For years, Donald Trump entrusted Michael Cohen with some of his most personal secrets; only now is he beginning to confront how dangerous that practice may have been.
Since April, when federal agents searched Cohen’s office, home and hotel room, Trump “has been a bit nervous” that his longtime lawyer could become a legal liability, said a White House aide familiar with the president’s thinking.
But the president hasn’t believed that Cohen would betray him.
“Deep down, he never thought someone who’s always been so devoted to him would,” said the aide, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the subject on the record.
Friday’s disclosure that Cohen secretly recorded Trump, two months before the presidential election, discussing a payment to a former Playboy playmate who said she had an affair with him, and that federal prosecutors obtained the recording in their raids earlier this year, has changed the calculation.
The former playmate, Karen McDougal, received $150,000 from the publisher of the National Enquirer, which is run by a friend of Trump’s, David Pecker. Cohen remains under criminal investigation, although he has not been charged. Prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan have said he is the target of an investigation into “criminal conduct that largely centers on his personal business dealings.”
The existence of the recording, which was first reported by the New York Times, undermines Trump’s repeated attempts to distance himself from election-year hush money provided to multiple women, including McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels.
It also could increase Trump’s legal risks. If a payment was made with a political purpose — for example, to conceal embarrassing information shortly before the election — federal campaign finance law would have required that it be publicly disclosed. Failure to do so can be a criminal offense in some circumstances.
Such cases can be difficult to prosecute, however. John Edwards, for example, the former Democratic presidential candidate, was indicted in 2011 over payments to his mistress, Rielle Hunter. Prosecutors said he violated campaign finance laws by having friends funnel the money to Hunter to keep the story under wraps during the 2008 campaign. Edwards’ lawyers argued the payments were made by Edwards’ wealthy friends, not to influence the election, but primarily to hide the affair from his wife.
Edwards was acquitted on one charge, and the jury deadlocked on the rest.
The question raised by the Cohen recording is, “What did Donald Trump know and when did he know it?” said Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance expert at Common Cause, which has filed complaints with the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission. “Did Donald Trump knowingly violate campaign finance law, and did he commit a crime?”
Beyond the payment to McDougal, the recording is a reminder of the deep danger posed to Trump from the investigation into Cohen, who was tasked with tamping down negative publicity.
“We all knew there were going to be a lot of women cropping up with allegations and that it was Michael’s job to take care of it,” said an associate of Cohen’s, speaking on condition of anonymity.
After years of expressing unbreakable loyalty to Trump, Cohen has distanced himself from the president and signaled a willingness to cooperate with federal prosecutors. He also hired Lanny Davis, a lawyer and spokesman who once worked for Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Cohen told ABC News earlier this month.
Associates who have spoken to Cohen recently said he’s felt mistreated by Trump in the past and is “ready to unload.”
Attorneys for Cohen did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is representing Trump.
Cohen’s case is separate from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russian political interference, but there appears to be some overlap between the two.
A person who was interviewed by the special counsel’s office said prosecutors asked about Cohen’s recordings.
“They already know the answers when they’re asking you questions,” the person said. “And a lot of it is from Michael’s tapes.”
Because of Cohen’s work as a lawyer, a judge appointed a special master to conduct a review of the thousands of documents seized in the April raid to ensure that none subject to attorney-client privilege was turned over to prosecutors.
Davis tweeted, “Suffice it to say that when the recording is heard, it will not hurt” Cohen. He did not provide any details on what was discussed but added, “any attempt at spin can not change what is on the tape.”
A person familiar with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters, said that Trump’s lawyers believe the recording involving McDougal is the only tape seized by authorities that involves a substantive conversation with the president. Cohen may well have made recordings of conversations with other people, however, to which Trump’s lawyers may not be privy.
Michael Avenatti, the lawyer representing Daniels, told CNN that Friday’s revelation is “the tip of the iceberg.”
“This is going to spell a significant problem for Michael Cohen and a larger problem for the president,” he said.
Avenatti insisted that multiple recordings involving Cohen and Trump exist. “Michael Cohen will go down as one of the great evidence hoarders of all time,” he said.
Daniels received $130,000 from Cohen weeks before the election to keep quiet about claims she slept with Trump in 2006. Trump denied knowing about the money, but Giuliani later admitted that the president reimbursed Cohen for the payment.
McDougal also said she started her affair with Trump in 2006, shortly after Trump’s third and current wife, Melania, gave birth to their son, Barron.
In a March interview with CNN, McDougal said they met at a Playboy Mansion party and saw each other frequently over the next year.
“If he weren’t married, I wouldn’t have any regrets,” she said in the interview.
American Media Inc., which owns the National Enquirer, paid McDougal $150,000 for the exclusive rights to her story. But in a practice known as “catch and kill,” the company did not publish the story.
The payment was first revealed by the Wall Street Journal shortly before the election. At that point, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said, “We have no knowledge of any of this.”
McDougal since has filed a lawsuit over the episode, accusing her former attorney, Keith Davidson, of secretly working with Trump representatives to keep her quiet.
“Despite their claims, it has always been AMI’s intention to manipulate and silence Karen, and we look forward to freeing her from this bogus contract so she can move on with her life in peace,” McDougal’s attorney, Peter K. Stris, said earlier this year.