NEW YORK — In a courtroom showdown five years in the making, Donald Trump‘s fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen testified Tuesday that he worked to boost the supposed value of the former president’s assets to “whatever number Trump told us to.”
Trump’s lawyers — and outside court, Trump himself — by turn sought to portray Cohen as a serial deceiver who pleaded guilty to crimes that include tax evasion and telling falsehoods to Congress and a bank. During a fractious cross-examination, Cohen, a disbarred attorney, even floated his own lawyerly objections, responding to some queries with “asked and answered!”
It was a fraught face-to-face encounter between Trump and a man who once pledged to “take a bullet” for him. Cohen eventually ended up in prison and became a prominent witness against his former boss in venues from courthouses to Congress.
Now, Cohen is a key figure in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit alleging that Trump and his company duped banks, insurers and others by giving them financial statements that inflated his wealth.
“I was tasked by Mr. Trump to increase the total assets, based upon a number that he arbitrarily elected,” Cohen testified, saying that he and former Trump finance chief Allen Weisselberg labored “to reverse-engineer the various different asset classes, increase those assets, in order to achieve a number that Mr. Trump had tasked us.”
Asked what that number was, Cohen replied: “Whatever number Trump told us to.”
Trump denies James’ allegations. Outside court, Trump dismissed Cohen’s account as the words of “a proven liar.”
“The witness is totally discredited,” Trump said. “He’s a disgraced felon, and that’s the way it’s coming out.”
The former president and Republican 2024 front-runner voluntarily came to court for a sixth day this month. Cohen has said he hadn’t seen Trump for five years until now.
“Heck of a reunion,” Cohen said outside court. He insisted that “this is not about Donald Trump vs. Michael Cohen or Michael Cohen vs. Donald Trump. This is about accountability, plain and simple.”
Cohen testified that Trump would summon him and Weisselberg and say, for example: “I’m actually not worth four and a half billion dollars. I’m really worth more like six.”
Cohen said he and the finance chief would then inflate the value of Trump properties by pegging them to “comparable” real estate that was actually different — brand-new developments with higher ceilings, more sweeping views and no rent regulation, for instance.
Insurance company executives were shown the exaggerated statements, where the combination of extremely high values and low liabilities could net Trump more favorable premiums, Cohen testified. Plus, he said, Trump would deliberately show up about three-quarters of the way through his deputies’ meetings with insurers and spark a conversation to the effect that he was rich enough to self-insure if he couldn’t get a good premium.
As Cohen testified, Trump at times whispered to his lawyers or shook his head. At other points, the former president hunched forward in his seat, watching intently, or leaned back with crossed arms. He took a keen interest in Cohen’s cross-examination, gesturing to his attorneys and craning his neck to get a better view.
Trump lawyer Alina Habba hammered at Cohen’s 2018 federal guilty pleas and his effort now to distance himself from some of them. Although he pleaded guilty to tax evasion and to making false statements to a bank on a loan application, he said Tuesday he’d lied when he made those admissions. He suggested he’d only engaged in “tax omission” and failed to correct inaccuracies on the loan paperwork.
“You’re not going to lie to me, as well?” Habba asked pointedly. And when Cohen objected to certain questions and rattled off cases he said allowed him to do so, Habba snapped back that he was mistaken.
“If you still had your law license, you’d understand that,” she said. Another Trump lawyer, Christopher Kise, complained that Cohen was a “serial liar” who was “out of control” and seeking to “play judge.”
The actual judge, Arthur Engoron, told Cohen to answer most of the questions.
Engoron already has ruled that Trump and his company committed fraud. The trial involves remaining claims of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records.
Trump says his assets were actually undervalued, and he maintains that disclaimers on his financial statements essentially told recipients to check the numbers out for themselves.
He has derided the case as a “sham,” a “scam” and part of an effort by James and other Democrats to drag down his campaign.
Cohen spent a decade as Trump’s fiercely loyal personal lawyer before famously breaking with him in 2018 amid a federal investigation that sent Cohen to federal prison. He is also a major prosecution witness in Trump’s separate Manhattan hush-money criminal case, scheduled for trial next spring.
James has credited Cohen as the impetus for her civil investigation, which led to the fraud lawsuit and trial. She cited Cohen’s testimony to Congress in 2019 that Trump had a history of misrepresenting the value of assets to gain favorable loan terms and tax benefits.
Earlier this month, Trump dropped a $500 million lawsuit that accused Cohen of “spreading falsehoods” and breaking a confidentiality agreement. A Trump spokesperson said the former president was only pausing the lawsuit, while campaigning and fighting four criminal cases.
In one of those criminal cases, co-defendant Jenna Ellis, an attorney, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a felony charge over efforts to overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss in Georgia. She’s the fourth defendant to take a plea deal in the case.
Trump’s attorneys sought to delay the New York trial Tuesday, arguing that coronavirus cases among James’ staff put the former president’s health at risk. The attorney general’s office, in a statement, said it had taken all steps to notify the relevant parties and had followed health guidance.
Trump later complained outside court that “what they did with COVID in the courtroom was a disgrace,” but he and the attorneys beside him didn’t don masks.
Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak contributed to this report.