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Trump is expected to return to a NYC courtroom as ex-fixer Cohen is set to testify

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In February 2019, Donald Trump's former fixer testified before the House Oversight Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL COHEN: Mr. Trump is a cheat.

MARTIN: Michael Cohen had already pleaded guilty to lying to a bank and lying to Congress, but he still had a few things to get off his chest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COHEN: It was my experience that Mr. Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes, such as trying to be listed amongst the wealthiest people in Forbes, and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes.

MARTIN: Not long after that, the New York attorney general, Letitia James, said she was opening an investigation based on Cohen's testimony. Today, more than four years later, Michael Cohen will testify in the $250 million civil case that James ultimately filed. Joining us to talk about the path to Cohen's testimony today is NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Good morning.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So Andrea, I'm just going to start by asking you to remind us, what was Michael Cohen to Donald Trump?

BERNSTEIN: When Michael Cohen was vice president of the Trump Organization, his job was to solve any problems Trump had, often in very aggressive ways. And as part of this, he would sometimes threaten contractors, associates and even reporters. Here's some tape of Cohen challenging former NPR reporter Tim Mak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COHEN: So I'm warning you, tread very [expletive] lightly because what I'm going to do to you is going to be [expletive] disgusting.

BERNSTEIN: After Trump was elected, Trump and Cohen had a falling out over the Mueller investigation. Cohen pleaded guilty and was sentenced to years in prison. At his sentencing, Cohen said, quote, "I am committed to proving my integrity and ensuring that history will not remember me as the villain in this story." And that is pretty much what he's been doing in a book, a podcast, TV appearances and with what he's expected to say today in court.

MARTIN: Now, as I understand it, Trump's defense has been arguing that Cohen is not to be believed. And he has been convicted of felonies, as you just told us, including lying to banks and to Congress. So what can Cohen say today?

BERNSTEIN: A lot. Cohen was very, very close to Donald Trump when he worked for him and witnessed many of the transactions at the heart of the New York attorney general's case. In the first three weeks of the trial, witness after witness has presented bits of evidence that Trump and his employees repeatedly lied about the value of their assets. Cohen is expected to tie that together to show the through line that all this lying was to cheat the system. And, yes, Cohen is a convicted liar, which Trump's team has laid into. But as one former prosecutor told me, the way to handle that is to say, we didn't choose Mr. Cohen. Mr. Trump did.

MARTIN: Now, the judge in this case has already found Trump and other defendants, that they committed persistent fraud. So help me understand, what are the stakes of Cohen's testimony?

BERNSTEIN: Before the trial even began, Judge Arthur Engoron ruled Trump had to start the process of selling his business. And that's happening. But what's still at issue is whether Trump conspired to commit fraud and how much money he'll have to pay the state. The AG wants 250 million. Cohen, by being so close to it all and, unlike many witnesses who still work for Trump, will presumably be more willing to be candid, can offer evidence of conspiracy, intent and the specific value of Trump's lies.

MARTIN: And, Andrea, as briefly as you can - Trump was already fined $5,000 for violating a gag order. What happens now?

BERNSTEIN: The judge said Trump couldn't attack his clerk, but the AG's office learned that a derogatory post about her was still up on Trump's campaign website. Trump's lawyers said it was inadvertent. The judge said if it happened again, Trump could go to jail or face a big fine.

MARTIN: All right. Thanks so much. That's NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Andrea, thank you.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Andrea Bernstein
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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