Investigators looking into payments arranged by President Donald Trump’s former attorney Michael D. Cohen may have stumbled upon a piece of explosive evidence. Apparently, Trump’s longtime attorney privately taped a conversation with the then-presidential candidate discussing payments to a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump.
Former playmate Karen McDougal has long maintained that she had a nearly year-long intimate relationship with Trump in 2006, and her attempts to go public with her story were rebuffed when the company she sold the news to refused to publish the damaging account. McDougal has since sued to regain the right to talk about the affair, and her story closely matches that of Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who alleges a similar affair and coverup.
Mr. Cohen has been described as a longtime fixer for Trump, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller extended the scope of his investigation into Russian meddling earlier this year by raiding the attorney’s legal office looking for evidence related to payments to McDougal and Daniels. Prosecutors are trying to ascertain if Trump violated campaign finance laws by arranging the hush agreements just before the 2016 presidential race.
Media pundits have consistently suggested that Cohen has been on the brink of “flipping” on the president and revealing some untold crime to the special counsel, especially after an interview earlier this month when the lawyer said that his family and country were his “first loyalty.” The New York Times suggested that the recording “highlights the potential legal and political danger that Mr. Cohen represents to Mr. Trump” as the “keeper of many of Mr. Trump’s secrets.”
However, Trump’s former counsel did not willingly offer up the recording to the special counsel in a desperate bid to preserve his innocence, as the mainstream reporting suggests. The taped conversation was seized in a raid of Cohen’s office earlier this year, and lawyers representing the former Trump attorney handed it over to the president’s counsel as soon as they became aware of it.
The recording is part of the 4,085 items that Cohen, Trump or the Trump Organization marked as attorney-client privilege following the raid on Cohen’s practice. However, Barbara Jones, the special master overseeing the review of this evidence, denied the designation for 1,452 of these items, and it is unclear if the recording is included among them.
Trump claimed on Saturday morning that he “did nothing wrong,” arguing that the recording was “totally unheard of & perhaps illegal.” While it is unclear where the recording took place, New York law allows the practice during private conversations where at least one party knows they are being recorded.
While a recording of Trump privately admitting to an affair that occurred more than a decade ago and the subsequent payoff to keep Ms. McDougal silent would represent an embarrassment to the president, this isn’t necessarily evidence of a crime, as many Democrats suggest. To prove any criminal wrongdoing, prosecutors would have to demonstrate that Trump arranged the payment purely to win the 2016 election, causing him to run afoul of campaign finance laws.
However, during the recording Mr. Cohen merely suggested that his client purchase the story from the National Enquirer, the tabloid which had purchased the rights to McDougal’s affair story a month earlier for $150,000. As it turned out, the CEO of the publishing company that owns the Enquirer elected not to publish the story as a personal favor to Trump, and the presidential candidate washed his hands of the controversy in September 2016.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who joined Trump’s legal team earlier this year, said that the tape actually serves to exonerate the president because he says there is no indication that he knew about the tabloid payment before it happened. “Nothing in that conversation suggests that [Trump] had any knowledge of it in advance,” Giuliani said. “In the big scheme of things, it’s powerful exculpatory evidence.”
Giuliani added that Trump even instructed his attorney to write a check rather than use cash if a payment were ever arranged, so that there was a record documenting the exchange. However, “a person close to Mr. Cohen” disputed this account.
Referring to the length of the recording, Giuliani said, “It can’t be more than a minute and a half,” adding that, “Twice someone walks in — someone brings soda in for them. It’s not some secret conversation.”
Trump was apparently concerned about breaking the law. “Neither one seems to be concerned anyone would hear it,” Giuliani said of the discussion. “It went off on irrelevant subjects that have nothing to do with this. It’s a very professional conversation between a client and a lawyer and the client saying, ‘Do it right.’”