Trump hush-money trial enters crucial phase as prosecutors rest their case

The prosecution's final witness, at least for now, was also their most important: ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who admitted on Monday to stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the Trump Organization.

Prosecution's final witness, ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, could be most important

A man sits at a table in a courtroom.
Former U.S. president and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump sits at the defendant's table with his lawyer, Todd Blanche, left, before his criminal trial in New York on Monday. (Sarah Yenesel/Pool Photo/The Associated Press)

Prosecutors rested their hush-money case against Donald Trump on Monday, turning it over to the former president's lawyers for a chance to call witnesses.

The prosecution's final witness, at least for now, was also their most important: Trump lawyer-turned-adversary Michael Cohen, whom the defence over several hours of cross-examination sought to paint as a serial fabulist who is on a revenge campaign aimed at taking down Trump.

Cohen testified on Monday that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from Trump's company, an admission defence lawyers hope to use to undermine Cohen's credibility as a key prosecution witness in the former president's hush-money trial.

Back on the witness stand for a fourth day, Cohen told jurors that he stole from the Trump Organization after his 2016 holiday bonus was slashed to $50,000 US from the $150,000 he usually received.

Cohen claimed to have paid $50,000 to a technology firm for its work artificially boosting Trump's standing in a CNBC online poll about famous businessmen. Cohen said he gave the firm only $20,000 in cash in a brown paper bag, but he sought reimbursement from Trump for the full amount, pocketing the difference.

"So you stole from the Trump Organization?" defence lawyer Todd Blanche asked.

"Yes, sir," Cohen replied. Cohen said he never paid the Trump Organization back. He has never been charged with stealing from Trump's company.

Cohen's testimony underscores the risk of prosecutors' reliance on the now-disbarred lawyer, who admitted on the witness stand to a number of past lies, many of which he claims were meant to protect Trump.

A man walks outside in an urban setting.
Michael Cohen, former lawyer for Trump, departs his home in Manhattan to testify in Trump's criminal trial on Monday. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Cohen also served prison time after pleading guilty to various federal charges, including lying to Congress and a bank and engaging in campaign-finance violations related to the hush-money scheme. He has made millions of dollars off critical books about Trump, whom he regularly slams on social media in often profane terms.

But when pushed by Blanche, Cohen stood by his recollection of conversations with Trump about the $130,000 hush-money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels that is at the centre of the case.

"No doubt in your mind?" Blanche asked about whether Cohen specifically recalled having conversations with Trump about the Daniels matter. No doubt, Cohen said.

The prosecution got another shot to question its star witness after the defence wrapped up its cross-examination.

Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger took a dig at the defence strategy to go after Cohen, asking him: "I know you might feel like you're on trial here after cross-examination, but are you actually on trial here?"

"No, ma'am," Cohen replied.

WATCH | Michael Cohen accused by Trump's lawyers of lying on the stand:

Trump lawyers accuse Michael Cohen of lying on the stand

2 months ago
Duration 2:01
Donald Trump's defence team at the former president's hush-money trial accused star prosecution witness Michael Cohen of lying on the stand regarding a phone call Cohen says he had with Trump about Stormy Daniels.

Robert Costello expected to be called by defence

Whether the defence succeeds at undermining Cohen's credibility could determine Trump's fate in the case. Cohen tied Trump directly to the hush-money scheme, recounting meetings and conversations with his then-boss about stifling negative stories in the waning weeks of the 2016 election campaign.

The defence's first witness is a paralegal who works in Blanche's law office. Trump's team also plans to call as a witness Robert Costello, a lawyer who advised Cohen several years ago before the two had a falling out.

Costello testified last year before the grand jury that indicted Trump after asserting that he had information that undermined Cohen's credibility. Costello told reporters afterward he came forward to make clear that he did not believe Cohen.

"If they want to go after Donald Trump and they have solid evidence, then so be it," Costello said at the time. "But Michael Cohen is far from solid evidence."

A man in a blue suit stands between an officer and another man in a suit.
Trump walks with Blanche after a break during his trial in New York on Monday. (Michael M. Santiago/The Associated Press)

After more than four weeks of testimony about sex, money, tabloid machinations and the details of Trump's company record-keeping, jurors could begin deliberating as soon as next week to decide whether Trump is guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president.

The charges stem from internal Trump Organization records where payments to Cohen were marked as legal expenses. Prosecutors say they were really reimbursements for the payment to Daniels to keep her from going public before the 2016 election with claims of a sexual encounter with Trump.

Trump says nothing sexual happened between them. He has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers say there was nothing criminal about the Daniels deal or the way Cohen was paid.

"There's no crime," Trump told reporters after arriving at the courthouse in New York on Monday. "We paid a legal expense. You know what it's marked down as? A legal expense."

Trump's allies, including several who joined him at the courthouse on Monday, quickly seized on Cohen's admission on the witness stand. Former Trump administration official Kash Patel told reporters that Monday marked the first time in six weeks of trial proceedings that "we finally have a crime" — Cohen stealing money from the Trump Organization.

"We also have a victim. That victim is Donald J. Trump," Patel said.

Closing arguments expected at end of May

Blanche grilled Cohen about his initial public denials that Trump knew about the Daniels payoff. After the Wall Street Journal reported in January 2018 that Cohen had arranged the payout to the porn actor more than a year earlier, Cohen told journalists, friends and others that Trump had been in the dark about the arrangement.

He did not change his account until after federal authorities in April 2018 searched Cohen's home, office and other locations tied to him. Four months later, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations and other charges and told a court that Trump had directed him to arrange the Daniels payment.

Known for his hot temper, Cohen remained mostly calm on the witness stand despite sometimes heated interrogation by the defence about his misdeeds and the allegations in the case.

Prosecutors will have have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses once Trump's witnesses are done. Judge Juan M. Merchan, citing scheduling issues, said he expects closing arguments to happen on May 28.

The defence said it hasn't decided whether Trump will testify. And Trump did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about whether his lawyers have advised him not to take the stand.

Defence lawyers are generally reluctant to put their clients on the witness stand and open them up to intense questioning by prosecutors, as it often does more harm than good.