Michael Cohen says he buried Stormy Daniels’ ‘catastrophic’ allegation at Trump’s direction

Michael Cohen — the most pivotal witness in the Manhattan district attorney’s historic criminal case against Donald Trump — testified Monday about the hush money deals he said he helped arrange at the direction of his former boss to benefit Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — including burying one woman’s allegation that Cohen feared would be “catastrophic” if it ever became public.

Trump, Cohen said in Manhattan criminal court in New York City, desperately wanted to silence porn actress Stormy Daniels, whose claims of a 2006 sexual encounter Trump feared would be a “total disaster” for his campaign. “Women are going to hate me” if her story becomes public, Cohen quoted Trump as telling him.

He is expected to continue his testimony Tuesday when court is back in session.

In the witness box, Cohen was seated about 10 feet from Trump, whom he has repeatedly mocked on social media and in interviews, including since the start of the trial. Trump isn’t directly in Cohen’s line of sight — he had to stand up and lean over when he was asked to point Trump out to the jury.

Cohen began his testimony by recounting his legal career and when he was hired by Trump in 2007. “It was all very exciting to me,” Cohen said. He made $525,000 in his first year. Asked whom he reported to, he said, “Just Mr. Trump.” Cohen said they would speak “every single day, and multiple times a day.”

Cohen also said he encouraged Trump to run for president and was excited when he did so. But the man he called “boss” had a concern.

“You know that when this comes out — meaning the announcement — just be prepared. There’s going to be a lot of women coming forward,” Cohen said Trump told him.

Michael Cohen on the witness stand in Manhattan criminal court on Monday. Elizabeth Williams / via AP

To address those concerns, he and Trump met with National Enquirer publisher David Pecker at Trump Tower in 2015, asking him to place positive stories about Trump and negative stories about his rivals and to alert them to any potentially scandalous stories.

Pecker made good on his promise soon after, alerting Cohen about a doorman who was peddling a story about Trump’s having a love child. Pecker testified earlier in the trial that the tale turned out to be false. Cohen said he reported what the doorman was claiming to Trump, who “told me to make sure that this story doesn’t get out.”

“You handle it,” he said Trump told him.

The Enquirer bought the doorman’s story for $30,000 with no intention of running it in a deal that Cohen said he tweaked to add financial penalties for the doorman if he spoke to any other outlet.

Pecker also alerted him to another story in June 2016: A Playboy model named Karen McDougal was claiming she had an affair with Trump in 2006. Cohen said he talked to Trump about what Pecker told him and asked whether he knew who McDougal was.

“His response to me was ‘She’s really beautiful,’” Cohen said. Trump also told him to kill the story, he said.

Cohen testified that he regularly updated Trump on those efforts, and the DA’s office showed records of phone calls between Trump and Cohen in that time period to bolster his claims.

Cohen said he was in Trump’s office when Pecker called in to say he had struck a deal to buy McDougal’s story for $150,000. Trump told Pecker he would reimburse him. “I’ll take care of it,” Cohen quoted him as saying. When Cohen later reported to Trump that the deal had been finalized, he said, Trump told him, “Fantastic.”

Cohen said Pecker later told him he didn’t want to be reimbursed, which Pecker testified was because the magazine’s lawyers were concerned about possible legal exposure.

Cohen was also asked about the release of the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016. The 2005 recording caught Trump boasting that he could grope women without their consent. Cohen said he was in London for his daughter’s birthday when news of the tape became public.

He said Trump called him and asked him to reach out to his contacts in the media. “And the spin that he wanted put on it was that this is locker room talk, something that Melania had recommended — or at least he told me that’s what Melania had thought — and use that in order to get control over the story and minimize the impact on him and his campaign,” Cohen said.

Stormy Daniels’ allegation

It was after that that Cohen heard from an executive at the Enquirer that Daniels was shopping a story about what she claimed was a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump — a story that Cohen said he feared could be lethal for Trump’s campaign, which was still reeling from the “Access Hollywood” scandal. Asked what impact he thought her story could have, Cohen said, “Catastrophic, that this is horrible for the campaign.”

Cohen said he had first asked Trump about Daniels in 2011, when a website ran a story about the alleged encounter. He said Trump told him then that the two had met at a celebrity golf tournament while he was with then-Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He said that Daniels liked him and that “women prefer Trump even over someone like Big Ben,” Cohen said.

Asked whether the allegation was true, Trump sidestepped the question, saying only that Daniels was “beautiful,” Cohen testified. Trump told him to handle the story, which he did, getting the posting removed and killing a potential magazine item about Daniels’ account, he said.

When Cohen told Trump her story had re-emerged during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump was irate: “This is a disaster, a total disaster,” he quoted Trump as saying. “Women are going to hate me. This is really a disaster. Women will hate me. Guys, they think it’s cool. But this is going to be a disaster for the campaign.”

Asked whether Trump expressed concern about how his wife would react, Cohen said: “He wasn’t thinking about Melania. This was all about the campaign.”

Cohen said that he reached a deal to buy Daniels’ silence for $130,000 but that Trump urged him to just stall her. “If I win, it won’t have any relevance. If I lose, I don’t really care,” Cohen recounted him as saying.

The delay frustrated Daniels and her lawyer Keith Davidson. Both testified earlier in the trial that it nearly torpedoed the deal. “I was following directions,” Cohen said.

Cohen said he went back to Trump, who told him to “just do it.”

Cohen set up a shell company for the payment and told Trump he would front the money. Trump assured him he would pay him back, Cohen said. Cohen said he used money from his home equity line of credit for fear his wife would notice the payment if he used their joint account.

He said he let Trump know immediately when he received a copy of the signed nondisclosure agreement because he wanted to let Trump know the “task he gave to me was finished, accomplished and done.” He also wanted to make sure that he got “credit” and that “he knew that I had done it. Because this was important.”

Cohen said he signed the deal on Trump’s behalf because it “would not have been to his benefit” to sign it.

Despite all his efforts for Trump, Cohen said, he got a nasty surprise in December, after Trump had won the election. That was when he found his annual bonus had been reduced by two-thirds.

“I was, even for myself, unusually angry,” Cohen said. “I was truly insulted,” he said, adding that he complained bitterly to then-Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, who had been aware of the money Cohen laid out for Daniels.

He said that Weisselberg told him to “take it easy” and that they would work out a plan to get him his money back. It eventually included the Daniels money, plus $50,000 more for money Cohen had paid to a tech services company on Trump’s behalf two years earlier. Weisselberg told him those payments would be “grossed up” — doubled — so Cohen wouldn’t take a tax hit. The agreement also called for him to get a $60,000 bonus, which brought the total Weisselberg said Trump would pay him to $420,000.

He said Weisselberg told him the payments would be made monthly over a year and listed as being for legal services rendered. Trump, Cohen added, approved the deal in front of him and Weisselberg. The meeting took place just days before Trump was inaugurated as the 45th U.S. president.

That meeting also resulted in Cohen’s officially being named personal attorney to the president. Cohen said Trump told him he wouldn’t be compensated for that position, so, Cohen said, he never drafted any sort of retainer agreement.

Weisselberg won’t be testifying — he’s in jail after having pleaded guilty to perjury charges related to his testimony in last year’s civil fraud case against Trump and his company.

Trump, who has denied any affair with Daniels, reimbursed Cohen in a series of payments in 2017, during the first months of his presidency. Prosecutors charge that Trump falsified business records relating to those payments by classifying them as legal services pursuant to a retainer agreement; the DA says no such agreement existed.

“Cohen was not being paid for legal services. The defendant was paying him back for an illegal payment to Stormy Daniels on the eve of the election,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said in his opening statement.

Daniels testified last week.

Trump attorney Todd Blanche said in his opening statement that Cohen was indeed being paid for his legal services and “cannot be trusted.”

“You’ll learn that Mr. Cohen has misrepresented conversations where the only witness who was present for the conversation was Mr. Cohen and, allegedly, President Trump,” Blanche said.

“He’s a convicted felon. And he also is a convicted perjurer. He is an admitted liar,” Blanche added, referring in part to Cohen’s 2018 guilty plea to making false statements to Congress about a proposed project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Prosecutors said he’d lied to minimize Trump’s ties to Russia, which Congress and federal investigators were scrutinizing at the time.

Cohen also pleaded guilty to a number of other criminal charges, including tax fraud, in what a federal judge referred to as a “veritable smorgasbord” of criminal conduct when he sentenced him to three years in prison.

The road for Cohen to reach this moment has been a long one. He has been speaking with prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office off and on for the past five years, with investigators from the DA’s office even visiting him three times while he was in federal lockup in Otisville, New York, in 2019 and 2020.

Cohen was being questioned Monday by veteran prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, who has been preparing Cohen for his testimony for about a year. He’ll be cross-examined by Blanche, Trump’s lead attorney.

Blanche previously told the jury that Cohen is “obsessed” with Trump and blames him for “virtually all of his problems.”

Trump had extra support in the courtroom Monday — his son Eric Trump, Sens. JD Vance, R-Ohio, and Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., and Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., were all there for the beginning of Cohen’s testimony. Trump sat with his eyes closed soon after Cohen began testifying.

Cohen has repeatedly mocked Trump on social media and in interviews, including since the start of the trial, leading the judge to warn that Cohen could be excluded from the gag order that bars Trump from attacking witnesses if he kept it up.

In court Friday, Blanche asked state Judge Juan Merchan to impose a separate gag order on Cohen for the rest of the trial, noting that despite his public assurances that he would stop bashing Trump, Cohen recently wore a T-shirt with Trump behind bars in an orange jumpsuit during a TikTok stream.

Merchan didn’t grant the gag order request, but he ordered prosecutors to “communicate to Mr. Cohen that the judge is asking him to refrain from making any more statements about this case, about Mr. Trump, or about anything related to this case or the process.”

Trump has repeatedly trashed Cohen to reporters and on social media ever since 2018, when Cohen began cooperating with authorities. Some of his recent comments and posts — in violation of the judge’s gag order — led to thousands of dollars in court fines against Trump and a warning from Merchan that he might have to jail him if he continues to post about witnesses.

Trump has watched Cohen testify against him before. During last year’s civil fraud trial against Trump and his company, Cohen was a key witness for the New York attorney general’s office. At one point, Trump stormed out during Cohen’s testimony.

Cohen is testifying as the hush money trial is nearing the finish line. Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass told Merchan on Friday that the DA had only two witnesses remaining and that it was likely that the prosecution will rest by the end of the week.

Trial proceedings will be shortened this week — court isn’t in session Wednesday, nor will there be any activity Friday so Trump can attend his son’s high school graduation.

It’s unclear whether Trump will testify in his own defense. He is under no obligation to do so.

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