Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen secretly recorded a discussion they had about payments to a former Playboy model who claims to have had an affair with the US President, according to a report in The New York Times on Friday. What’s more, the tape is now in the FBI’s hands, if the bombshell revelation is anything to go by.
The recording was seized during a raid on Cohen’s office in April this year, the newspaper said, quoting lawyers and others familiar with the matter. Cohen, who no longer represents Trump, is being investigated by the Justice Department over payments made to women to hush up embarrassing news stories about Trump ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Besides putting the spotlight on the tactics the US President and his associates used to keep facets of his life a secret, the report highlights the potential legal and political threat Cohen could pose to Trump. In a recent interview, Cohen apparently signalled a potential willingness to cooperate with prosecutors against the Republican president.
The President’s current personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, reportedly confirmed the veracity of the recording, saying Trump had discussed the payments with Cohen, but no payment was made and he had not been party to any wrongdoing.
“Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of it in advance,” Giuliani told the newspaper, adding that Trump told Cohen that if a payment were to be made to the woman, it should be through a cheque — not cash.
The conversation between Trump and Cohen came weeks after the National Enquirer's parent company reached a $150,000 deal to pay McDougal for her story of a 2006 affair, which it never published, a tabloid practice known as catch and kill. Trump denies the affair ever happened.
The company, American Media Inc., is run by Trump friend and supporter David Pecker.
The company's payment effectively silenced McDougal through the election, though days beforehand news of the deal emerged in The Wall Street Journal. At the time, a Trump spokeswoman said his campaign had "no knowledge of any of this."
But in the recorded conversation, Trump and Cohen appear to be discussing buying the rights to McDougal's story from the Enquirer's parent company, according to the person familiar with the investigation.
McDougal's lawyer and an American Media spokesman didn't immediately respond to messages seeking comment on Friday.
The recording, first reported by The New York Times, likely will revive questions about what other recordings of Trump's conversations might exist. As a businessman, Trump occasionally recorded his phone calls, a former Trump Organization executive told the AP last year, although Trump once denied doing so.
The FBI raided Cohen's office, home and hotel room in April, searching in part for information about payments to McDougal and porn actress Stormy Daniels, who received a $130,000 payment from Cohen before the election to keep quiet about a sexual relationship she says she had with Trump. Meanwhile, a government watchdog group has asked the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether American Media's payment to the former centerfold amounted to an unreported and illegal corporate campaign contribution.
The Cohen investigation, by federal prosecutors in New York, is separate from an ongoing inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Cohen hasn't been charged with any crime.
A self-described fixer for Trump for more than a decade, he said last year he would "take a bullet" for Trump. But he told an interviewer this month that he now puts "family and country first" and won't let anyone paint him as "a villain of this story." On Twitter, he scrubbed mentions and photos of Trump from a profile that previously identified him as "Personal attorney to President Donald J. Trump."
Cohen wouldn't say in the recent interview whether he would cooperate with prosecutors. If he decided to do so, it could be risky for the Republican president, given the pair's close relationship over the years.
(with inputs from Associated Press)