NEW YORK — Michael Cohen, who became an enemy of Donald Trump, appeared against him in the former president’s civil fraud trial on Tuesday, testifying that he worked to inflate the value of assets to “the value set by Trump.”
Five years after turning on a boss he once vowed to “take a bullet” for, Cohen is a key witness in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit alleging that Trump and his company are bankrupt , insurance companies and others by providing them with financial reports that increased his wealth.
“I was tasked by Mr. Trump to increase total assets based on a number he arbitrarily chose,” Cohen testified, saying that he and former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg worked to “increase the various asset classes reverse engineer.” To increase these assets to reach a number that Mr. Trump has asked us to achieve.”
When asked what that number was, Cohen replied: “Whatever number Trump told us.”
Trump, who denies James’ allegations, dismissed Cohen’s account in court as the words of a “proven liar” who served a prison sentence after pleading guilty to tax evasion, lying to Congress and campaign finance violations.
“I’m not worried at all about his statement,” Trump said. “Look how big his record is. He is not a credible witness.”
The former president and 2024 Republican frontrunner voluntarily came to court for the highly anticipated testimony and attended the trial in Manhattan for the sixth day this month. Cohen, whose appearance was postponed last week due to an unspecified health issue, said it was the first time he had seen Trump in five years.
“A hell of a reunion,” Cohen said during the court recess. He had previously insisted outside court that “this is not about Donald Trump vs. Michael Cohen or Michael Cohen vs. Donald Trump.”
“This is about accountability, pure and simple,” he said.
After Cohen took the stand and began answering questions about his career and criminal convictions, Trump whispered at times to his lawyers. At other points, the former president leaned forward in his seat and watched intently, or leaned back with his arms folded.
Judge Arthur Engoron has already ruled that Trump and his company committed fraud, but the trial involves remaining charges of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records.
Trump says his assets were actually understated, and he claims that disclaimers in his financial reports essentially asked recipients to verify the numbers themselves.
He derided the case as a “sham,” a “fraud,” and a “continuation of the greatest witch hunt of all time.” The former president argues that the case is part of an effort by James and other Democrats to slow down his campaign.
Cohen was Trump’s fiercely loyal personal lawyer for a decade before breaking with him in 2018 amid a federal investigation that landed Cohen in federal prison. He is also a key prosecution witness in Trump’s separate Manhattan hush-money criminal case, which is scheduled to go to trial next spring.
James cited Cohen as the catalyst for their civil investigation, which led to the fraud claim being decided at trial. She cited Cohen’s testimony before Congress in 2019 that Trump had a history of misrepresenting the value of assets to obtain favorable loan terms and tax benefits.
Cohen gave copies of three of Trump’s financial reports to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Cohen said Trump leaked the statements to Deutsche Bank to inquire about a loan to buy the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and to Forbes magazine to stake his claim to a spot on the list of the world’s richest people to substantiate.
Earlier this month, Trump dropped a $500 million lawsuit accusing Cohen of “spreading falsehoods,” causing “significant reputational harm” and violating a confidentiality agreement by speaking publicly about the hush money payments. A Trump spokesman said the former president only paused the lawsuit while he was on the campaign trail fighting four criminal cases and would file again later.
Cohen took the stand after William Kelly, the lawyer for Trump’s longtime accounting firm Mazars USA. The company cut ties with Trump last year after James’ office raised questions about the reliability of its financial reports.
Kelly said the company’s decision was based on the attorney general’s lawsuit and Mazars’ own investigation, which suggested that the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, submitted “compromised” financial reports. However, Mazars said they found no “material inconsistencies” in the statements overall.
Defense attorney Jesus M. Suarez suggested that the accounting firm abandoned its longtime clients to gain the attorney general’s favor and avert potential legal trouble for the firm. But Kelly insisted there was “no ingratiation”.
“It was about being a good corporate citizen and explaining what we do,” he said.
Trump’s lawyers had sought to delay the trial on Tuesday, arguing that a surge of coronavirus cases in James’ office had endangered the former president’s health.
Trump lawyer Christopher Kise said it was “frankly irresponsible” not to postpone the trial. Another defense attorney, Alina Habba, objected to sharing a “contaminated” microphone with members of the Attorney General’s Office.
James’ office said in a statement it took all steps to notify relevant parties and followed health guidelines, adding that defense attorneys could wear masks if there were concerns. Trump and the lawyers at the defense table with him did not wear masks.
Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak contributed.