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Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen testifies in New York fraud trial

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Once, Michael Cohen was the Trump Organization's executive vice president and Donald Trump's personal attorney, but the two men split after Cohen faced legal action for some of his Trump-related business dealings. Now, thanks to information from Cohen, Trump is in legal trouble of his own. And today, Cohen testified in a New York courtroom against his former boss. NPR's Andrea Bernstein was there. So Andrea, tell us - what was it like in court today?

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: So hey, Juana. So Trump and Cohen sat yards from each other in this civil trial, with $250 million at stake for Trump. So far, the evidence in the case has been lots and lots of documents, spreadsheets, testimony by bookkeepers - not the most exciting. Today was dramatically different. Michael Cohen was once so close to Trump, he said he would take a bullet for him. But Trump stopped paying Cohen's legal bills. And since then, Cohen's been taking aim right at the heart of what makes Trump Trump - his business model. What's so different about Michael Cohen's testimony and all the other witnesses is that Cohen wants to divulge Trump's secrets. Over and over again today, Cohen described the way he would, quote, "reverse-engineer" Trump's asset values to produce the numbers Trump wanted - not the actual values of the properties.

SUMMERS: Huh. Say more about that. How did Trump value his assets, according to Michael Cohen?

BERNSTEIN: So Cohen said he would typically get a call from Trump's assistant that Mr. Trump would like to see me. And then he'd go into Trump's office with Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer, and Trump would look at an asset sheet and say, according to Cohen, I'm not worth $4.5 billion. I'm worth more like six. Cohen said they would then change the numbers by, for example, plugging in the values of the most expensive apartments in New York City. Sometimes, Cohen said, they would just Google apartments to find higher values. Cohen said nothing was written down, quote, "only to the extent we change the numbers," and the changed numbers would be in red pen.

SUMMERS: Huh. I mean, Andrea, you have been all over this story, and it jumped out to me when you described today as dramatically different. So tell us - what was the atmosphere like in court today?

BERNSTEIN: So it was heated. It started with Trump's lawyers trying to call off court entirely because some members of the AG's team had tested positive for COVID last week. Trump's lawyer, Chris Kise, said continuing the trial was irresponsible, adding it was only continuing because, quote, "nothing else matters besides pursuing President Trump." The judge said the trial would go on. People could wear masks. But the former president and his lawyers all continued maskless, and the heated exchanges continued all afternoon through Cohen's cross-examination.

SUMMERS: Outside of the courtroom, former President Trump told reporters today that his team is not worried. He said that Michael Cohen is a liar. He's a convicted felon. Did that come up inside court?

BERNSTEIN: Oh, yes. The AG, Colleen Faherty, started her questioning by going over Cohen's 2018 guilty plea for tax evasion, lying to a bank and committing campaign finance crimes. That was about the hush-money payments. Cohen was also convicted of lying to Congress. So the AG wanted to get all that out of the way. But Trump attorney Alina Habba wanted to dwell on it in cross-examination. She homed in on the fact that Cohen has said, since his guilty plea, he did not commit tax evasion. So Habba said to Cohen, you lied to the judge when you pleaded guilty to tax evasion. And Cohen said today, yes, he had lied. Almost at the end of questioning, she said, you lied to the judge in your criminal case. I'm supposed to believe you're not going to lie to me now? You've lied under oath numerous times. Yes, he said. And that's kind of where the day ended.

SUMMERS: Andrea, in a sentence, what happens next?

BERNSTEIN: Cohen's cross-examination continues, and more lawyers, insurers and Trump employees will fill out the week.

SUMMERS: NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thank you.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrea Bernstein