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Jury in Trump trial gets inside look into payments to Michael Cohen

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Trump held in contempt, could face jail time with repeated violations 01:41

Jurors in former President Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York heard testimony Monday about how the business records at the center of the case were crafted, with attorneys questioning two Trump Organization employees about their involvement in payments to Michael Cohen.

Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsification of business records and has pleaded not guilty. Each of those counts corresponds to a record that stemmed from a series of monthly payments to Cohen in 2017.

Prosecutors say the funds — $35,000 a month — were meant to reimburse Cohen for the $130,000 he paid adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election, plus a bonus and enough money to cover taxes. In exchange, Daniels agreed to remain quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump from years earlier, which he denies. 

Two witnesses involved in the payments to Cohen told jurors on Monday about how they were handled internally. Jeffrey McConney, the longtime controller for the Trump Organization, recalled how the chief financial officer of the company directed him to pay Cohen in monthly installments, beginning in February 2017. 

At first, the checks were issued from a trust that was set up to manage Trump's assets while he was in office. They eventually came from Trump's personal account, a change that meant his signature was required.

Deborah Tarasoff, an accountant at the Trump Organization, told jurors about how she handled invoices from Cohen and got the checks signed. "We would send them to the White House for him to sign," Tarasoff said, referring to Trump. The payments were documented in ledger entries.

Earlier in the day, Judge Juan Merchan held Trump in contempt of court for violating his gag order in the case for the 10th time. Merchan fined Trump $1,000 and warned that he could face jail time for future infractions.

Here's how the day in court unfolded, as it happened:


Judge finds Trump in contempt for 10th time, warns of jail for more gag order violations

Judge Juan Merchan addresses the court during former President Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York on Monday, May 6, 2024.
Judge Juan Merchan addresses the court during former President Donald Trump's criminal trial in New York on Monday, May 6, 2024. Jane Rosenberg

Addressing the court, Judge Juan Merchan said he was finding Trump in contempt of court for the 10th time, and imposing another $1,000 fine, for violating the gag order limiting what Trump can say about those involved in the case. The judge warned that the penalty would be harsher if Trump continues to violate the order.

"It appears that the $1,000 fines are not serving as a deterrent, therefore, going forward, this court will have to consider a jail sanction if it is recommended," Merchan said.

In his written order, Merchan said Trump violated the order in an interview he gave on April 22. "That jury was picked so fast — 95% Democrats. The area's mostly all Democrat," Trump said on Real America's Voice. "It's a very unfair situation, that I can tell you."

Trump, Merchan wrote, "not only called into question the integrity, and therefore the legitimacy of these proceedings, but again raised the specter of fear for the safety of the jurors and of their loved ones."

Merchan said three other instances raised by prosecutors, including two about Cohen, didn't violate the order.

"Mr. Trump, the last thing I want to do is put you in jail. You are a former president of the United States and possibly the next one as well," Merchan said on the bench, acknowledging that "to take that step would be disruptive to the proceedings." 

He said he worries about court officers and Secret Service agents tasked with protecting the former president.

"I worry about them, and about what would go into executing such a sanction," Merchan said. "The magnitude of such a decision is not lost on me."

"At the end of the day I have a job to do, and part of that job is protecting the dignity of" the proceedings and the criminal justice system, Merchan said, adding that the gag order violations "constitute a direct attack on the rule of law. I cannot allow that to continue."

By Graham Kates

Former Trump Organization controller Jeffrey McConney called to the stand

A man who for decades served as one of the Trump Organization's top executives was called to testify Monday.

Jeffrey McConney, the company's retired controller, is no stranger to the stand. He testified at the Trump Organization's 2022 criminal trial, where the company was found guilty of 17 felony counts related to tax fraud. He was both a defendant and a witness called by New York Attorney General Letitia James in the company's civil fraud trial, in which Trump and others were found liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.

McConney is expected to testify about the mechanics of payments and financial decisions at the company. Prosecutors have indicated he instructed an employee to log payments to Cohen as payments for ongoing legal services, as opposed to reimbursements for Cohen's wire to Daniels.

By Graham Kates

Trump in court with a larger-than-normal entourage

An unusually large group of aides and lawyers is accompanying Trump in court today.  

Eric Trump is here for the second time since proceedings began. He's sitting next to Alina Habba, who previously represented the first witness of the day, Jeffrey McConney, in the civil fraud matter. She has not typically attended this trial.

Alan Garten, the Trump Organization's chief legal officer, is also here.

Trump aides Boris Epshteyn and Jason Miller are in court, as well. That's not unusual.

One person not in attendance: Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who often forgoes attendance at these proceedings while doing the work of running one of the country's largest prosecutor's offices.

By Graham Kates

"Wire monthly from DJT": McConney describes instructions to reimburse Cohen

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo questions Jeffrey McConney during former President Donald Trump's criminal trial on Monday, May 6, 2024.
Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo questions Jeffrey McConney during former President Donald Trump's criminal trial on Monday, May 6, 2024. Jane Rosenberg

As much as this trial is about salacious headlines and tabloid drama, it's also about accounting.

McConney explained how Cohen's $130,000 wire to Daniels' attorney in October 2016 led to a series of 12 monthly payments to Cohen of $35,000, for a total of $420,000.

McConney recounted a conversation with former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg in January 2017, around the time that Trump assumed the presidency.

McConney said Weisselberg walked in with a notepad and said he needed to discuss payments to be made to Cohen.

"He kind of threw the pad at me and said, 'Take this down,'" McConney said, adding that he was also given a copy of a Cohen bank statement showing his $130,000 wire to Daniels' lawyer. Jurors were shown McConney's notes from that day, which appeared beneath "Trump" letterhead.

The notes showed a series of scrawled math, with a base pay of $180,000 — for the Daniels wire, plus $50,000 he had paid to a technology services firm — doubled to $360,000.

McConney said the doubling was a practice called "grossing up," in which the company increased certain payments to executives to offset a potential 50% tax rate.

Added to the $360,000 was a $60,000 bonus, which McConney mistakenly listed as $50,000 before correcting the total. McConney said Cohen had complained about having not received a large enough bonus at the end of 2016, and this was meant to remedy that.

The notes included calculations, mirrored by those written by Weisselberg on Cohen's statements: $420,000 divided by 12 equals monthly payments of $35,000.

Handwritten notes from Jeffrey McConney showing the math behind payments to Michael Cohen, as shown at former President Donald Trump's trial in New York on Monday, May 6, 2024.
Handwritten notes from Jeffrey McConney showing the math behind payments to Michael Cohen, as shown at former President Donald Trump's trial in New York on Monday, May 6, 2024. Manhattan District Attorney's Office

Finally, near the bottom, McConney wrote a note he said meant that the payments were supposed to come from Trump's personal bank account: "Wire monthly from DJT."

Despite that instruction, the first few checks were sent from a trust set up to hold Trump's assets while he was in office. Its trustees were Weisselberg and Trump's two adult sons.

But in late March of that year, they made the decision to have payments going forward come straight from Trump's personal account. That meant the only person who could sign for them was the president of the United States, McConney said.

"At some point we had to start getting the checks to the White House for President Trump to sign," McConney said. "It was a whole new process for us."

By Graham Kates

Prosecution concludes direct examination of McConney

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo finished his direct examination of McConney by going through Trump's 2018 Office of Government Ethics filing. 

It includes a note that Trump paid Cohen in 2017, for services rendered in 2016. The form listed the amount as between $100,000 and $250,000, far below the $420,000 Cohen received in 2017.

By Graham Kates

Trump attorney argues payments to Cohen were for legal services

On cross-examination, Trump attorney Emil Bove portrayed the documentation of payments to Cohen as for genuine ongoing legal services — as opposed to reimbursements for his payment to Stormy Daniels.

He noted that Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization CFO, never specifically said what the payments were for, or what he meant when he told McConney to "gross up" the payment.

The invoices and ledger entries reflect that the payments were made under a "retainer agreement." Prosecutors have said no such agreement existed.

"Retainer agreements can be verbal, right?" Bove asked. McConney agreed.

Prosecutor Matthew Colanegelo asked whether, after leaving the Trump Organization, McConney learned "that there were matters Mr. Weisselberg kept you in the dark about."

"Yes," McConney said.

By Graham Kates

Prosecutors call Deborah Tarasoff, Trump Organization employee who prepared checks for Cohen

Prosecutor Christopher Conroy questions Deborah Tarasoff during the trial of former President Donald Trump on Monday, May 6, 2024.
Prosecutor Christopher Conroy questions Deborah Tarasoff during the trial of former President Donald Trump on Monday, May 6, 2024.  Jane Rosenberg

After a break for lunch, prosecutors introduced their next witness: Deborah Tarasoff, an accounts payable supervisor at the Trump Organization.

Emails show McConney forwarded Cohen's first invoice to Tarasoff in February 2017 and instructed her: "Please pay from the Trust. Post to legal expenses. Put 'retainer for the months of January and February 2017' in the description."

Prosecutors have said McConney did this with all of Cohen's invoices, and Tarasoff recorded each as a legal expense. She then prepared the checks that were used to pay Cohen.

By Graham Kates

Jury shown checks to Cohen signed by Trump and his sons

Tarasoff, who said she began working for the Trump Organization in 2000, described how invoices are handled at the company and her role in the process.

"I get approved bills. I enter them into the system, and I cut the checks. And mail them out," she said, noting that she does not have decision-making authority over what invoices get approved and generally follows others' instructions. 

Tarasoff said that various Trump Organization executives first approve invoices, depending on the amount. She said that beginning in 2015, Allen Weisselberg, the CFO, could only sign off on invoices below $10,000. If the invoice was approved, Tarasoff would then cut the check, along with a backup copy, and bring it to the appropriate executive for their signature. 

Only Trump could sign checks drawing upon his personal account. She said that is still the case today. Tarasoff also said Trump would sometimes decline to sign, sending the check back to her with "Void" written in black Sharpie along the back.

Beginning in February 2017, Cohen sent invoices seeking his $35,000 monthly payments. Cohen's first two checks, representing three monthly payments, came from the account for Trump's trust, which did not require his signature. The first was signed by Eric Trump and Allen Weisselberg, both of whom were trustees. Weisselberg and Donald Trump Jr., also a trustee, signed the second check.

The remaining nine monthly payments came from Trump's personal account. Those checks required Trump's signature.

"We would send them to the White House for him to sign," Tarasoff said, adding they were shipped via FedEx. 

The jury was shown checks to Cohen signed by Trump while he was president, as well as the checks signed by his sons on behalf of Trump's trust. Trump's signature was written in his trademark Sharpie.

By Stefan Becket
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