NEW YORK — Michael Cohen’s long-awaited testimony in the New York attorney general’s sprawling civil fraud case against former President Trump began Tuesday afternoon, when he described ballooning Trump’s assets at the request of his former employer.
But the ex-Trump fixer’s proclivity to untruths came under harsh scrutiny by the former president’s legal team, who sought to undermine his credibility in objections and cross-examination.
Cohen is a star witness in New York Attorney General Letitia James’s (D) case, testifying to its core allegation: The former president’s company engaged in decades of fraud by falsely inflating and deflating the value of its assets to receive lower taxes and better insurance coverage. Cohen’s past disclosures about Trump’s net worth helped spur her investigation.
On Tuesday, the former personal lawyer came publicly face to face with his ex-boss for the first time since their relationship soured. When he first entered the courtroom shortly after noon, Trump did not spare him a glance, keeping his gaze fixed on the computer screen in front of him. Cohen strode past Trump and his legal team without looking their way but peeked over before taking a seat at the witness stand.
However, as Cohen’s testimony progressed, Trump’s annoyance became more apparent. The former president forcefully shook his head and conferred actively — though quietly — with his attorneys throughout the questioning, at one point throwing both his hands above his head. Trump’s legal team frequently objected to Cohen’s answers, asserting he was testifying as an expert on issues in which he has no expertise.
Cohen testified he and Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg were directed by Trump to increase the former president’s total assets based on a number he “arbitrarily elected.”
“My responsibility, along with Allen Weisselberg, predominantly, was to reverse engineer the various different asset classes — increase those assets — in order to achieve the number that Trump had tasked us with,” Cohen said, after which Trump shook his head and appeared to mouth “no” to one of his attorneys.
“When you say number, what number are you talking about?” prosecutor Colleen Faherty asked Cohen.
“Whichever Mr. Trump told us,” Cohen replied.
The comment echoed a clip from Cohen’s deposition played in the government’s opening remarks, where he said he and Weisselberg were told to inflate Trump’s net worth so he could be “higher up on the Forbes list.” Trump fell off that list earlier this month.
Cohen listed several assets he said he inflated at Trump’s behest, including Trump Park Avenue, The Trump World Tower at United Nations Plaza, 100 Central Park South, Seven Springs and Miss Universe pageants. He also said he “possibly” inflated the former president’s iconic Trump Tower’s worth and the worth of “other assets.”
There was only one person who could accept those updated asset amounts, Cohen said: Trump.
In the weeks ahead of Cohen’s appearance in court, Trump and his legal team attempted to show Judge Arthur Engoron that the “proven liar” and “felon’s” testimony can’t be trusted.
“He’s a liar trying to get a better deal for himself, but it’s not going to work,” Trump said as he entered the Manhattan courthouse Tuesday. “This case, by any other judge, this case would have been over a long time ago. We did nothing wrong.”
Trump attorney Alina Habba sharply questioned Cohen over his truthfulness in past and current testimony during her cross-examination. She pointed to his testimony at the start of the day, when he denied being guilty of the crimes of which he has been convicted, and accused him of violating his oath to testify truthfully either then — when he took the plea before a judge — or now.
“You committed perjury in that proceeding, didn’t you?” Habba asked. “Did you lie to Judge [William] Pauley when you said that you’re guilty?”
“Yes,” Cohen replied.
Cohen’s much-anticipated testimony brought swarms of media to the New York Supreme Court, plus many more members of the public than at the start of the sweeping fraud trial. Once vowing he would take a bullet for Trump, Cohen flipped on him amid investigations into a hush money deal made ahead of the 2016 election.
That payment is central to Trump’s criminal indictment in New York, which is separate from the civil fraud trial. Cohen pleaded guilty 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.
Since he turned on Trump, Cohen has become one of the former president’s most vocal critics, hurling insults online or in the news media while also testifying against his former client in numerous venues. His cross-examination is expected to continue Wednesday morning.