By Jack Queen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen took the witness stand on Tuesday to testify against the former president in a civil fraud case in Manhattan that threatens to break up Trump’s business empire.
Cohen has become one of Trump’s fiercest critics since cutting ties with him five years ago. He is now a key witness in a lawsuit brought by Democratic New York Attorney General Letitia James alleging Trump inflated the value of his properties by billions of dollars in statements to banks to secure better loan terms.
Colleen Faherty, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office, began her questioning by reviewing Cohen’s criminal history. Cohen in 2018 pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation and lying to Congress. Cohen has said he committed those crimes on Trump’s behalf.
Earlier on Tuesday, Trump and Cohen traded barbs in comments to reporters upon arriving at the New York State Supreme Courthouse.
“This is about accountability, plain and simple,” Cohen told reporters as he entered the courthouse, adding that it was up to the judge to make any determinations in the case.
Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, called Cohen a “liar” minutes later.
“He’s a proven liar, as you know, a felon,” Trump told reporters before entering the courtroom, referring to Cohen. “We did nothing wrong and that’s the truth.”
Cohen began a three-year prison sentence in 2019 but was released to home confinement the following year. He told Reuters on Monday that Trump calling him a liar amounted to “the pot calling the kettle black.”
Cohen’s testimony during a 2019 Congressional probe of Trump’s finances was the impetus for James’ lawsuit.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and defended the valuations of his properties, saying the case is a “fraud” and a political witch hunt.
He has occasionally appeared in court over the past month, complaining in inflammatory remarks to reporters that it is a distraction from his campaign.
He arrived on Monday fresh off a campaign stop in New Hampshire and just days after being fined $5,000 by Justice Arthur Engoron, the judge overseeing the case, for violating a gag order.
In September before the trial began, Engoron found that Trump fraudulently inflated his net worth and ordered the dissolution of companies that control crown jewels of his real estate portfolio, including Trump Tower in Manhattan. That ruling is on hold while Trump appeals.
The trial largely concerns damages. James is seeking at least $250 million in fines, a permanent ban against Trump and his sons Donald Jr and Eric from running businesses in New York and a five-year commercial real estate ban against Trump and the Trump Organization.
Early in the trial, Engoron barred the parties from speaking publicly about court staff after Trump shared a social media post attacking Engoron’s clerk and identifying her by name.
Trump deleted the post, but last week Engoron revealed that a screenshot had remained live on his campaign site for weeks.
Engoron, who said the lapse appeared to be “inadvertent,” fined Trump $5,000 and warned that future violations would bring “far more severe” sanctions including imprisonment.
(Reporting by Jack Queen; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Nick Zieminski and Lisa Shumaker)
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