Stealing from Trump was ‘self-help,’ Michael Cohen testifies at hush money trial

Michael Cohen testified that he stole money from his former boss Donald Trump’s company as a form of “self-help” as prosecutors rested their case on Monday at the former US president’s hush money trial.

The prosecution’s most important and final witness, Mr Cohen admitted on his last day of testimony that he pocketed most of a sum of money that was meant for a technology company that did work for Mr Trump’s company.

“I just felt it was almost like self-help,” Mr Cohen, who served as Mr Trump’s attorney, said.

Mr Cohen’s admission that he had stolen from his then-boss, first raised by defence lawyers on cross-examination, could hurt his credibility with jurors, who will be charged with deciding whether Mr Trump should be found guilty at the first trial of a former US president.

Mr Trump is charged with falsifying records to cover up a $130,000 payment made to the porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence about an alleged sexual encounter. He has pleaded not guilty and denies having sex with Ms Daniels.

Shortly after Mr Cohen left the witness stand, prosecutors rested their case and Mr Trump’s lawyers began calling witnesses of their own.

Donald Trump with attorney Todd Blanche speaks to the media during his trial
(Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures)

One of them drew a reprimand from the judge after he expressed dissatisfaction, prompting the judge to momentarily clear the courtroom.

“If you don’t like my ruling, you don’t give me side eye and you don’t roll your eyes,” Justice Juan Merchan told Robert Costello, a lawyer called by the defence team to testify.

Mr Trump’s lawyers have said they do not plan to call many witnesses, and it was unclear whether Mr Trump himself will testify.

Mr Cohen, 57, said he paid roughly $20,000 in cash in a paper bag to a tech company out of the $50,000 that it was owed and kept the rest. The Trump Organisation later reimbursed him $100,000 in total.

He said he stole the money because he was upset about his annual bonus being cut after he fronted $130,000 of his own money to buy the silence of Stormy Daniels, who was threatening shortly before the 2016 election to go public with her account of an alleged sexual encounter with Mr Trump.

FILE - Adult film actress Stormy Daniels speaks outside federal court on April 16, 2018, in New York. No one gets under Republican presidential nominee former President Donald Trump's skin quite like women who face him in court. Daniels incensed Trump during legal proceedings stemming from a $130,000 payment she received from Trump attorney Michael Cohen to silence her about an alleged affair with Trump in 2006. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
Stormy Daniels speaking outside a court in New York in 2018 (Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP)

New York prosecutors say Mr Trump broke the law by covering up that payment to Ms Daniels.

Mr Cohen testified that he discussed that payment more than 20 times with Mr Trump in October 2016, at a time when Mr Trump was facing multiple accusations of sexual misbehaviour.

Mr Cohen previously testified that Mr Trump worried that Ms Daniels’ story would hurt his appeal to women voters. That undercut the argument by Mr Trump’s legal team that he was seeking only to protect his family from embarrassment.

But as a convicted felon and admitted liar, Mr Cohen is a problematic witness.

Testifying for the defence, Mr Costello said Mr Cohen told him after a 2018 FBI raid that he did not have any dirt on Mr Trump to offer prosecutors.

“He said, ‘I swear to God, Bob, I don’t have anything on Donald Trump,’” Mr Costello said, referring to Mr Cohen.

Michael Cohen is questioned by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger on re-direct during former U.S. President Donald Trump's criminal trial on charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016, in Manhattan state court in New York City, U.S. May 20, 2024 in this courtroom sketch. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg
Michael Cohen is questioned by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger (Photo: Jane Rosenberg/Reuters)

Mr Costello also said Mr Cohen told him numerous times that Mr Trump knew nothing about the payment to Ms Daniels.

Mr Cohen has previously testified that he lied to Mr Costello because he was worried he would relay to Mr Trump any indications that he might cooperate with prosecutors.

Though Mr Trump said before the trial began that he planned to testify, defence lawyer Todd Blanche told the judge last week that it was no longer certain. Outside the courtroom on Monday, Mr Trump did not tell reporters whether he would testify or not.

At the outset of Monday’s session, Judge Merchan said he expected the prosecution and the defence to make their closing arguments next week followed by jury deliberations.

The first former president to face a criminal trial has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up the payment to Ms Daniels.

Mr Trump, 77, has blasted the trial as a politically motivated effort to hobble his Republican Party campaign to take back the White House from Democratic President Joe Biden in the 5 November election. It is one of four criminal prosecutions he faces.

If he chooses to testify, Mr Trump will have the opportunity to convince jurors that he was not responsible for the paperwork at the heart of the case, and rebut Ms Daniels’ detailed account of their meeting in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

He would not be restrained by a gag order that bars him in other settings from criticising witnesses, jurors and relatives of the judge and prosecutors.

However, he would face cross-examination by prosecutors, who could try to expose inconsistencies in his story. Any lies told under oath could expose him to further criminal perjury charges.

Additional reporting by Reuters