Longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen takes the stand against former boss in one "heck of a reunion"

Trump "arbitrarily" inflated the value of his real estate assets, Cohen testified Tuesday

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published October 24, 2023 3:01PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Michael Cohen (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Michael Cohen (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump's longtime "fixer" and former lawyer took the stand against him on Tuesday and alleged that the former president "arbitrarily" inflated the value of his real estate assets in order to secure better insurance premiums.

Cohen testified during Tuesday's hearing in the former president's New York civil fraud case. Cohen, who severed his relationship with Trump five years ago, is a key witness in the lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, which accuses Trump of exaggerating and devaluing his family companies' properties to make business deals. The case threatens to dismantle part of the business empire that catapulted Trump into celebrity and the Oval Office.

According to Reuters, the key witness told the judge that Trump instructed him to "reverse-engineer" the values of many of the Trump Organization's holdings so the company's statements of financial condition would display the assets as having "extremely high values with low liabilities in order to secure better insurance premiums."

The holdings' values would be "whatever number Mr. Trump told us," Cohen said ahead of the trial's lunch break. 

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Cohen also acknowledged his complicity in crimes he said he committed for the former president's benefit at the start of his highly anticipated testimony in Trump's civil fraud case, CNN reports

A prosecutor from the New York attorney general's office questioned Cohen about the crimes he pleaded guilty to in 2018, which include tax crimes, campaign violations and lying to Congress. Cohen responded with a lengthy answer rehashing the crimes and outlining why he made public statements about the legitimacy of his conviction.

He had previously testified before Congress in 2019 about Trump's involvement in the hush-money plot involving both former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, who claimed to have had affairs with Trump — allegations Trump has denied.

"I acknowledge my complicity in the Stormy Daniels matter, but I never paid Karen McDougal," Cohen said, clarifying that payments to McDougal were made through AMI, the National Enquirer's former owner. 

Trump did not react when Cohen spoke about the hush-money payments, instead staring straight ahead at the witness. 

Cohen also acknowledged that he lied to Congress during a 2017 hearing pertaining to the amount of times he spoke to Trump about a Trump Tower Moscow project by saying they had only three conversations when it was actually 10. 

"I did that at the direction of, in concert with and for the benefit of Mr. Trump," Cohen claimed said.

He added that that statement was written in discussions with a number of Trump's close associates, including Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Trump Organization legal counsel Alan Garten. Though Trump attorney Chris Kise objected to that statement, New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron's overruled it.

Cohen explained that he felt he had to address the public information about him.

"When all of this started, it was overwhelming. The amount of disinformation misinformation, mal-information about me. It was overwhelming and enormous," he said.

Despite public statements countering the federal charges against him over the years, Cohen confirmed that he eventually took a plea deal and served a sentence to take responsibility for each of the counts he pleaded guilty to. 

The start of his testimony follows shortly after he and Trump traded jabs upon arriving to the courthouse Tuesday morning. 

"This is about accountability, plain and simple," Cohen — one of the former president's most vocal critics since they cut ties five years ago — told reporters as he entered the courthouse, adding that the determinations in the case are all for the judge to make.

Trump called Cohen a "liar" when he arrived minutes later, Reuters reported.

"He's a proven liar, as you know, a felon," Trump told reporters before entering the courtroom, referring to Cohen. "We did nothing wrong and that's the truth."

Digs at Cohen's character are part of Trump's and his team's approach to countering the lawyer's testimony, according to CNN, which reports that the defense's strategy is to amplify Cohen's testimony and paint him as the start witness as a means to later discredit him and the case. They also aim to present videos and statements Cohen previously made to portray him as a liar.

Cohen, who began a three-year prison sentence in 2019 but was later released to home confinement, told Reuters Monday that Trump calling him a liar was like "the pot calling the kettle black," adding the acknowledgement that he lied to Congress at Trump's behest that he repeated in Tuesdays testimony.

He also teased his court appearance on X, formerly Twitter, Monday, writing, "I will continue to speak truth to power…no matter Donald’s continued smear and harassment campaign against me. #TeamCohen." 

While exiting the courtroom for a lunch break, Trump took a verbal swing at Cohen again, telling reporters that he's not worried about his testimony because he's not a credible witness.

“He has a horrible record,” Trump said outside the courtroom per CNN. “It’s not going to end up very good for him. We’re not worried at all about his testimony.”

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Cohen, on the other hand, told reporters while walking out for the break that his appearance in court is a "heck of a reunion."

Trump voluntarily dismissed earlier this month a $500 million lawsuit he filed against Cohen earlier this year shortly after his indictment in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's criminal case pertaining to the hush-money payments to Daniels. The GOP primary frontrunner has occasionally appeared in court over the past month for his civil fraud trial, leveling inflammatory complaints to reporters that the case is a distraction from his campaign. 

He arrived in New York Monday after a campaign stop in New Hampshire and just days after Engoron fined him $5,000 for violating a limited gag order, which the judge imposed after Trump shared a social media post attacking Engoron's principal clerk and identifying her personal Instagram account. Trump deleted the post from Truth Social, but last week Engoron discovered the post had remained up on Trump's campaign website since the order and issued the fine, warning that future violations would result in "far more severe" sanctions.

Ahead of the trial's start, Engoron found last month that Trump had defrauded banks and insurers by inflating his net worth and the value of his assets, ordering the dissolution of key businesses in Trump's real estate portfolio. The ruling is on hold while the former president appeals.

In addition to the $250 million in fines, James is also seeking a permanent ban against Trump and his co-defendants, sons Eric and Don Jr., from running any businesses in the state and a five-year commercial real estate ban against Trump and the Trump Organization. Trump has denied wrongdoing in the case and defended the valuations of his properties, dubbing the suit a "fraud" and a political witch hunt.  

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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Aggregate Arthur Engoron Donald Trump Fraud Lawsuit Michael Cohen New York News