By Luc Cohen and Karen Freifeld
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A former lawyer for Donald Trump who once said he would do anything to protect the former U.S. president is now poised to serve as a key witness in the criminal trial of his longtime boss.
Michael Cohen, who became a top executive at Trump’s real estate company and then his personal lawyer, testified twice before the Manhattan grand jury that voted on Thursday to indict Trump following an investigation into a hush payment to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Cohen has said that Trump directed him to pay Daniels $130,000 to keep her from speaking about a sexual encounter she has said she had with Trump in 2006, meaning he will likely be a prominent witness if the case goes to trial.
Trump, who has launched a bid to regain the presidency in 2024, has denied having had such an encounter with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, and said he did not direct Cohen. Trump has called Cohen a “serial liar” and “convicted felon.”
After it was disclosed on Thursday that Trump was indicted, the former president said he was “completely innocent” and called the case “political persecution and election interference.” The specific charges have not yet been made public.
Cohen’s potential role as a star witness against Trump marks the culmination of his 15-year arc from being the businessman-turned-politician’s loyal “fixer” to an outspoken antagonist.
“I will do anything to protect Mr. Trump,” Cohen told Fox News in 2017.
Cohen’s stance had changed dramatically by 2019, when he testified before a U.S. congressional committee and said, “I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat.”
On Friday, after Trump’s indictment, Cohen said his goal in cooperating with authorities was to “speak truth to power.”
“I decided that I was not going to allow history to remember me as the villain to his story,” Cohen told Reuters in an interview. “If speaking truth to power makes me Donald’s arch-nemesis, so be it.”
Cohen was hired as the Trump Organization’s executive vice president and special counsel in 2007. Before that, the Long Island native and son of a Holocaust survivor worked as a malpractice lawyer and owned a fleet of yellow taxis.
Cohen said in the interview he was hired after he had orchestrated the ouster of the board of directors of a condominium in which he owned an apartment, a board that was trying to remove Trump’s name from the building’s exterior.
Cohen later advised Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and, as his personal lawyer, remained close to Trump once he became president, though he did not have an official job at the White House.
In 2018, after the hush money payment to Daniels came to light, Cohen initially said he paid with his own money and that neither the Trump campaign nor the Trump Organization reimbursed him.
He later pleaded guilty to a federal campaign finance law violation for paying Daniels, and then testified in Congress that Trump told him to make the payment. He said he was reimbursed in installments, and displayed a copy of a $35,000 check from Trump’s personal bank account.
Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for making unlawfully excessive campaign contributions and other crimes, including cheating on his personal taxes and lying under oath to Congress about when the Trump Organization stopped working on a proposed building project in Russia. Cohen served more than a year before being released.
Relying on Cohen’s testimony presents risks for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, given the disbarred lawyer’s history of false statements and shifting accounts of the payment to Daniels. That could provide fertile ground for Trump’s defense lawyers during cross-examination at trial.
Cohen, who is married and has two children, has said he has taken responsibility for his wrongdoing. He has also said that much of his criminal conduct – including the lie to Congress and the Daniels payment – arose out of his blind loyalty to Trump.
On Friday, Cohen told Reuters he expected Trump and his allies to attack him.
“It’s all part of the playbook,” Cohen said.
(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Karen Freifeld in New York; Editing by Will Dunham and Noeleen Walder)