NEW YORK — For years, Michael Cohen and his former boss Donald Trump have lobbed insults at one another from afar, each man castigating the other in bitterly personal terms.
On Tuesday, they were face to face once again, with Cohen — a onetime attorney for Trump turned antagonist — testifying against the former president during a civil fraud trial stemming from a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James (D).
Cohen testified that Trump had ordered him and others to increase how they valued his assets to deliver him a desired net worth.
“I was tasked by Mr. Trump to increase the total assets based upon a number that he arbitrarily elected,” Cohen said, with Trump sitting in court watching.
Cohen’s testimony marked a turbulent beginning to the fourth week of trial in James’s $250 million lawsuit against Trump, which accuses him and his business of drastically inflating the value of his real estate properties to gain better financial terms.
Trump, who is a Republican candidate for president, does not face any prison time in the civil case, and he and his attorneys have denied any wrongdoing.
While the trial has largely focused on testimony about financial statements and real estate valuations, Cohen’s testimony injected another element to the proceedings by having the topics discussed by a man who has traded barbs with Trump for years — and touted his knowledge of the Trump Organization’s inner workings.
Cohen said Trump personally gave marching orders to him and the company’s longtime finance chief Allen Weisselberg, directing them to mold his assets to achieve a false net worth that could be used to save money in deals with lenders and insurance firms.
“He would look at the total assets, and he would say, ‘I’m actually not worth [$4.5 billion], I’m really worth more like [$6 billion],’” Cohen said, offering an example of the type of talks he would have with Trump about preparing the statements.
In those meetings, Trump “would then direct [Weisselberg] and I to go back to Allen’s office and return after we achieved the desired goal,” Cohen testified.
Cohen had worked as a lawyer and self-professed fixer for Trump before the men suffered a public rupture during Trump’s term in office.
Trump has derided Cohen as a dishonest “rat,” while Cohen in turn has depicted Trump as a bigoted, lying “con man.” Until Tuesday’s testimony, which saw both men again in the same room, this dispute has been playing out in splenetic social media postings, acidic memoirs and scathing congressional testimony.
Cohen’s testimony was the first during the trial to clearly attribute fraudulent behavior to Trump. And it appeared to align with the attorney general’s contention that company executives intended to commit illegal acts as they carried out a pattern of fraud between 2011 and 2021.
According to Cohen, Trump also made cameos at meetings with insurance firms where he tried to further convince the business partners that he was impressively wealthy.
“About three-quarters of the way through the meeting, Mr. Trump would then come in, and there would be a conversation about his extensive net worth, [saying] he’s actually richer than the insurance companies,” Cohen said.
Cohen has served time in prison after pleading guilty in two criminal cases, including for lying to Congress, so his credibility was the main focus of questioning by Trump’s attorneys Tuesday and will probably be heavily examined in any future testimony. Cohen began his testimony Tuesday by discussing some elements of his background, including his criminal convictions.
Trump, speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, dismissed Cohen as “a proven liar.”
While Cohen was questioned by Trump’s side, one of the attorneys, Alina Habba, pressed Cohen on his criminal record. Their exchanges grew tense, with Cohen occasionally objecting to questions, which witnesses are not permitted to do.
Cohen, a disbarred attorney, drew belly laughs from gallery watchers when he quipped “asked and answered” in response to Habba touching on subjects that were already covered. That phrase is used by judges to respond to attorney objections.
Cohen conceded he lied again when he pleaded guilty to tax evasion in federal court, saying he perjured himself at the proceeding because the act was really just an omission. The testimony echoed past comments he made about feeling pressured to plead guilty.
“I took the plea,” he said Tuesday.
While his testimony Tuesday came in a civil trial, Cohen is also expected to play a prominent role in a criminal case Trump is facing in New York. That case could also see Cohen once again confront his former boss from the stand.
Trump was indicted this year in Manhattan and accused of wrongdoing in connection with payments aimed at silencing an adult-film actress who claimed she had an affair with Trump. Cohen has acknowledged paying the actress, who alleged the encounter occurred years before the 2016 payments. Trump has denied any affair and any wrongdoing in the matter.
The indictment against Trump in New York alleges that he improperly falsified business records to conceal a $130,000 payment to the performer through Cohen, who was reimbursed. The case is scheduled to go to trial in March, with Cohen likely to be a key witness. A high-ranking prosecutor overseeing that case, Susan Hoffinger, was in the courtroom Tuesday for Cohen’s testimony.
As Cohen began his testimony, Trump sat with his arms crossed, his face displaying the same scowl he has shown throughout the proceedings.
Trump is not required to appear at the civil trial, though he has periodically shown up, pausing outside the courtroom to deliver campaign-style remarks denouncing James and defending his business. He is expected to testify.
James’s office says Trump and his executives misstated values and basic facts for financial gain, while attorneys for Trump said that his company’s practices were not illegal and that there was more than one way to evaluate assets.
New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron, who is overseeing the civil trial in New York, has already found that Trump’s company broadly committed fraud. He will determine at the trial’s end whether specific illegal acts were employed to advance the fraud.
On top of the ongoing civil trial, Trump also faces four criminal prosecutions, including the hush money case in New York, a case in Florida related to his handling of classified documents after leaving office, an election-obstruction case in Washington and another election-obstruction case in Georgia.
Trump has assailed all of the cases against him, arguing that he is being politically targeted on every front.
Berman reported from Washington. El Calabrese in New York contributed to this report.