In a New York Courtroom, Donald Trump Meets Michael Cohen

The former president listened as his longtime fixer accused him of fraud.

Former President Donald Trump talks to the media during a break of his civil business fraud trial on Tuesday.AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah

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On a contentious, crowded day in court, Michael Cohen—Donald Trump’s disgraced former attorney and fixer—took aim at his old boss. It was Trump, and only Trump, who was ultimately responsible for directing his underlings to fraudulently inflate his net worth, Cohen testified Tuesday. As Cohen answered questions from the witness stand, Trump sat just 10 yards away, hunched over the defense counsel table—his shoulders tense and rolled forward, his head sunk low.

Cohen, who served Trump for years before flipping on his old boss to adopt a new role as a Trump antagonist, appeared subdued when answering questions from prosecutors in the New York attorney general’s office, only occasionally glancing over at Trump. For the most part, Cohen focused his attention, reading glasses perched on his nose, on the state lawyer leading him through his testimony. The placid back-and-forth offered little hint of the hostility that would explode into the courtroom later in the day, when Trump’s team got its first chance to cross-examine Cohen.

Cohen was testifying as part of New York Attorney General Letitia James’ $250 million civil fraud lawsuit accusing Trump of having falsely inflated the values of various properties to get better terms from banks and insurance companies. Judge Arthur Engoron, who is overseeing the trial, has already ruled that Trump did indeed commit fraud. The ongoing trial, in its fourth week, now mainly concerns how substantial a monetary penalty Trump should have to pay for his wrongdoing.

The day began with a spat between attorneys over Covid. Last week, one member of James’ office came down with the virus, and several more over the weekend did, as well, leading to a pause in the trial on Monday. By Tuesday morning, all attorneys in court had tested negative, but Trump lawyer Chris Kise denounced James and her office for not warning everyone sooner about the possible exposure. Kise said he wanted the trial delayed for several more days.

“It seems that nothing else matters except pursuing President Trump—we’re just going to dispense all the rules and all the protocols. Frankly it’s irresponsible,” Kise complained, going on to call James “hypocritical” because she sued Amazon over Covid safety protocols.

Engoron noted that N95 masks were available for anyone who was concerned, but he said the trial would continue. None of the Trump attorneys took the judge up on his mask offer, although a number of reporters did. Another Trump attorney, Alina Habba, known for her snarling cable news appearances, loudly interrupted to tell Engoron that she wouldn’t use the same microphone as the one used by attorney general staff.

Inside the courtroom, dozens of reporters loudly typed on laptops, while a small army of uniformed court police officers stood guard, patrolling the aisles. Almost a dozen plainclothes security officers—some Secret Service and some from the attorney general’s office—lined the sides of the room and kept the public several rows back from the attorneys. The crowded conditions were a stark contrast to days that Trump has not attended the trial, when fewer than 10 reporters seemed to be in attendance and just two uniformed officers stood guard. 

Outside the court, dozens of photographers and camera operators lined the hallway, with strobing flashes flickering brightly anytime the courtroom doors opened.

James’ office sought to use Cohen as a witness who could describe how the fraudulent numbers were developed, and, shortly after taking the stand on Tuesday, Cohen delivered.

“I was tasked by Mr. Trump to increase the total assets, based upon a number that he arbitrarily elected,” Cohen testified, in a steady, calm voice. “And my responsibility, along with Allen Weisselberg, predominantly, was to reverse engineer the various different asset classes, to increase those assets in order to achieve the number that Mr. Trump had tasked us to.” At the time Weisselberg was the Trump Organization’s CFO. Last year, he pleaded guilty to tax evasion and testified against the Trump Organization in its own tax evasion trial

Cohen was much more sure of the cooperation in his testimony. Asked how much he and Weisselberg inflated the value of various properties, Cohen did not hesitate.

“Whatever number Mr. Trump told us to,” he said.

Cohen described a process in which he would be called into Trump’s office and—after a discussion of what Trump’s actual net worth was—Trump would give Cohen and Weisselberg a larger number. Then, Cohen and Weisselberg would retreat to Weisselberg’s office and try to figure out how to make Trump look wealthier than he really was. Earlier this month, Weisselberg appeared as a reluctant witness for James, saying he annually took the fraudulent estimates of Trump’s wealth to Trump for approval. However, in his testimony he said he didn’t recall working with Cohen on the numbers.

When Trump entered court on Tuesday, he seemed tired and somewhat deflated—walking slowly and stiffly, nodding to someone in the front row, but looking vaguely away in the opposite direction whenever he passed by Letitia James’ seat. At various points, he whispered animatedly to his lawyers, but his voice was never more than barely audible to the audience. During Cohen’s testimony, particularly when he described interactions with Trump personally, Trump would shake his head and whisper more forcefully to his attorneys.

When Cohen began discussing a failed effort by Trump to obtain financing to purchase the Buffalo Bills NFL team, Trump’s attorneys objected, saying the purchase never happened and wasn’t part of James’ fraud complaint. James’ attorneys said Cohen’s accusation that the Trump Organization had cooked up numbers the NFL might like to see was part of a pattern of behavior. When Engoron sided with James’ office, Trump threw his hands up and began tapping his attorney’s hand and whispering. Last week, a similar reaction from Trump resulted in a scolding from the judge.

Under cross-examination from Habba late this afternoon, Cohen’s calm persona began showing some cracks. Habba barely got through her first set of questions before she and Cohen started arguing. Habba needled Cohen about his 2019 guilty pleas on tax evasion charges—charges he now says he disagrees with.

“Did you lie to your wife?” Habba asked Cohen, leading to an angry explosion from Cohen and a flurry of protests from James’ attorneys, who complained the question was “below the belt.”

“Clearly I hit a trigger with you,” Habba said, smirking and turning to face her client and the audience.

The two continued to spar. Several times, in response to questions he didn’t like, Cohen said he “objected”—which as a witness, he cannot do. For her part, Habba snapped at Cohen whenever he tried to dodge a question.

“You’re not on CNN, and you’re not on your podcast—I get to ask the questions and you answer them,” Habba said.

Engoron, who seemed both mildly amused by Habba’s theatrics and irritated by the tedious bickering, warned both of them. “No speeches, please,” he said.

A moment later, when Cohen tried again to dodge a question, Engoron wearily added, “Just answer the question.”

Habba’s cross-examination will resume on Wednesday.

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