In courtroom faceoff, Michael Cohen says he was told to boost Trump’s asset values ‘arbitrarily’

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In this February 2019 file photo, Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to US President Donald Trump, listens during a House Oversight Committee hearing in Washington. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

NEW YORK (AP) – Donald Trump’s fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen faced off with him at the former president’s civil fraud trial Tuesday, testifying that he worked to boost asset values to “whatever number Trump told us to.”

Five years after turning on a boss that he once pledged to “take a bullet” for, Cohen is a key witness 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 Organization 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, who denies James’ allegations, dismissed Cohen’s account outside court as the words of “a proven liar” who served prison time after pleading guilty to tax evasion, lying to Congress and campaign finance violations.

“I’m not worried at all about his testimony,” Trump said. “You see what his record is. He’s not a credible witness.”

The former president and Republican 2024 front-runner voluntarily came to court for the highly anticipated testimony, attending the Manhattan trial for a sixth day this month. Cohen, whose appearance was delayed from last week by an unspecified health issue, has said it is his first time seeing Trump in five years.

“Heck of a reunion,” Cohen said during the court break. Earlier, he had insisted outside court that “this is not about Donald Trump vs. Michael Cohen or Michael Cohen vs. Donald Trump.

“This is about accountability, plain and simple,” he said.

After Cohen took the stand and began answering questions about his career and criminal convictions, Trump at times whispered to his lawyers. At other points, the former president hunched forward in his seat, watching intently, or leaned back with crossed arms.

Judge Arthur Engoron already has ruled that Trump and his company committed fraud, but 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 “a continuation of the single greatest witch hunt of all time.” The ex-president argues that the case is 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, which is scheduled to go to trial next spring.

James has credited Cohen as the impetus for her civil investigation, which led to the fraud lawsuit being decided at the 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.

Cohen gave copies of three of Trump’s financial statements to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Cohen said Trump gave the statements to Deutsche Bank to inquire about a loan to buy the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and to Forbes magazine to substantiate his claim to a spot on its list of the world’s wealthiest people.

Earlier this month, Trump dropped a $500 million lawsuit that accused Cohen of “spreading falsehoods,” causing “vast reputational harm” and breaking a confidentiality agreement for talking publicly about the hush-money payments. A Trump spokesperson said the former president was only pausing the lawsuit, while campaigning and fighting four criminal cases, and would refile later.

Cohen took the stand after William Kelly, the attorney for Trump’s longtime former accounting firm, Mazars USA. The firm cut ties with Trump last year after James’ office raised questions about the reliability of his financial statements.

Kelly said that the firm’s decision was based on the attorney general’s lawsuit and on Mazars’ own investigation, which suggested that the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, had provided “compromised” financial statements. Mazars said it hadn’t found any “material discrepancies” in the statements as a whole, however.

Defense lawyer Jesus M. Suarez suggested that the accounting firm abandoned its longtime clients to get in the attorney general’s good graces and head off potential legal problems for the firm. But Kelly insisted “there was no currying favor.”

“It was being a good corporate citizen and explaining what we do,” he said.

Trump’s attorneys had sought to delay the trial on Tuesday, arguing that a rash of coronavirus cases in James’ office had put the former president’s health at risk.

Trump lawyer Christopher Kise said it was “frankly irresponsible” not to postpone the proceeding. Another defense attorney, Alina Habba, objected to sharing a “contaminated” microphone with members of the attorney general’s office.

James’ office, in a statement, said it had taken all steps to notify the relevant parties and had followed health guidance, adding that defense lawyers could wear masks if concerned. Trump and the attorneys at the defense table with him didn’t don masks.


Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak contributed.

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