NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s former lawyer and filmmaker Michael Cohen testified Monday before a Manhattan grand jury investigating hush money payments made on behalf of the former president.
A Trump loyalist turned adversary, Cohen spent about three hours answering questions in the secret proceeding. He is scheduled to return for more testimony Wednesday, his attorney said as the couple left the courthouse.
“Michael spent a long and productive afternoon answering all the questions, all the facts and being completely responsive,” said Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis.
The testimony comes at a critical time as the Manhattan district attorney’s office considers whether to indict Trump over payments made during his 2016 campaign to two women who claimed they had relationships or sexual contacts with him.
Before entering court for the hearing, Cohen, who orchestrated those payments, said his goal was simply to “tell the truth,” dismissing a suggestion that he may be motivated by a desire to see Trump behind bars.
“This is not revenge,” he said. “This is all about accountability. He must be held accountable for his dirty deeds.”
Trump denies having affairs with any of the women, porn actress Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougall.
Cohen gave evidence to prosecutors, including tapes of conversations he had with a lawyer for one of the women, as well as emails and text messages. He also has recordings of a conversation in which he and Trump discussed an agreement to pay the other woman through the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer.
Prosecutors appear to be looking into whether Trump committed crimes over how the payments were made or accounted for internally at Trump’s company, the Trump Organization.
One possible charge would be falsifying business records, a misdemeanor, unless prosecutors could prove it was done to cover up another crime. No former US president has ever been charged with a crime.
Appearing Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Trump attorney Joseph Tacopina said it was unlikely the former president would accept an invitation extended by prosecutors last week to testify before a grand jury.
“We have no plans to participate in that process,” Tacopina said. “It’s a decision that has yet to be made. No deadline has been set, so we’ll wait and see.”
He cast Trump as a victim, saying he was pressured into making the payment to Daniels.
“This was just blackmail and I don’t know when we decided to start prosecuting blackmail victims,” Tacopina said. “He denied – flatly denied – this case. But he had to pay money because there was going to be an allegation that would be publicly embarrassing for him regardless of the campaign.”
Daniels and the lawyer who helped arrange her payment, Keith Davidson, both denied extorting anyone.
Speaking briefly to reporters in Moline, Illinois, Trump called the investigation “a big witch hunt.” Asked if he planned to testify, he said: “I don’t know. Nobody even asked me.”
Tacopina also wrote a letter to New York’s inspector general, saying prosecutors were trying to hinder Trump’s chances in the 2024 presidential election. Tacopina asked the city’s Department of Investigation to investigate a “clearly political prosecution.”
The Manhattan district attorney’s office declined to comment.
Trump’s lawyers have tried several times to get judges in New York and Florida to intervene or halt investigations of Trump and the Trump Organization, arguing they are politically motivated. All these efforts failed.
Cohen served prison time after pleading guilty in 2018 to federal charges, including campaign finance violations, for arranging payments to Daniels and McDougall to prevent them from going public. He has also been expelled.
Trump’s lawyers could point to these factors in an attempt to undermine Cohen’s credibility if the former president is indicted and Cohen ends up testifying at trial.
Cohen has been meeting regularly with Manhattan prosecutors in recent weeks, including a daylong session Friday to prepare for his court appearance.
The panel has been hearing evidence since January in what Manhattan U.S. Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, called the “next chapter” of his office’s years-long Trump investigation. But hush money payments — perhaps the most damaging of Trump’s avenues of investigation — are well-known.
Federal prosecutors and Bragg’s predecessor in the DA’s office, Cyrus Vance Jr., scrutinized the payments but did not charge Trump.
Cohen declined to comment to reporters as he left the meeting, saying he was “going to take some time now to remain silent and allow the DA to develop their case.”
Trump continued to criticize the investigation on social media on Friday, calling the case a “fraud, injustice, travesty and complete and total weaponization of law enforcement to influence the presidential election!”
Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 through his own company and was subsequently reimbursed by Trump, whose company listed the reimbursements as “legal expenses.”
McDougal’s $150,000 payment came through the editor of the National Enquirer, who spun her story in a journalistically dubious practice known as “catch-and-kill.”
According to federal prosecutors who charged Cohen, the Trump Organization then “garbage” Cohen’s compensation for paying Daniels for “tax purposes,” giving him $360,000 plus a $60,000 bonus, for a total of $420,000.