Michael Cohen to Testify at Grand Jury as Likely Trump Indictment Looms

Michael D. Cohen, the former fixer who for years did Donald J. Trump’s dirty work, is expected to testify before a Manhattan grand jury next week, a sign that prosecutors are poised to indict the former president for his role in paying hush money to a porn star, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office has already questioned at least seven other people before the grand jury hearing evidence about the hush money deal, according to several other people with knowledge of the inquiry, potentially making Mr. Cohen the last witness.

Once he has testified, nearly every crucial player in the hush money matter will have appeared before the grand jury — with the exception of the porn star herself, Stormy Daniels, who may not be called to testify.

It would be highly unusual for a prosecutor in a high-profile white-collar case to go through a weekslong presentation of evidence — and question nearly every relevant witness — without intending to seek an indictment.

Mr. Cohen’s testimony is the second strong indication that the district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, will ask the grand jury to indict the former president, possibly as soon as this month. The first came when Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors informed Mr. Trump’s lawyers that if he wanted to testify before the grand jury, he could do so next week, people with knowledge of the matter said. Such offers almost always indicate an indictment is close.

In New York, potential defendants have the right to answer questions in the grand jury shortly before they are indicted, but they rarely testify, and Mr. Trump is likely to decline the offer.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office declined to comment. Reached for comment, Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny J. Davis, said that “I’m only allowed to say that we’re cooperating with the investigation.” He added, “We appreciate the professionalism of Mr. Bragg’s team.”

Mr. Bragg’s investigation concerns a $130,000 payment that Mr. Cohen made in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign to Ms. Daniels, who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump. After taking office, Mr. Trump reimbursed Mr. Cohen, who has long said that he was acting on his boss’s orders to silence Ms. Daniels.

The prosecutors have zeroed in on whether Mr. Trump and his company falsified internal records to hide the reimbursement to Mr. Cohen — and Ms. Daniels’s story — from the voting public.

Mr. Trump has consistently derided the investigation as a partisan “witch hunt” engineered by his political enemies and has called Mr. Bragg, a Democrat who is Black, “racist.”

On Thursday, in a lengthy, unrestrained statement on Truth Social, Mr. Trump denied having an affair with Ms. Daniels and insulted her appearance while painting the investigation as part of a conspiracy to keep him from returning to the White House. He and his followers, he wrote, are “victims of this corrupt, depraved, and weaponized justice system.”

Any case charging a former president would be unprecedented and, with Mr. Trump running for a third time, could roil the 2024 presidential primary campaign in ways that are hard to predict. Already, Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors have come closer to indicting Mr. Trump than any of the others who have pursued him over the years.

Yet an indictment is not assured. Mr. Bragg could delay or opt against seeking charges, and Mr. Cohen’s testimony could influence that decision.

Even if Mr. Trump is indicted, convicting him or sending him to prison is no sure bet, and bringing charges would represent a significant gamble for Mr. Bragg. The case against the former president hinges on a risky legal theory involving two different bodies of law, and if Mr. Trump were ultimately convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of four years, though prison time would not be mandatory.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers will also undoubtedly take aim at the prosecution’s star witness, Mr. Cohen, who in 2018 pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the hush money as well as accusations that he lied to Congress about a potential Trump hotel deal in Moscow. The defense lawyers could use his guilty pleas as ammunition to attack his credibility as a witness and argue that he has an ax to grind against Mr. Trump.

But prosecutors might counter that Mr. Cohen was convicted of lying on behalf of Mr. Trump and that he is best positioned to explain the former president’s involvement in the hush money saga to jurors. Mr. Cohen’s testimony could illuminate that sequence of events, providing prosecutors the firsthand account they would need to make a case against Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen has also provided documents to prosecutors, the people familiar with the matter said.

An appearance on the stand would not be his first test in a high-pressure setting: In February 2019, Mr. Cohen testified for hours in a public hearing held by the House Oversight Committee, brushing back repeated attacks from Mr. Trump’s Republican allies as he described how Mr. Trump makes his desires known.

“He speaks in a code,” Mr. Cohen said during the hearing. “And I understand the code because I’ve been around him for a decade.”

Mr. Cohen’s payout to Ms. Daniels came in October 2016, after Ms. Daniels’s representatives contacted the National Enquirer to offer exclusive rights to her story about an affair with Mr. Trump. David Pecker and Dylan Howard, two of the tabloid’s leaders, helped broker a deal between Mr. Cohen and Ms. Daniels’s lawyer, Keith Davidson.

The day before Mr. Cohen wired the $130,000, he spoke by phone twice with Mr. Trump, according to records in the federal case. They spoke again the day after the payment.

Mr. Trump repaid him in monthly installments over the course of the following year. While president, he personally signed several of the checks.

In Mr. Cohen’s federal case, prosecutors said that Mr. Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, “falsely accounted” for the reimbursement payments as legal expenses and that company records cited a phony retainer agreement with Mr. Cohen. Mr. Cohen was a lawyer, but there was no such retainer agreement and the reimbursement was unrelated to any legal services.

When Mr. Cohen was asked during congressional testimony why Mr. Trump’s company spread out the reimbursements over many months, he explained, “That was in order to hide what the payment was,” adding that it was done “so that it would look like a retainer.” Asked whether Mr. Trump knew, Mr. Cohen replied, “Oh, he knew about everything, yes.”

Now, those false reimbursement records are at the heart of the potential criminal case against Mr. Trump.

In New York, it can be a crime to falsify business records, but it amounts to a misdemeanor. To elevate it to a felony, prosecutors would need show that Mr. Trump’s “intent to defraud” included an intent to commit or conceal a second crime.

Alvin L. Bragg, who was criticized for calling off an earlier grand jury presentation, would be the first American prosecutor to indict a former president.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

In this case, that second crime could be a violation of election law. Like the federal prosecutors who charged Mr. Cohen, Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors will likely argue that the payment to Ms. Daniels was an illegal contribution to Mr. Trump’s campaign, given that the money silenced the porn star and, thus, benefited his candidacy.

Combining the false records charge with the election violation would constitute a novel legal theory, raising the possibility that a judge or appellate court could throw out the case.

Mr. Cohen for years has pointed the finger at Mr. Trump, saying that his boss directed him to pay Ms. Daniels, an accusation that was supported by federal prosecutors in the case against Mr. Cohen.

But Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors may have to rely on Mr. Cohen in linking Mr. Trump to the false reimbursement records. Mr. Cohen wrote in his memoir that he worked out the monthly repayment plan after the election with Mr. Trump and the Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen H. Weisselberg.

Mr. Weisselberg is not expected to testify before the grand jury; he is serving a sentence in the Rikers Island jail complex after pleading guilty to unrelated tax fraud charges in a case that also led to the Trump Organization’s conviction last year.

Since Mr. Bragg impaneled the grand jury in January, it has heard testimony from Mr. Pecker, Mr. Howard and Mr. Davidson. The jurors have also heard testimony from two employees of the Trump Organization, as well as Kellyanne Conway, who managed the final months of Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign.

This is not the first Manhattan grand jury to hear evidence about Mr. Trump. Before leaving office at the end of 2021, Mr. Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., had directed prosecutors to begin presenting evidence to an earlier grand jury. But after taking office last year, Mr. Bragg and some of his prosecutors grew concerned about the strength of that case, which was focused on the former president’s business practices. He halted the presentation, prompting two senior prosecutors leading the investigation to resign.

That portion of the investigation is continuing, people with knowledge of the matter said.

But over the past several months, Mr. Bragg has focused on the hush money, the initial impetus for the investigation when it opened in 2018.

Mr. Cohen has faithfully tracked his meetings with the district attorney’s office over the years, and on Tuesday noted that he had met with prosecutors to discuss Mr. Trump 19 times to date.

“He needs to be held accountable if in fact there’s something that he did wrong,” Mr. Cohen said outside the district attorney’s office on one of his final visits.

Kate Christobek and Sean Piccoli contributed reporting.