Witness in Trump Trial Links Former President to Hush-Money Payoff

Former President Donald Trump, center, at his criminal trial in Manhattan on Thursday, May 2, 2024.   (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Former President Donald Trump, center, at his criminal trial in Manhattan on Thursday, May 2, 2024. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — After two weeks of enthralling jurors with stories of sex and scandal, prosecutors delved into the documents at the heart of Donald Trump’s criminal trial on Monday, a pivotal turn in the case that came on the same day the judge held Trump in contempt and threatened to jail him.

After the judge rebuked Trump for violating a gag order and mounting “a direct attack on the rule of law,” the prosecutors provided jurors with their first look at the 34 records they say he falsified to cover up an infamous payment.

Trump made the payment to his longtime fixer, Michael D. Cohen, reimbursing him for a $130,000 hush-money payoff to a porn actor, Stormy Daniels, prosecutors say. Before Trump repaid Cohen, prosecutors say, he orchestrated a scheme to falsify the records.

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Trump, the first American president to face prosecution, is on trial for 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, one for each document: 11 checks to Cohen, 11 invoices from Cohen and 12 entries in Trump’s general ledger. The invoices and ledger entries claimed that Cohen had been repaid for “legal expenses” that arose from a “retainer agreement.”

But prosecutors say the purported expenses and retainer agreement were works of fiction. And they used veterans of Trump’s accounting department against him, calling on the Trump Organization’s former controller, Jeffrey McConney, and its accounts payable supervisor, Deborah Tarasoff, to walk jurors through the records.

While McConney testified that he did not know the true nature of the payments to Cohen, he bolstered the prosecution’s contention that the records were fishy.

When a prosecutor, Matthew Colangelo, asked McConney whether he ever saw a retainer agreement, he responded “I did not.” And when asked if he sent the invoice to the company’s legal department — as was common at the Trump Organization — he offered a telling one-word acknowledgment: “No.”

McConney also told jurors that much of the money for Cohen had come from Trump’s personal bank account. The company sent nine of the checks to the White House for Trump to sign, McConney explained.

His testimony marked a turning point in the prosecution’s case as it pivots from lurid details about buying and burying sex scandals — during the 2016 presidential campaign, Daniels was shopping her story of a tryst with Trump — to the records that the former president is accused of falsifying.

Both phases of the case, the captivating sleaze and the stultifying records, are essential to proving the charges. New York law requires prosecutors to show that Trump falsified the records to conceal another crime, in this case, what the prosecution says was a conspiracy to influence the election by concealing damaging stories from voters.

McConney took the stand after the judge held Trump in contempt of court for a second time and threatened to jail him if he continued to break the gag order that bars him from attacking jurors.

In a remarkable moment without the jury present, the judge, Juan M. Merchan, addressed Trump personally from the bench, saying that if there were further violations, he might place the former president behind bars.

Merchan acknowledged that jailing Trump was “the last thing” he wanted, but explained that his responsibility was to “protect the dignity of the justice system.”

The judge said that he understood “the magnitude of such a decision” and that jailing Trump would be a last resort. He noted: “You are the former president of the United States, and possibly the next president as well.”

As the judge delivered his admonition and imposed a $1,000 fine, Trump stared straight at him, blinking but not reacting, and when the remarks were over, the former president shook his head.

The violation for which he was punished Monday stemmed from an incident on April 22, when Trump made disparaging remarks about jurors during a telephone interview with a far-right media outlet, Real America’s Voice. The jury, he said, had been picked “so fast” and was “mostly all Democrat,” adding, “It’s a very unfair situation.”

Prosecutors from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which brought the case, argued that with that remark and others Trump had committed four new violations of the order. But Merchan concluded that only the incident in which Trump attacked the jury amounted to a violation.

“Defendant not only called into question the integrity, and therefore the legitimacy of these proceedings, but again raised the specter of fear for the safety of the jurors and of their loved ones,” Merchan wrote in his order.

The order came less than a week after Merchan had issued a separate decision fining Trump $9,000 for nine earlier violations. In that ruling, the judge had warned Trump that continued disobedience could land him in jail.

On Monday, he issued a more explicit and sterner warning, all but pleading with the former president to stop attacking the jury.

“The last thing I want to do is put you in jail,” Merchan said, adding quickly, “But at the end of the day, I have a job to do.”

Tension in the room eased once McConney took the stand, though his testimony was critical.

Prosecutors say that Trump, Cohen and the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen H. Weisselberg, hashed out a plan to falsify the records to disguise the purpose of the reimbursement.

And when the issue made its way to McConney, he said, Weisselberg ordered him to pay Cohen, who ultimately received $420,000 in 11 checks. That covered the hush money, plus a bonus and additional funds, prosecutors say.

Colangelo, the prosecutor, walked McConney through each of Cohen’s monthly invoices sent to the Trump Organization. The first came via email in February 2017, and Cohen was direct: “Pursuant to the retainer agreement kindly remit payment,” he wrote McConney.

Weisselberg chimed in to approve, emailing McConney to say that he could release the money for Cohen, “per agreement with Don and Eric,” a reference to Trump’s adult sons, who took over the company when their father became president.

McConney then instructed Tarasoff, to pay and to note the charge in Trump’s ledger as “legal expenses” that pertained to a “retainer,” the very statements that prosecutors say are false.

He explained that the company’s accounting software had a variety of descriptions for payments, and, “We were paying a lawyer, so I said to put it — posted it to legal expenses.”

Tarasoff took the stand herself on Monday afternoon to answer questions about the process, her testimony was granular yet essential. With Tarasoff, prosecutors introduced the checks, which Trump signed with a black Sharpie.

When cross-examining McConney and Tarasoff, Trump’s lawyers sought to emphasize that the Trump Organization employees were in the dark about the reason for the repayments to Cohen.

“You don’t know one way or the other, from your vantage point, whether Mr. Cohen did legal work for President Trump in 2017, do you?” Emil Bove, a defense lawyer, asked McConney. McConney acknowledged that he did not.

But Colangelo appeared to think McConney’s ignorance was an asset for the prosecution, not the defense, suggesting that his bosses were operating in secret.

“Have you learned there were matters that Mr. Weisselberg kept you in the dark about?” he asked McConney, when he got a chance to question him again. McConney said he had.

Trump’s lawyers also repeatedly sought to put distance between the former president and the actions described during testimony. Bove got McConney, for example, to say that he never discussed the accounting software with Trump.

And while questioning Tarasoff, another of Trump’s lawyers noted that she didn’t receive direct permission from Trump to draft the checks he signed, but rather from McConney, who had been her boss.

Kate Christobek and Wesley Parnell contributed reporting.

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