Trump arrest looms as Michael Cohen seems set to face former US president in court

When Michael Cohen stood before a federal judge to ask for leniency, he attributed much of his behaviour to the influence of one man: Donald Trump.

“Time and time again,” Cohen told the judge at his sentencing in late 2018, “I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”

Ever since, Cohen has made it his work to expose those deeds. He testified for roughly seven hours at a congressional hearing in 2019, describing Trump as a liar and a cheater. Cohen also met with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators and federal prosecutors in New York. And he was the impetus for the New York attorney-general’s investigation into Trump’s business practices.

Cohen’s transformation from trusted fixer to chief antagonist upended his life. He went to prison for 13 months and then faced home confinement for more than a year. He endured years of attacks from Trump’s allies. Now Cohen is poised to seize his biggest moment yet: a day in court against Trump.

Cohen is the key witness in the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into a hush-money payment to a porn actress named Stormy Daniels. The payment, which Cohen said he made at Trump’s direction during the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign, blocked Daniels from telling her story of an affair with Trump years earlier.

Cohen has met with the prosecutors some 20 times and recently testified before a grand jury that could indict Trump soon, people with knowledge of the matter said. And he has provided documentation that bolsters his testimony, the people added.

Trump has denied having any sexual encounter with Daniels and accused the district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, of carrying out a political “witch hunt” against him.

Cohen had endeared himself to Trump by trying to be an indispensable aide and pit-bull adviser. Part of his role became anticipating Trump’s whims and desires and interpreting directions spoken in what Cohen would later describe as “code”.

When one of Trump’s friends asked Trump why he kept Cohen around, Trump replied, “He has his purpose.”

In October 2016, Cohen received calls from top executives at The National Enquirer, which had forged close ties to Trump over the years. They warned that Daniels was looking to sell her story. Within days, Cohen hammered out the hush-money deal with Daniels’ lawyer, securing Daniels’ silence at a crucial moment for the campaign.

Donald Trump and Michael Cohen, pictured on the 2016 campaign trail.Credit:Reuters

When Trump won the presidency soon after, Cohen left behind full-time employment at the Trump Organisation to set up an office at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs in Manhattan.

The Trump presidency was shaping up to be lucrative for Cohen: He soon had a roster of corporate clients as he held himself out as the personal lawyer to the president.

But one issue trailed him: a complaint had been filed with the Federal Election Commission about his payment to Daniels, which was publicly revealed in January 2018. Soon, Cohen acknowledged that he had made the payment, insisting he did it on his own and that neither the Trump Organisation nor the Trump campaign had been a party to it.

At that time in Washington, Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump’s campaign had conspired with Russians in 2016 was proceeding apace. Mueller’s team was also scrutinising Cohen, including for the hush-money deal, but soon handed off that inquiry to the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

The inquiry came to a head in April 2018, when FBI agents searched Cohen’s office, home and a hotel where his family stayed, taking emails, business records and other material.

That imploded Cohen’s life. He confided in friends at the time that he was suicidal. As the search garnered wall-to-wall news coverage, Cohen received a call from Trump at the White House, with a message: stay strong.

Adult-film star Stormy Daniels in 2018. Trump’s campaign allegedly paid hush money to her in 2016.

Adult-film star Stormy Daniels in 2018. Trump’s campaign allegedly paid hush money to her in 2016.Credit:AP

But as Cohen’s legal bills piled up, officials at the family-run Trump Organisation began to baulk at paying his lawyer, planting the seeds for Cohen’s break from a man he once idolised.

Cohen soon hired Lanny Davis, a Democrat and a veteran Washington lawyer who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House.

In August of 2018, federal prosecutors in the Southern District readied charges against Cohen for the hush money and a range of unrelated financial crimes. Cohen pleaded guilty in that case and later in another case brought by Mueller related to his congressional testimony.

At his first plea hearing, on the hush-money payment, Cohen pointed the finger at Trump, who he said directed him to pay it, an accusation that prosecutors later substantiated. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison.

Davis told Cohen that he had a path to winning back his credibility, but he would have to fully come clean about Trump. Cohen told Davis he was ready.

In February 2019, Democrats announced that Cohen would appear at an unusual public hearing, the sole witness discussing the 45th president.

When Cohen assumed a seat at a witness table for what would become a daylong event, he appeared prepared for the onslaught. He fought back, potentially foreshadowing how he might respond to attacks from Trump’s lawyers on the witness stand in the Manhattan case.

Michael Cohen and his attorney Lanny Davis. Davis told Cohen he would have to come clean about Trump.

Michael Cohen and his attorney Lanny Davis. Davis told Cohen he would have to come clean about Trump.Credit:AP

“By coming today, I have caused my family to be the target of personal, scurrilous attacks by the president and his lawyer trying to intimidate me from appearing before this panel,” Cohen said in opening remarks at the congressional hearing. “Mr Trump called me a rat for choosing to tell the truth, much like a mobster would do when one of his men decides to cooperate with the government.”

In May 2019, Cohen began serving his time at a minimum security facility at Otisville, New York. It was there that he began to meet with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

Cohen was released in May 2020 on a medical furlough. But he was soon thrown back in prison by the Bureau of Prisons after he refused to sign a document stating he would not write a book. About two weeks later, a judge ordered him released, saying the move was “retaliatory”.

By early 2022, Cohen was home from prison, and his visits with prosecutors moved to their offices. Beginning in January of this year, he seemed to visit almost weekly.

Cohen is hardly a perfect witness. Trump’s lawyers will undoubtedly attack his character and invoke his criminal record. Some appear eager to cross-examine him.


Even the prosecutors who are relying on Cohen – and have decided to stake a large part of their case on his testimony – occasionally shake their heads at his media presence. But Cohen has largely won the at least qualified approval of the district attorney’s office.

“I thought he was telling the truth,” Mark Pomerantz, the prosecutor who helped lead the investigation until early 2022, wrote in his book.

Cohen’s comprehensive knowledge of the hush-money case is likely another draw for prosecutors. The former fixer could connect all the dots that led to the payment.

On the first day of his grand jury testimony this month, when Cohen stopped outside the courthouse to entertain questions from reporters, he harked back to what he had told the judge five years earlier.

“This is all about accountability,” he said. “He needs to be held accountable for his dirty deeds.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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