WASHINGTON — President Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, escalated his dispute with the president Tuesday by releasing a secret recording of a conversation in which Trump appears to have knowledge about hush money payments to a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Trump.
The recording, which was broadcast by CNN, is sometimes muddled but provides details on payments to the former model, Karen McDougal. However, it does not definitively answer the question about whether Trump directed Cohen to make the payments in cash or by check just two months before the 2016 presidential election.
Cohen is heard telling Trump that he will need to set up a company to arrange the payments.
Trump then asked, “What financing?”
“We’ll have to pay,” Cohen said.
Trump then appears to say, “Pay with cash.”
Cohen then says, “No, no.”
The word “check” is uttered, but it is not clear by whom, and the audio is then cut off.
Lanny Davis, a lawyer for Cohen and a longtime supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, told The New York Times on Tuesday night that Cohen released the tape because he is “on a new path — it’s a reset button to tell the truth and to let the chips fall where they may.”
McDougal was paid $150,000 by The National Enquirer for her story in summer 2016. The tabloid, which has often given Trump favorable coverage, then did not publish the story. According to people close to Cohen and Trump, the two men were discussing on the tape a second payment to The Enquirer that would continue to keep McDougal from speaking publicly about Trump.
On the recording, Trump shows some familiarity with a deal between McDougal and American Media Inc., the publisher of The Enquirer, and does not act as if he is only learning about it then. When The New York Times reported on the existence of the payment Friday, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said the tape would prove “exculpatory,” indicating that the conversation was the first time that Trump had heard about the deal McDougal struck with AMI.
On the tape, Cohen raises the possibility of creating a separate company to buy the rights to McDougal’s story from AMI.
“I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David,” Cohen is heard saying. David Pecker is the chairman of AMI, who has acknowledged being “personal friends” with Cohen and Trump.
Cohen, who had been considered one of Trump’s most loyal personal aides and the keeper of many of his secrets, is under investigation by federal authorities in New York. Investigators are examining Cohen’s role in making payments during the campaign to women who claimed they had sex with Trump and whether campaign finance laws were violated.
American Media, which has also drawn scrutiny from prosecutors over whether it ultimately engaged in an illegal coordinated campaign contribution with Cohen, did not respond to an email Tuesday night asking whether it had discussed selling the rights to McDougal’s story to Trump.
In the fall, Cohen had set up a limited liability company in Delaware — Essential Consultants — to hide the deal he struck to silence pornographic film actress Stephanie Clifford about the affair she claims to have had with Trump around the same time of McDougal’s alleged relationship.
As they discuss McDougal and AMI, Trump and Cohen appear to be concerned that in leaving the rights to McDougal’s story in AMI’s hands, they are ceding an uncomfortable level of control in trusting a tabloid publisher, even such a friendly one, with such a delicate story.
Cohen is heard saying, “You never know where that company — you never know where he’s gonna be,” to which Trump is heard raising the fear that “he gets hit by a truck.”
On the recording, Cohen can also be heard describing efforts by The New York Times to unseal Trump’s divorce records from his first marriage, to Ivana Trump. Cohen is heard telling Trump that they will fight the efforts. Trump ultimately prevailed, and the records remained sealed.
Despite the fact that the tape is not clear, Trump’s lawyers and Cohen’s representatives have made completely different claims about what the recording demonstrates.
After the Times’ report on Friday, Giuliani said that the president could be heard saying that the payment should be made with a check rather than cash so it could be properly documented. The audio is not that conclusive, but nor is it as clear as Cohen’s representatives claim. They say it shows that Trump directed it be paid in cash.
“Everybody heard just now Donald Trump say the word ‘cash’ after Michael Cohen mentioned financing,” Davis said on CNN after it broadcast the tape Tuesday. “Whatever spin Mr. Giuliani is trying to invent, it says cash.”
Giuliani has acknowledged that the situation Trump and Cohen are primarily discussing on the tape is AMI’s $150,000 payment to McDougal.
In April, federal agents raided Cohen’s home and residences. The search deeply unnerved the president, who has since increased his attacks on the Justice Department; the office of the special counsel, Robert Mueller; and Cohen, who, in turn, has told associates he is willing to cooperate with the authorities. During the raid, federal agents obtained the recording, along with business records, emails and documents.
Trump, who has lately been wary of Cohen’s willingness to cooperate with federal investigators, said Saturday morning that Cohen’s recording was “perhaps illegal.”
“Inconceivable that the government would break into a lawyer’s office (early in the morning) — almost unheard of,” he wrote on Twitter. “Even more inconceivable that a lawyer would tape a client — totally unheard of.”
To hear the audio aired by CNN, click here.