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Cohen returns to witness stand in Trump hush money trial

Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen has returned to the witness stand in the former US president’s hush money trial while it remained unclear whether Mr Trump himself would testify in his own defence.

Mr Cohen is the final and most important witness for New York prosecutors as they seek to convince a jury that Mr Trump broke the law by covering up a $130,000 payment that bought the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election.

After his testimony concludes, likely by noon, Mr Trump’s lawyers will have a chance to present evidence and witnesses of their own.

It was unclear whether Mr Trump would take the witness stand. Defence lawyers often opt not to call witnesses or present their own evidence when they believe prosecutors have failed to make their case.

Though he said before the trial began that he planned to testify, his lawyer Todd Blanche told the judge last week that it was no longer certain. Outside the courtroom today, Mr Trump did not tell reporters whether he would testify or not.

Donald Trump with attorney Todd Blanche arriving at Manhattan Criminal Court

At the outset of the session, Justice Juan Merchan said he expected the prosecution and the defence to both wrap up their presentations this week and make their closing arguments next week.

The first former president to face a criminal trial has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up the payment to Ms Daniels, who had threatened to go public with her account of an alleged 2006 sexual encounter – a liaison Mr Trump denies.

Outside the courtroom, Mr Trump, 77, has blasted the trial as a politically motivated effort to hobble his attempt to take back the White House from Democratic President Joe Biden in the 5 November election.

Inside the courtroom, Mr Trump has sat at the defendant’s table listening to Ms Daniels tell her account of their time together in lurid detail. Other witnesses, including Mr Cohen, have discussed efforts to bury unflattering stories at a time Mr Trump faced multiple accusations of sexual misbehavior.

Mr Trump’s lawyers said last week they did not think they would need much time unless Mr Trump opted to testify.

“That’s another decision that we need to think through,” Mr Blanche said on Thursday, the last day the trial convened.

If he chooses to testify, Mr Trump will have the opportunity to convince jurors that he was not responsible for the paperwork at the heart of the case, and rebut Ms Daniels’ detailed account of their meeting in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

He would not be restrained by a gag order that bars him in other settings from criticizing witnesses, jurors and relatives of the judge and prosecutors.

However, he would face cross-examination by prosecutors, who could try to expose inconsistencies in his story. Any lies told under oath could expose him to further criminal perjury charges.

Mr Trump could risk tarnishing his credibility or alienating the jury if he goes off on confusing tangents or loses his temper on the stand, said George Grasso, a retired New York judge.

Former US president Donald Trump sits in the courtroom during his hush money trial

“If he were to slip into campaign mode, he could play into the archetype of Donald Trump as a person who can’t control himself, as a person who’s loose with the truth,” Mr Grasso said. “He could tank his whole case with one outburst.”

Mr Trump last appeared as a witness in a civil business-fraud trial last year, delivering defiant and rambling testimony that aggravated Justice Arthur Engoron, who was overseeing the case. Mr Engoron would go on to order him to pay $355 million in penalties after finding he fraudulently overstated his net worth to dupe lenders.

Defendants in white-collar criminal cases typically do not testify in their own defence, but Mr Trump would not be the only one to do so. Cryptocurrency mogul Sam Bankman-Fried and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes are among recent high-profile defendants to take the stand. Both were convicted of defrauding investors and are now serving time in prison.

The hush money trial is widely seen as the least consequential of the four criminal prosecutions Mr Trump faces, but it is likely the only one to go to trial before the election.

Mr Trump faces charges in Washington and Georgia of trying to overturn his 2020 loss to Mr Biden and charges in Florida of mishandling classified documents after leaving the White House in 2021. He has pleaded not guilty in all three cases.

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