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Michael Cohen, former Trump lawyer and fixer, reacts to the indictment of Trump

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

By now, you will have heard that in Manhattan, New York City, a grand jury has voted to indict former President Donald Trump on criminal charges. The exact charges remain sealed, but we do know the story behind them.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

In the weeks before the 2016 election, Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen, paid the pornographic film actor Stormy Daniels $130,000 to remain silent about her alleged affair with Trump. After he became president, Trump personally paid Cohen back and falsely recorded those payments as legal fees.

SUMMERS: Since 2018, Michael Cohen has been estranged from Trump. When he faced federal campaign finance charges related to this and other episodes, Cohen started cooperating with prosecutors, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison. His latest book is "Revenge: How Donald Trump Weaponized The US Department Of Justice Against His Critics." Cohen is now a key witness for the Manhattan grand jury, the one which just indicted Trump yesterday. Michael Cohen joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHAEL COHEN: Thank you, Juana. How are you?

SUMMERS: I'm well. I'd like to just start our conversation by asking you for your first reaction to the news of this indictment.

COHEN: Well, the first - obvious - is that it's the first time in our country's history that a president, current or former, here in the United States has been indicted. And the very first reaction was that I do not take pride in making that statement. Now, I also want to remind the listener that everyone is presumed innocent, including Donald Trump, as provided by the due process clause. However, the important thing that I want people to understand is that we - let me rephrase that - that the district attorney here in New York is certainly validating the adage that no one is above the law, not even a former president.

SUMMERS: OK. And, I mean, we all know that grand jury proceedings are secret, but I would presume that you know a good deal about the evidence that's been presented there. Is there anything that you can tell us about the case that the Manhattan district attorney has against the former president?

COHEN: So the answer is, unfortunately, I can't, Juana. You know, I do truly respect this group that I have had a chance to spend quite a bit of time with, and at the end of the day, they want the same thing that I believe all Americans want, and that's accountability. Now, one of the things that Donald is going to do - as opposed to speaking about the things that I was questioned and the different topics by the grand jury, but one of the things that Donald is going to do is he's going to try to muck up the water for this investigation. He's going to attack everyone. And we're already beginning to see that. Myself, he's attacked. You have DA Alvin Brigg, DA Fani Willis. He's attacked...

SUMMERS: That's the prosecutor in Georgia that you're mentioning there.

COHEN: Yes, that's the prosecutor in Fulton County, Ga. He attacked Jack Smith. He attacked...

SUMMERS: Special counsel.

COHEN: ...The judge. He's attacked the judge that's now been assigned this case here in New York.

SUMMERS: OK, and let's talk about that a bit. I mean, the president, as you point out, his lawyers - the former president and his lawyers are likely to attack your credibility, your reliability as a witness. So I want to ask you, though, are you prepared to be cross-examined in a potential trial of former President Donald Trump?

COHEN: Absolutely. I have - for the past five years, I have consistently stated the same things. And one of the things that most people are completely unaware of - and it's very upsetting because I've been yelling it from the rooftops for over five years now. Yes, I pled guilty to what's called the thousand-and-one violation. That's lying to Congress. I did. I lied to Congress. But when people stop at that sentence, it's unfair.

SUMMERS: How so?

COHEN: I lied to Congress at the direction of, in coordination with and for the benefit of Donald J. Trump. And more importantly, let me just reinforce to you what the lie was. The lie I told Congress was the number of times that I stated that I spoke to Donald Trump about the failed Trump Tower Moscow real estate project in - during that time period.

SUMMERS: And, Mr. Cohen, if I could just...

COHEN: What was it? I stated three times when the true answer was 10. That's the big lie. So anybody who thinks that that's going to stop my credibility, I think they don't understand the process.

SUMMERS: You have just said yourself that you were convicted of lying to Congress, and you've laid out the statements that you've made there. I just want to ask why, then, should people believe you now?

COHEN: Well, because there's nothing that I have said five years ago versus today that has changed. I continuously state the same things. I want people to also understand that I had 48 hours within which to make a determination to plead guilty. That's a Friday from 5:30 p.m. I talk about this in the book "Revenge." From 5:30 p.m. was the first time I learned that they were going to be charges brought against me. And if I didn't come in and plead guilty on Monday, they were filing an 80-page indictment that was going to include my wife. And so that - knowing my Achilles heel, which is my wife and my children, I accepted the plea.

SUMMERS: OK. Former President Trump has responded by denying all wrongdoing. He's cast himself as the victim of political persecution. You have worked for the Trump Organization for former President Trump for many years. What do you expect that the former president is thinking now, today?

COHEN: Oh, I think he right now is extremely nervous. I think he's furious. And I've seen him in both situations where he's nervous and furious at the same time. He wants people to think that this is a nothingburger and that he's going to just skate through it. One thing he will do is he will campaign off of it, and he will try to raise donation dollars, as he's already done, to the point of $2.5 million. But he is not happy about this because this is the first time in his entire life...

SUMMERS: All right.

COHEN: ...That he's looking at accountability.

SUMMERS: And unfortunately...

COHEN: I mean, in all fairness, Alvin Bragg threw a 2,000-pound...

SUMMERS: Unfortunately, we're going - I'm so sorry. We have run out of time, and we're going to need to leave it there. Michael Cohen, former attorney for Donald Trump, now a potential star witness in the prosecution against him. Thank you.

COHEN: Be well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.