A civil fraud trial stemming from a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Donald Trump entered its fourth week with an appearance from one of his own former longtime attorneys, now a star witness against him in a case that could see his business empire in New York collapse.
It has been five years since Mr Trump’s one-time “fixer” Michael Cohen has been in the same room with Mr Trump. On 24 October, he was called to the witness stand to testify against him inside a courtroom in lower Manhattan just several feet away from the former president.
Judge Arthur Engoron has already determined that a trial isn’t necessary to prove Attorney General Letitia James’s allegations that Mr Trump, his adult sons and chief business associates fraudulently inflated his net worth and assets over a decade to obtain favourable financial benefits.
He determined that a court-appointed monitor would oversee the dissolution of his businesses in the state, though a state appeals court has blocked that decision for now.
Cohen – who was imprisoned after pleading guilty in 2018 to tax and campaign finance violations and lying to Congress – also was involved with the alleged hush-money payments at the centre of a separate criminal case in New York charging Mr Trump with falsifying business records to snuff out compromising stories of his affairs in the leadup to the 2016 election.
“He’s a felon, served a lot of time for lying, and we’re just going to go in and see and I think you’ll see that for yourself,” Mr Trump told reporters moments before he entered the courtroom during one of his impromptu press conferences steps away from the door.
Cohen’s bombshell testimony to Congress in 2019 outlined Mr Trump’s allegedly fraudulent business practices, building on years of allegations of fraud, and prompted several criminal and civil investigations – including Ms James’s blockbuster $250m lawsuit.
In the years following their fallout, Cohen went to jail, Mr Trump ran for re-election, lost, and was criminally indicted four times in four separate jurisdictions, with a mountain of litigation threatening not only his business but his 2024 campaign for the Republican nomination for president.
Cohen reunited with his former client inside a courtroom packed with reporters, New York state courts officers and Secret Service members.
The former president, hunched forward or crossing his arms at the defence table and frequently whispering to his attorneys seated on either side of him, stared at the evidence in front of him and on screens on either side of the courtroom. He sat upright and crossed his arms as he stared at Cohen when he appeared on the witness stand shortly after 12.15pm.
“This is not about Donald Trump v Michael Cohen, or Michael Cohen v Donald Trump,” Cohen told reporters from the steps of the courthouse as he arrived on Tuesday morning. “This is about accountability, plain and simple.”
Earlier this month, the former president dropped his own $500m lawsuit against his former attorney accusing him of causing “vast reputation harm” for speaking about the hush-money payments.
Mr Trump’s return to court marks his first appearance at the trial since he was hit with a $5,000 fine for violating the judge’s gag order that prohibits any party in the case from disparaging court staff.
The former president has repeatedly lashed out at Ms James and Judge Engoron, and he posted false claims about the judge’s chief clerk on his Truth Social, which drew the gag order in the first place. A version of the post remained on his website, prompting the judge to hit him with a fine and a warning that he could face severe consequences if he breaches the order again.