg’s handwriting, Cohen testified, saying, “He showed the document to Mr. Trump.”

Cohen couldn’t give an exact date for the meeting, but said it probably occurred on January 16 or 17, because on the 17th he texted a business partner that Trump had also agreed to let Cohen refer to himself as “personal counsel to President Trump.”

Cohen’s run as a Trump Organization employee had just come to an end with the election, and one of his last assignments as Trump’s legal bulldog was paying $130,000 out of his own pocket to adult entertainer Daniels, less than two weeks before the election, for her silence about a claimed sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier.

Prosecutors say Trump paid $420,000 to Cohen over the course of 2017 in monthly installments of $35,000 — ostensibly for ongoing legal work — to disguise the reimbursement, up his bonus, cover his tax bill and repay him for work on another job. Of the latter, Cohen admitted on the stand that he overcharged for that work.

Prosecutors contend that the reimbursement was made using deliberately falsified paperwork in violation of New York business laws. That, in turn, also broke election laws because the hush money payment was an undeclared campaign contribution, according to prosecutors.

Cohen — who served jail time after pleading guilty to several federal felony counts including campaign law violations — seconded that narrative in his testimony, saying it was understood by him, Weisselberg and Trump at the meeting in January that the monthly payments for “legal services rendered” were a ruse.

Cohen testified that no agreement for future work was ever drawn up in 2017, and that his new title — counsel to the president — was a way for him to sell access to the incoming commander-in-chief.

“As personal attorney to the president it opens a tremendous amount of doors to people who are trying to understand Trump,” Cohen said during questioning by Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Susan Hoffinger. To most people, “Mr. Trump was an enigma,” Cohen explained, but as his lawyer of ten years he could provide insights to business people looking for help from the new administration.

Cohen said the title he got is the one he wanted because it would allow him to earn money without having to move to Washington, D.C. He said he turned down an offer to become an assistant White House counsel tendered by Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. Cohen denied that he ever harbored a serious ambition to become White House chief of staff, a job Priebus eventually got, but admitted he was disappointed not to be asked.

Trump’s defense lawyers have suggested that Cohen was extorting Trump, using his payment to Daniels as leverage, partly out of rage at not getting a high-profile post in the Trump administration. “I didn’t want the role,” Cohen testified, saying he doubted he was “competent” to handle it.

“I just wanted my name to be included,” Cohen said. “It was more about my ego than anything.”

Cohen suggested the real injury to his ego came shortly after the election, in December, when he opened the Christmas card envelope containing what would be his last holiday bonus check from The Trump Organization and did a “double take” when he realized it was two-thirds less than usual. Cohen said he was “beyond angry,” “truly insulted” and “personally hurt.”

He had yet to be reimbursed for the $130,000 he funneled to Daniels using a home equity loan and a fraudulent shell company he set up for the transaction. Earlier, Cohen testified that he lied on paperwork to open a bank account for a limited liability company he set up to pay off Daniels. He wrote down that the LLC was for “management consulting and HR marketing.”

“I’m not sure [the bank] would have opened it if it stated ‘to pay off an adult film star for a non-disclosure agreement,’ ” he said with a laugh.

Cohen had also helped broker a $150,000 hush money payment in 2016 from Trump’s allies at the tabloid publisher American Media to former Playboy model Karen McDougal for her silence about an alleged affair with Trump. And when The Wall Street Journal reported on the McDougal agreement four days before the election, he was part of the crisis team along with Trump adviser Hope Hicks that worked to contain the potential political damage.

Seething over the Christmas bonus, he marched into Weisselberg’s office at Trump Tower “and in some colorful language I expressed to him how pissed off and angry I truly was,” Cohen testified.

“I was, even for myself, unusually angry,” Cohen said. He said he later complained about the bonus to David Pecker, American Media CEO and Trump’s friend, and probably also to Daniels’ lawyer, Keith Davidson.

Cohen said he believes that Weisselberg told Trump about the tirade. During the holidays, he testified, Trump called him to ask how he was doing and to say he should come to Trump’s Mar-a-lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida next winter. He also said, “Don’t worry about that other thing. I’m gonna take care of it when we get back,” Cohen testified.

Cohen will return to the stand on Tuesday. Defense lawyers have yet to cross-examine him.

PREVIOUSLY: In the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump ordered his lawyer Michael Cohen to keep porn star Stormy Daniels’ story of sexual encounter out of the media, using a playbook they had already established to quash an earlier claim of an affair with a Playboy playmate, Karen McDougal, Cohen testified today.

Cohen, on the stand in Trump’s hush money trial, told the jury that Trump told him, “We need to stop this from getting out.” The Daniels story emerged after another politically damaging story, the Access Hollywood tape, had surfaced in early October. According to Cohen, Trump also told him, “What I want you to do is push it out as long as you can. Just get past the election, because if I win it has no relevance …  and if I lose I don’t really care.”

It was the most direct claim to date in more than three weeks of trial testimony that Trump wanted a hush-money agreement to be executed to keep Daniels from talking publicly about her claim of an extramarital sexual liaison with Trump in 2006.

Rattled by the Access Hollywood tape, which revealed that Trump had boasted of grabbing women’s genitals without consent, Trump was furious to learn that Daniels’ claim was resurfacing, Cohen testified, because Cohen had worked with Daniels’ lawyer, Keith Davidson, in 2011 to get the same story pulled from a gossip website called The Dirty by threatening to sue the publication.

“He was really angry with me,” Cohen said of his boss, recalling Trump’s words: “I thought you had this under control. I thought you took care of this.”

“This is a disaster, total disaster,” Trump fumed, according to Cohen. “Women are gonna hate me. … Guys, they think it’s cool, but this is gonna be a disaster for the campaign.”

Cohen testified that Trump was already polling poorly with women in the run-up to the November election. Trump also told Cohen, “Just take care of it,” Cohen testified.

Cohen had already helped a tabloid publisher, American Media, buy the rights to Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story for $150,000, and then buried it in a textbook “catch and kill” arrangement used by the company before. But earlier testimony from the company’s CEO, David Pecker, showed he wanted no part in paying off Daniels even though he and Trump were friends.

So Cohen worked with Davidson, who also represented McDougal, to draw up a $130,000 non-disclosure agreement for Daniels. But complications arose because of the election-timed delay strategy that Trump asked Cohen to pursue. “I was following an instruction,” Cohen testified, when he stalled on paying the $130,000 in the form of an “immediate wire transfer” demanded by Davidson.

Cohen’s testimony, which prosecutors have saved for the home stretch of their case, stopped at that point for a lunch break.

With Trump seated just feet away between his lawyers, Cohen spent the morning and early afternoon describing his ten years as Trump’s in-house counsel and “fixer” — a term he called “fair” when asked about it by Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Susan Hoffinger.

Cohen said he routinely lied to and bullied people to keep his boss happy in a variety of tasks, always keeping Trump in the loop whether negotiating down payments to vendors or threatening lawsuits against adversaries. Cohen called that time of his career “fantastic” and “an amazing experience.”

PREVIOUSLY: As Donald Trump’s attorney and so-called “fixer,” Michael Cohen told a jury today about efforts to conceal unflattering stories about his boss, including an arrangement with the National Enquirer to “catch and kill” women’s claims to have had affairs with the Celebrity Apprentice host.

On the witness stand, Cohen suggested that the claims were not a surprise. He said that Trump told him that once he announced he was a candidate in 2015, “There’s going to be a lot of women coming forward.”

Cohen soon learned about one of the woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, from David Pecker, the CEO of National Enquirer parent company American Media. And Cohen, on the stand, said he also found out that potentially unflattering information about candidate Trump didn’t stop with McDougal’s claim of an extramarital affair.

Pecker kept “a file drawer or a locked drawer” containing information that he and his employees at American Media had collected about Trump over many years for safekeeping, Cohen said. Cohen said he later told his boss, “There’s a series of papers there that relate to you,” and they would have to arrange to buy the rights to those documents. From testimony so far, it is not clear what was in the other papers.

PREVIOUSLY: Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former attorney and fixer who has since turned into one of his chief antagonists, took the stand today in the former president’s hush money trial.

Prosecutors view Cohen as a critical link in their case against the former and possibly future president: the co-conspirator who connects Trump directly to hush money for adult entertainer Stormy Daniels. Cohen made multiple appearances before the Manhattan grand jury that indicted Trump in 2023.

Major news networks all focused on Cohen’s testimony, including an ongoing scroll of text and headlines from reporters in the courthouse. TV and audio coverage is banned from the proceedings.

Cohen comes to the witness stand with baggage: prison time and disbarment after a 2018 guilty plea for tax evasion and federal campaign finance violations — the latter tied to his $130,000 payment to Daniels. Cohen also pleaded guilty to lying under oath to Congress in 2017 about a Trump real estate venture in Moscow.

A Trump attorney, Todd Blanche, said in opening statements that Cohen can’t be trusted. “He is an admitted liar,” Blanche said.

Donald Trump with his attorneys in court on Monday. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Donald Trump with his attorneys in court on Monday. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Cohen has also been busy trolling his old boss online, to the irritation of lawyers on both sides. On Friday Blanche asked the presiding judge, Juan Merchan, to make Cohen stop. Prosecutors replied that they, too, had asked Cohen to keep his opinions about the trial to himself, but weren’t having much luck.

Merchan told the Manhattan District Attorney’s team to urge their star witness to restrain himself, adding that the advice was coming straight from the bench — a gag request, but without the threat of fines and jail behind the gag order imposed on Trump for criticizing trial figures including Cohen himself.

Today, Cohen finally has everybody’s permission to speak, and he is prepared to say that he acted on orders from Trump.

Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 days before the 2016 election to stay quiet about her claim of a sexual liaison years earlier with the star of Celebrity Apprentice, at the time a married real estate mogul with a newborn son and a short political resumé. Trump spent four months in 2000 as a Reform Party candidate for the White House.

Prosecutors say that Trump, as president, disguised his reimbursement of Cohen by calling it taxable income for routine legal work, in an arrangement set up by the Trump Organization’s then-chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. The former Trump CFO is in jail for lying under oath in a New York civil case against Trump, and could be summoned to testify in the hush-money case.

The 34-count indictment lists falsified business records — checks, pay stubs, ledger entries — intended to conceal the repayment to Cohen. Prosecutors will have to convince jurors that a scheme relying on misdemeanor counts of business wrongdoing became a felony because  Trump employed it to interfere with a presidential election by keeping voters in the dark about a tryst with a porn star.

Trump has denied any sexual contact with Daniels and said that his payments to Cohen were legitimate. His lawyers have argued that Trump wanted to spare himself and his family embarrassment. Any impact on an election that Trump won was secondary and within the bounds of campaigning, according to defense lawyers.

Before the proceedings, Trump made a few comments to the media in the hallway outside the courtroom. Joining him were an entourage of supporters and one vice presidential contender, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH).

Ted Johnson contributed to this report.

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.