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How Michael Cohen became central to Trump’s hush money case

The last time former President Trump and his ex-fixer, Michael Cohen, publicly came face-to-face, their courtroom encounter during a civil business fraud trial ended with Trump storming out in a huff and Cohen swearing his old client would “ultimately be held accountable” for his actions.

The two men aren’t rid of each other yet.

That’s because Cohen is inextricably tied to Trump’s New York criminal hush money case, set to head to trial later this month. He is expected to serve as a key witness against the former president, testifying about payments made to porn actress Stormy Daniels to conceal her alleged affair with Trump — then a presidential candidate — ahead of the 2016 election.

Prosecutors have sought to paint the payment as just one piece of a broader “catch-and-kill” scheme to quash negative gossip about Trump leading up to the election.

The payments were made by Cohen, but Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) alleges Trump illegally falsified business records when he reimbursed his onetime personal attorney for the payment to Daniels. Trump faces 34 counts and has pleaded not guilty.

The imminent hush money trial sets up another faceoff between Cohen and Trump — but this time with the higher stakes brought by a criminal proceeding, where felony convictions and possible jail time are on the line.

Cohen was first introduced to Trump in 2006 by the former president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., when working at a law firm. But by then, Cohen was already familiar with Trump.

He testified in October during Trump’s civil fraud trial that he read Trump’s book “Trump: The Art of the Deal” twice in college and had “admired” the business mogul since high school. When Trump asked Cohen, 20 years his junior, to leave his “sleepy old firm and join him” at the Trump Organization, Cohen obliged.

Cohen would become one of Trump’s most fiercely loyal aides, eventually described by some as Trump’s personal “pit bull.”

“It means that if somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit,” Cohen told ABC News of the nickname in 2011. “If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck, and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.”

The hush money allegations tell the story of three people paid off by Cohen to stay quiet about their salacious accusations against Trump as the 2016 presidential election heated up.

The first was a doorman at Trump Tower, Dino Sajudin, who alleged Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock with a building employee. But, according to prosecutors, Sajudin’s story was purchased in late 2015 by the National Enquirer tabloid’s parent company for $30,000 in a deal with Cohen and Trump.

Then, in 2016, Cohen arranged for former Playboy model Karen McDougal to be paid $150,000 for her story of a nine-month affair she allegedly began with Trump in 2006.

And shortly after, Daniels was paid $130,000 through a shell company Cohen set up to keep quiet over her alleged affair with Trump. Cohen was paid back by Trump, whose company logged the reimbursements as legal expenses, according to prosecutors.

Each deal was executed by Cohen, who claims his actions were at the former president’s behest. But his relationship with Trump quickly soured when an investigation into the deals was launched.

In April 2018, a little more than a year into Trump’s first term as president, the FBI raided Cohen’s office, Park Avenue hotel room and home as part of a federal probe by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. Federal agents seized millions of electronic files, including emails and bank records, plus eight boxes of documents.

After the raid, Trump told Cohen to “stay strong,” according to prosecutors. He also initially paid for Cohen’s lawyer.

But as the investigation continued, Trump began to distance himself from Cohen. On “Fox & Friends,” which he went on often during his presidency, Trump said Cohen handled just a “tiny, tiny little fraction” of his legal work and claimed he was “not involved.” After Trump put any possibility of a pardon on the back burner — and stopped paying for Cohen’s legal representation — Cohen sought new counsel.

Soon after, Cohen pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance and other charges and was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the deal, though he earned early release due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds,” Cohen said of Trump at his 2018 sentencing hearing.

And then, he started cooperating. Fast forward six years, and Cohen is one of Trump’s most vocal critics — and at the center of several of his legal woes.

During Trump’s civil fraud trial, Cohen testified that he “reverse-engineered” Trump’s net worth to reach a number the former president liked. His past disclosures about Trump’s net worth helped spur New York Attorney Letitia James’s (D) investigation into Trump’s namesake business.

But on cross-examination, Cohen’s past contradictions began to weave a tangled web around him, causing him to backtrack on earlier testimony. The exchange has served as lasting fodder for Trump and his lawyers, who have sought to portray Cohen as a criminal and “proven liar.”

A New York judge ultimately determined that Cohen’s testimony was credible and that Trump and top executives at his company conspired to alter the former president’s net worth for tax and insurance benefits. He ordered them to pay $464 million, plus interest, and barred them from serving in top leadership positions in New York companies for varying years.

When Cohen testifies in Trump’s criminal trial, his credibility will certainly be called into question again.

The former president’s lawyers in February moved to block Cohen’s testimony in the imminent trial, casting the ex-fixer as a “liar” and citing his fraud trial testimony.

“Michael Cohen is a liar,” Trump’s lawyers wrote.

“He recently committed perjury, on the stand and under oath, at a civil trial involving President Trump,” the lawyers said. “If his public statements are any indication, he plans to do so again at this criminal trial. The Court should preclude Cohen’s testimony in order to protect the integrity of this Court and the process of justice.”

Cohen responded to the motion on X, formerly known as Twitter, writing about one of Trump’s lawyers: “F-U Todd Blanche.”

Judge Juan Merchan, who is overseeing the hush money trial, ruled last month that Cohen could testify, alongside the individuals he paid to keep quiet on his former boss’s behalf. But Cohen has said that Trump’s biggest concern should not lie with him.

“He shouldn’t be worried about me,” Cohen said in a recent interview with MSNBC. “He should be worried about the Manhattan district attorney, the district attorney of New York prosecutors — he should be worried about the documentary evidence, he should be worried about all of the witnesses that are going to be coming into that trial simply because, as others have also appropriately put it, this is a simple case.”

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