Donald Trump returns to civil fraud trial, with fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen set to testify
Oct 24, 2023, 9:57 AM
(Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Cohen once proclaimed he’d “take a bullet” for Donald Trump. Now, after breaking with the former president amid his own legal troubles, the fixer-turned-foe is poised to testify against his old boss Tuesday as a key witness at the civil fraud trial that threatens to upend Trump’s real estate empire and wealthy image.
Trump voluntarily came to court for the highly anticipated testimony, appearing at the Manhattan courthouse for a sixth day this month. Cohen, whose testimony was delayed from last week by an unspecified health issue, has said it would be his first time seeing Trump in five years.
“This is not about Donald Trump vs. Michael Cohen or Michael Cohen vs. Donald Trump,” Cohen said as he arrived at the courthouse to await his turn to testify. “This is about accountability, plain and simple.”
Trump, heading into court, noted that Cohen served prison time after pleading guilty to tax evasion, lying to Congress and campaign finance violations.
“He’s a proven liar,” said Trump, who is expected to testify later in the trial.
The trial wasn’t held Monday because of issues related to an apparent COVID-19 exposure. Trump’s attorneys sought to delay the trial on Tuesday, arguing that a rash of COVID-19 cases in the office of their adversary — New York Attorney General Letitia James — had put the former president’s health at risk.
Trump lawyer Christopher Kise said it was “frankly irresponsible” not to postpone the proceeding. Another defense attorney, Alina Habba, objected to sharing a “contaminated” microphone with members of the attorney general’s office.
James’ office, in a statement, said it had taken all steps to notify the relevant parties and had followed health guidance, adding that defense lawyers could wear masks if concerned. Trump and the attorneys at the defense table with him didn’t don masks.
The trial proceeded with testimony from William Kelly, the attorney for Trump’s longtime former accounting firm, Mazars USA. The firm cut ties with Trump last year after James’ office raised questions about the reliability of his financial statements.
The attorney general’s lawsuit alleges that Trump and top executives at his company, the Trump Organization, conspired to pad his net worth by billions of dollars on those financial statements, which were provided to banks, insurers and others to make deals and secure loans.
Trump has attended several prior days of the trial, availing himself of TV cameras in the courthouse hallway to deride the case as a “sham,” a “scam” and “a continuation of the single greatest witch hunt of all time.” The Republican presidential 2024 front-runner argues that the case is part of an effort by James and other Democrats to drag down his campaign.
Judge Arthur Engoron has already ruled that Trump and his company committed fraud, but the trial involves remaining claims of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records.
As punishment, Engoron ordered that a court-appointed receiver take control of some Trump companies, putting the future oversight of Trump Tower and other marquee properties in question, but an appeals court has blocked that for now.
Trump denies any wrongdoing. He says his assets were actually undervalued and maintains that disclaimers on his financial statements essentially told banks and other recipients to check the numbers out for themselves.
Cohen spent a decade as Trump’s fiercely loyal personal lawyer before famously breaking with him in 2018 amid a federal investigation that sent Cohen to federal prison. He is also a major prosecution witness in Trump’s separate Manhattan hush-money criminal case, which is scheduled to go to trial next spring.
James has credited Cohen as the impetus for her civil investigation, which led to the fraud lawsuit being decided at the trial. She cited Cohen’s testimony to Congress in 2019 that Trump had a history of misrepresenting the value of assets to gain favorable loan terms and tax benefits.
Cohen gave copies of three of Trump’s financial statements to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Cohen said Trump gave the statements to Deutsche Bank to inquire about a loan to buy the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and to Forbes magazine to substantiate his claim to a spot on its list of the world’s wealthiest people.
Earlier this month, Trump dropped a $500 million lawsuit that accused Cohen of “spreading falsehoods,” causing “vast reputational harm” and breaking a confidentiality agreement for talking publicly about the hush-money payments.
A Trump spokesperson said the former president was pausing the lawsuit while campaigning and fighting four criminal cases but would refile later.