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Donald Trump takes witness stand in fraud trial as Michael Cohen’s testimony continues


NEW YORK — Michael Cohen returned to the witness stand Wednesday in his ex-boss Donald Trump’s civil business fraud trial as the former president’s defense team tried to undermine the credibility and question the motives of his onetime personal attorney turned adversary.

Outside the courtroom, Trump’s commentary led the judge to weigh whether Trump had violated a limited gag order imposed earlier in the case.

With Trump at the defense table, his lawyer Alina Habba confronted Cohen with comments he had made praising Trump, before turning on him when Cohen’s legal problems started in 2018.

Habba tried to suggest that Cohen had angled unsuccessfully for a job in Trump’s White House – Cohen insisted he never sought one – and asked whether he had “significant animosity” toward Trump.

“Do I have animosity toward him? Yes I do,” Cohen replied.

“You have made a career out of publicly attacking President Trump, haven’t you?” Habba asked.

After a long pause, Cohen said, “Yes.”

Cohen worked as Trump’s lawyer and fixer for many years, before Cohen’s 2018 federal prosecution, guilty pleas and prison sentence for tax evasion, making false statements on a bank loan application, lying to Congress and making illegal contributions to Trump’s campaign. The contributions were in the form of payouts to women who said they had extramarital sexual encounters with Trump, who said the women’s stories were false.

Cohen is now a key witness in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ civil case against Trump. James alleges that Trump habitually exaggerated the value of his real estate holdings on financial documents that helped him get loans and insurance and make deals.

Trump denies any wrongdoing and says James, a Democrat, is targeting the leading Republican presidential candidate in 2024 for partisan reasons.

During a break in the testimony Wednesday, Trump complained that Judge Arthur Engoron, a Democrat, is “a very partisan judge, with a person who’s very partisan sitting along side of him, perhaps even much more partisan than he is.”

That remark came weeks after a Trump social media post about Engoron’s law clerk, who sits beside the judge, prompted Engoron to issue the narrow gag order and tell Trump to take down the post. That order bars all participants in the case from commenting about any members of the judge’s staff.

The judge fined Trump $5,000 on Friday after learning that the post had lingered on Trump’s campaign website for weeks, though it had been removed from his Truth Social platform.

After learning of Trump’s latest comment, Engoron asked “why should there not be severe sanctions for this blatant, dangerous disobeyal of a clear court order.”

In response, defense lawyer Christopher Kise insisted that Trump was talking about Cohen, not the judge’s law clerk. Engoron said he would take the matter “under advisement,” and testimony resumed.

When the trial broke for lunch, the judge held a closed-door meeting that included Trump and his lawyers. When Trump emerged, he declined to disclose what was discussed, but told reporters that he had not violated the gag order, saying his earlier comment was not directed at Engoron’s clerk. Trump ignored questions about whom he was targeting.

During his first day of testimony Tuesday, Cohen said he and key executives at Trump’s company worked to inflate the estimated values of their employer’s holdings so documents given to banks and others would match a net worth that Trump had set “arbitrarily.”

In cross-examining Cohen, Habba emphasized his federal criminal convictions and worked to portray him as a liar, especially after he said Tuesday he had lied when he pleaded guilty to tax evasion and loan application lies. Cohen asserted that he did not really commit those crimes and he sought to portray his conduct as a matter of omissions and failure to correct paperwork.

Habba returned to those themes Wednesday, underscoring that Cohen had admitted in open court to lying under oath in a federal courthouse next door.

Outside court, Trump said the trial was “very unfair” and a “pure political witch hunt.” Nonetheless, he said, “We’re happy with the way it’s going.”

“We have the facts on our side,” Trump said. He’s expected to testify later in the trial but meanwhile has voluntarily attended several days of the proceedings.

Cohen is also expected to be an important prosecution witness in a criminal trial scheduled for next spring in which Trump is accused of falsifying business records. That case is one of four criminal prosecutions Trump faces in New York, Florida, Georgia and Washington.

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Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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