New York — Donald Trump’s former attorney and go-between, Michael Cohen, testified Monday before a Manhattan grand jury investigating hush money payments made on behalf of the former president.
Trump loyalist turned adversary, Cohen spent about three hours answering questions in the undercover procedure. His lawyer said he was due to return again on Wednesday to testify after they left the courtroom.
Cohen’s attorney, Lani Davis, said, “Michael spent a long and productive afternoon answering all the questions, all the facts, and was completely responsive.”
The testimony comes at a critical time, as the Manhattan district attorney’s office considers whether to seek charges against Trump over payments made during his 2016 campaign to two women who alleged sexual relations or encounters with him.
Before entering the courtroom for the hearing, Cohen, who organized those rewards, said his goal was simply to “tell the truth,” dismissing a suggestion that he may have been motivated by a desire to see Trump behind bars.
“This is not revenge,” he said. “This is all about accountability. He must be held accountable for his dirty deeds.”
Trump denies involvement with either woman, porn actor Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal.
Cohen provided evidence to prosecutors, including audio recordings of conversations he had with a lawyer for one of the two women, as well as emails and text messages. He also has recordings of a conversation in which he and Trump talked about a payment arrangement for the other woman through the national tabloid newspaper The National Enquirer.
Prosecutors appear to be looking into whether Trump committed crimes in how the payments were made or how they were held accountable internally at Trump’s company, the Trump Organization.
One possible charge could be falsifying business records, which is a misdemeanor unless prosecutors can prove that it was done to conceal another crime. No former US president has ever been charged with a crime.
Appearing Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Trump’s attorney Joseph Tacopina said it was unlikely the former president would accept an invitation made by prosecutors last week to testify before the grand jury.
“We have no intention of participating in this action,” Tacubina said. “It’s a decision that still needs to be made. No deadline has been set, so we’ll wait and see.”
He called Trump a victim, saying he was pressured into making the payment to Daniels.
“This was clear extortion and I don’t know since when we decided to start prosecuting extortion victims,” Tacubina said. “He denied — he vehemently denied — the case. But he had to pay the money because there would have been an allegation that would have publicly embarrassed him, regardless of the campaign.”
Daniels and the attorney who helped arrange her payment, Keith Davidson, deny blackmailing anyone.
Speaking briefly to reporters in Moline, Illinois, Trump called the investigation “a big witch hunt.” When asked if he intended to testify, he said, “I don’t know. Nobody asked me.”
Tacopina also wrote a letter to the New York City Inspector General, saying that prosecutors are trying to impede Trump’s chances in the 2024 presidential election. Tacopina asked the city’s Department of Investigations to investigate an “apparent political stalking.”
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
Trump’s lawyers have tried several times to persuade judges in New York and Florida to intervene or stop investigations into Trump and the Trump Organization, arguing that they are politically motivated. All of these attempts failed.
Cohen served prison time after pleading guilty in 2018 to federal charges, including campaign finance violations, for arranging payments to Daniels and McDougal to keep them from appearing in public. It was also excluded.
Trump’s lawyers may point to these factors in an effort to undermine Cohen’s credibility, should the former president be indicted and Cohen’s testimony ends up at trial.
Cohen has been meeting regularly with Manhattan prosecutors in recent weeks, including a Friday-long session to prepare for his jury appearance.
The committee has been hearing evidence since January in what Manhattan Attorney General Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, called the “next chapter” of his office’s years-long investigation. But silent payments — perhaps the most notable avenue of the Trump investigation — are familiar ground.
Federal prosecutors and Bragg’s predecessor in the DA’s office, Cyrus Vance Jr., examined the payments but did not charge Trump.
Cohen declined to comment to reporters upon leaving the meeting, saying he would “take some time now to remain silent and let the DA build their case.”
Trump continued his lashing out on social media on Friday, calling the case “fraud, injustice, cynicism, and a total and total exploitation of law enforcement in order to influence the presidential election!”
Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 through his own firm and was subsequently reimbursed by Trump, with his firm recording the damages as “legal expenses.”
McDougall was paid $150,000 through the publisher of the National Enquirer, who bungled her story in a questionable journalistic practice known as “capture and kill.”
According to the federal prosecutors who charged Cohen, the Trump Organization then “collected” Cohen compensation for Daniels’ payments for “tax purposes,” giving him $360,000 plus a $60,000 bonus, for a total of $420,000.