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Michael Cohen faces more grilling as Trump's hush money trial enters its final stretch

Prosecution rests its case

UPDATE 12:29 p.m.

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 defense has said it plans to call a campaign finance expert, a lawyer who offered to represent Cohen after the FBI raided his property in 2018 and a paralegal.

By law, prosecutors bear the burden of proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Trump’s defense doesn’t have to prove anything.

The prosecution could have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses if Trump’s lawyers put on witnesses of their own.

Prosecutors’ final witness, at least for now, was also their most important: Trump attorney-turned-adversary Michael Cohen. His credibility could determine the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s fate in the case.

Trump, the first former American president to be tried criminally, has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing in the case, which he has slammed as politically motivated.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Cohen testified Monday that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from his ex-boss Donald Trump’s company, an admission defense lawyers hope to use to undermine Cohen’s credibility as a key prosecution witness in the former president’s hush money trial.

With the prosecution's case nearing its end, Trump's attorneys tried to sow doubt in jurors' minds about Cohen's crucial testimony implicating the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in the hush money scheme. The defense over several hours of cross-examination painted Cohen as a serial fabulist who is on a revenge campaign aimed taking down Trump.

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 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?" defense attorney Todd Blanche asked.

“Yes, sir,” Cohen replied. Cohen said he never paid the Trump Organization back. Cohen has never been charged with stealing from Trump’s company.

Cohen's testimony underscores the risk of prosecutors’ reliance on the now-disbarred attorney, who admitted on the witness stand to a number of past lies, many of which he claims were meant to protect Trump. 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. And he has made millions of dollars off critical books about the former president, 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's at the center of the case.

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

Prosecutors got another shot to question their star witness after the defense wrapped up their cross-examination. Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger took a dig at the defense 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.

Whether the defense 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 campaign.

Cohen is the last prosecution witness before Trump's lawyers get a chance to present a defense.

The defense told the judge they plan 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.”

After more than four weeks of testimony about sex, money, tabloid machinations and the details of Trump's company recordkeeping, 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.

Trump 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 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 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.

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 has remained mostly calm on the witness stand despite sometimes heated interrogation by the defense about his misdeeds and the allegations in the case.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office is expected to rest its case once Cohen is off the stand, but prosecutors will have have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses if Trump’s lawyers put on witnesses of their own. Judge Juan M. Merchan, citing scheduling issues, said he expects closing arguments to happen May 28, the Tuesday after Memorial Day.

Defense lawyers said they have not 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. Defense attorneys generally are 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.

Trump’s lawyers have said they may call Bradley A. Smith, a Republican law professor who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to the Federal Election Commission, to refute the prosecution’s contention that the hush money payments amounted to campaign-finance violations. But the judge has limited what Smith can address.


ORIGINAL 6:20 a.m.

Donald Trump's hush money trial is heading into the final stretch, with prosecutors' last and star witness back on the stand Monday for more grilling before the former president's lawyers get their chance to put on a case.

The landmark trial will kick back off in Manhattan with more defense cross-examination of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, whose pivotal testimony last week directly tied Trump to the alleged hush money scheme. He's the last prosecution witness and it's not yet clear whether Trump’s attorneys will call any witnesses, let alone the presumptive Republican presidential nominee himself.

Defense lawyers already have questioned Cohen for hours about his criminal history and past lies to paint him as a serial fabulist who is on a revenge campaign aimed at taking down Trump.

After more than four weeks of testimony about sex, money, tabloid machinations and the details of Trump's company recordkeeping, jurors could begin deliberating as soon as this 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, when prosecutors say they were really reimbursements for a $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels.

Trump 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 Monday. “We paid a legal expense. You know what it’s marked down as? A legal expense."

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's office is expected to rest its case once Cohen is off the stand, but prosecutors would have have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses if Trump’s lawyers put on witnesses of their own. Judge Juan M. Merchan, citing scheduling issues, says he expects closing arguments to happen May 28, the Tuesday after Memorial Day.

Defense lawyers said they have not 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.

Defense attorneys generally are 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.

Cohen is prosecutors’ most important witness, but he is also vulnerable to attack.

The now-disbarred attorney has admitted on the witness stand to previously lying under oath and other falsehoods, many of which he claims were meant to protect Trump. Cohen 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.

And he has made millions of dollars off critical books about the former president, whom he regularly slams on social media in often profane terms.

Cohen told jurors that Trump was intimately involved in the scheme to pay off Daniels to prevent her from going public late in his 2016 presidential campaign with claims of a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump. Trump says nothing sexual happened between them.

Cohen told jurors about meetings and conversations with Trump, including one in 2017 in which Cohen says he, Trump and then-Trump Organization finance chief Allen Weisselberg discussed how Cohen would recoup his outlay for the Daniels payment and how the reimbursement would be billed as “legal services."

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

A key moment came Thursday, when defense attorney Todd Blanche accused Cohen of lying about the purpose of a phone call to Trump's bodyguard days before Cohen wired Daniels' lawyer $130,000.

Cohen told jurors he talked to Trump on that call about the hush money payment. Blanche confronted Cohen with text messages to argue that Cohen had actually been talking to Trump's bodyguard about harassing calls from a teenage prankster.

“That was a lie. You did not talk to President Trump on that night... You can admit it?" Blanche asked.

“No, sir, I can't," Cohen replied, saying he believed he also spoke to Trump about the Daniels deal.

Trump’s lawyers have said they may call Bradley A. Smith, a Republican law professor who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to the Federal Election Commission, to refute the prosecution’s contention that the hush money payments amounted to campaign-finance violations.

The judge has limited what Smith can address, however, and the defense could decide not to call him, after all.

There are often guardrails around expert testimony on legal matters, on the basis that it’s up to a judge — not an expert hired by one side or the other — to instruct jurors on applicable laws in a case.

Merchan has ruled that Smith can give general background on the FEC, the laws it enforces and the definitions of such terms as “campaign contribution.” But he can’t interpret how federal campaign finance laws apply to the facts of Trump’s case or opine on whether the former president’s alleged actions violate those laws.



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