The Latest | Cohen questioned about calls with Trump, activities in weeks before Daniels payment

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NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s hush money trial has entered its final stretch as the prosecution’s star witness Michael Cohen returned to the stand Monday.

In his testimony last week, Cohen placed the former president directly at the center of the alleged scheme to stifle negative stories to fend off damage to his White House bid. Among other things, Cohen told jurors that Trump promised to reimburse him for the money he fronted and was constantly updated about efforts to silence women who alleged sexual encounters with him. Trump denies the women’s claims.

Monday’s proceeding began with Judge Juan M. Merchan declining to broaden the scope of testimony from a potential defense witness. He echoed his pretrial ruling that the witness, if called, can give general background on the FEC — its purpose, background and the laws it enforces — and the definitions of such terms as “campaign contribution.”

Defense attorneys resumed cross-examination of Cohen with questions about his interactions with reporters and a series of questions about his business dealings and other activities in the lead-up to the payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels.

Prosecutors have said they will rest their case once Cohen’s testimony concludes, though they could call rebuttal witnesses if Trump’s lawyers call their own witnesses to the stand. The defense isn’t obligated to call any witnesses, and it’s unclear whether the attorneys will do so. It also remains unclear whether Trump will testify.

Merchan said earlier in the day that closing arguments could take place the Tuesday after Memorial Day.

The trial is in its 19th day.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

The case is the first-ever criminal trial of a former U.S. president and the first of four prosecutions of Trump to reach a jury.

Currently:

— What we’ve learned so far in the Trump hush money trial and what to watch for as it wraps up

— Trump receives NRA endorsement as he vows to protect gun rights

— Trump hush money case: A timeline of key events

— Key players: Who’s who at Trump’s hush money criminal trial

— Hush money, catch and kill and more: A guide to unique terms used at Trump’s trial

Here’s the latest:

COHEN ADMITS HE STOLE MONEY FROM TRUMP ORGANIZATION

Michael Cohen on Monday admitted that he stole from Donald Trump’s company when he pocketed tens of thousands of dollars that was earmarked as a reimbursement for money he said he shelled out to a technology firm.

The Trump Organization reimbursed Cohen for the costs under the same arrangement as his repayment for the hush money payment he made to porn actor Stormy Daniels.

Cohen had claimed he shelled out $50,000 to the tech firm, Red Finch, but during cross-examination in Trump’s criminal trial he testified that he gave a company executive just $20,000 in cash and never forked over the other $30,000 that was owed.

The Trump Organization repaid Cohen $50,000 and then doubled that payment in a practice known as “grossing up” to cover taxes he’d incur by declaring the money as income rather than a tax-free reimbursement.

Defense lawyer Todd Blanche noted that despite Cohen’s guilty pleas in 2018 to federal charges including a campaign finance violation for the hush money payment and unrelated tax evasion and bank fraud crimes, he’d never been charged with stealing from Trump’s company.

“Have you paid back the Trump Organization the money you stole from them?”

“No, sir,” Cohen responded.

Trump, who had been slouched back in his seat with his eyes closed for much of the testimony, looked directly at the witness stand as Cohen made the admission about stealing.

Eric Trump, Trump’s son, who is in court, posted on X: “This just got interesting: Michael Cohen is now admitting to stealing money from our company.”

DEFENSE ASKS COHEN ABOUT 2 CALLS WITH TRUMP

After walking Michael Cohen through the personal business dealings and Donald Trump-related responsibilities he was juggling in the leadup to the Stormy Daniels payment, defense lawyer Todd Blanche pointedly asked about two key phone calls Cohen said he had with Trump.

“You do have a specific recollection that, on those two phone calls, you just talked about the Stormy Daniels deal — that’s it?” Blanche asked.

Yes, Cohen said, because it was personally important to him. He was about to shell out $130,000 from his own account to keep Daniels from selling her story publicly.

“My recollection is that I was speaking to him about Stormy Daniels because that is what he tasked me to take care of and that’s what I had been working on,” Cohen added.

The charges against Trump — falsifying business records — center on the way he ultimately reimbursed Cohen for the Daniels payment. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

COHEN’S ATTENTION WAS DIVIDED IN THE WEEKS BEFORE DANIELS’ PAYOUT

Defense lawyer Todd Blanche asked Michael Cohen a series of questions on Monday about personal business deals and other Donald Trump-related tasks that Cohen was juggling in the weeks before the Stormy Daniels payout.

Cohen testified that his attention was divided at the time by several other matters, including a real estate transaction involving an investment property he owned with his brother, a restructuring of his taxi medallion investments, securing an endorsement for Trump from one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s relatives, unrelated litigation and an issue involving photographs and a potential extortion attempt of one of Trump’s children.

The questions seem aimed at showing that he wasn’t solely focused on the Daniels matter, despite its urgency at the time.

COHEN QUIZZED ON HIS INTERACTIONS WITH REPORTERS

Defense attorney Todd Blanche resumed his questioning of prosecutorial witness Michael Cohen by asking how many reporters he’s spoken to since Thursday when he was last on the witness stand.

After a brief pause, Cohen replied: “I didn’t speak to reporters about what happened last week.”

Pressed again by Blanche, Cohen clarified that he had spoken to reporters, just not about the details of last week’s testimony.

“I’ve spoken to reporters who called to say hello, to see how I’m doing, check in, but I didn’t talk about this case,” he said.

COHEN RETURNS TO THE STAND

Michael Cohen has returned to the courtroom for his fourth day of testimony in Donald Trump’s hush money trial. He nodded at a court officer but didn’t look at the former president or the defense table as he made his way to the witness stand.

Trump turned his head and looked in Cohen’s direction as he was taking the witness stand.

JUDGE DECLINES TO BROADEN SCOPE OF TESTIMONY FROM POTENTIAL WITNESS

The judge in Donald Trump’s hush money trial declined Monday to broaden the scope of testimony that the defense can elicit from a potential expert witness, Bradley A. Smith, a former Bill Clinton-appointed Republican Federal Election Commission member.

Judge Juan M. Merchan echoed his pretrial ruling that, if called, Smith can give general background on the FEC — its purpose, background and the laws it enforces — and the definitions of such terms as “campaign contribution.”

Merchan rejected the defense’s renewed efforts to have Smith define three terms in federal election law, saying it would breach rules preventing expert witnesses from interpreting the law. Nor can Smith opine on whether the former president’s alleged actions violate those laws, Merchan said.

If Smith were to testify about those issues, Merchan said, the prosecution would then be permitted to call an expert of its own. That would result in a “battle of the experts,” the judge said, “which would only serve to confuse and not assist the jury.”

Smith is a law professor, and there often are guardrails around expert testimony on legal matters, on the basis that it’s up to a judge — not an expert hired by one side or the other — to instruct jurors on applicable laws in a case.

CLOSING ARGUMENTS COULD BE THE TUESDAY AFTER MEMORIAL DAY

Judge Juan M. Merchan said he expects closing arguments will take place the Tuesday after Memorial Day.

Merchan on Monday cited scheduling issues in giving the May 28 date.

After the scheduling update, the discussion turned to prosecutors’ objections to a planned defense exhibit. This kind of legal wrangling isn’t uncommon before a day’s testimony. The jury was not yet in court.

TRUMP SPEAKS BEFORE AN EARLY START TO COURT

Donald Trump began his remarks to reporters outside the courtroom by noting that Judge Juan M. Merchan had decided to start Monday’s proceedings early.

The former president then read out quotes from pundits who have criticized the case, as he often does, and hit on other familiar talking points, including critiquing the judge and the temperature of the courtroom.

Trump did not respond to questions about whether his lawyers have advised him not to testify or whether he’s afraid of doing so.

TRUMP IS EXPECTING A SIZABLE GROUP OF FRIENDS AND ATTORNEYS TO JOIN HIM IN COURT

Donald Trump plans to be joined at court by retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and Will Scharf, both of whom have served as his lawyers.

There’s also Kash Patel, a top ally who also served in Trump’s administration, and Bernie Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who worked for Rudy Giuliani around efforts to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE PROVED FOR A TRUMP CONVICTION?

To convict Donald Trump of felony falsifying business records, prosecutors must convince jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that he not only falsified or caused business records to be entered falsely, but that he did so with intent to commit or conceal another crime. Any verdict must be unanimous.

Prosecutors allege that Trump logged fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen’s repayment as legal expenses to conceal multiple other crimes, including breaches of campaign finance law and a violation of a state election law alleging a conspiracy to promote or prevent an election.

LAST WEEK, COHEN WAS PRESSED ON HIS CRIMES AND LIES IN CROSS-EXAMINATION

Last week, Donald Trump’s lawyers accused the star prosecution witness in his hush money trial of lying to jurors, portraying Trump fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen as a serial fabulist who is bent on seeing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee behind bars.

As Trump looked on, defense attorney Todd Blanche pressed Cohen for hours with questions that focused as much on his misdeeds as on the case’s specific allegations and tried to sow doubt in jurors’ minds about Cohen’s crucial testimony implicating the former president.

Whether the defense is successful in undermining Cohen’s testimony could determine Trump’s fate in the case. Over the course of the trial’s fourth week of testimony, Cohen described for jurors meetings and conversations he said he had with Trump about the alleged scheme to stifle stories about sex that threatened to torpedo Trump’s 2016 campaign.

A QUESTION OF FURTHER WITNESSES

As witness testimony in Donald Trump’s hush money trial resumes on Monday, it remains unclear whether the defense will call its own witnesses.

Legal arguments were ongoing last Thursday about the parameters of potential testimony from a campaign finance law expert that Trump’s lawyers want to call to the stand.

The witness in question is Bradley A. Smith, a former Bill Clinton-appointed Republican Federal Election Commission member. Defense lawyers want to call him to refute the prosecution’s contention that the hush money payments at issue in the trial amounted to campaign finance violations.

Prosecutors have said they have their own campaign finance expert teed up if the defense ends up calling their expert to the stand.

Judge Juan M. Merchan said he would take some time over the weekend to “digest both sets of submission further,” but suggested that Smith’s testimony would be limited to very general background.

Defense lawyers have not said yet whether Trump will testify in his own defense.

COURT SET TO RESUME, BUT ANOTHER LONG WEEKEND IS IN SIGHT

Donald Trump’s hush money trial resumes on Monday following a recess on Friday to allow the former president to attend the high school graduation of his youngest son, Barron.

The long weekend is not the only scheduling break in the trial.

The trial will also not be held for four days over the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

Judge Juan Merchan had previously told jurors that because of scheduling, it might be necessary to hold court on Wednesday — typically a day off for the trial — so Merchan can attend to other matters. Merchan backed off that guidance after some jurors indicated they couldn’t attend that day.

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