The legal thicket around a hush-money payment to a porn star was tangled further Thursday after President Trump appeared to confirm that Michael Cohen was representing him when the lawyer paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels on the eve of the 2016 election.
Trump, who previously said he was unaware of Cohen’s payment, vigorously defended his longtime personal lawyer and fixer, shrugging off news that Cohen, who is under federal criminal investigation in New York, will plead the 5th Amendment to avoid testifying in a civil lawsuit with Daniels.
In a telephone interview on “Fox and Friends,” Trump said Cohen had handled a “tiny, tiny little fraction” of his legal work before he was elected president.
“He represents me — like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal he represented me,” Trump said. “And, you know, from what I see he did absolutely nothing wrong. There were no campaign funds going into this, which would have been a problem.”
But Trump tried to distance himself from his lawyer, saying prosecutors are “looking at something that has to do with his business. This doesn’t have to do with me.”
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan immediately pounced on the president’s remarks, putting them in a court filing to argue that Cohen’s office files, which the FBI seized in a series of court-approved raids on April 9, probably don’t contain a lot of privileged attorney-client information related to Trump.
U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood, who is hearing the New York case, settled a related dispute Thursday by naming a former federal judge to review Cohen’s files and decide which records are protected by attorney-client privilege — and which can be used by prosecutors to help build a potential criminal case against him.
After prosecutors on Thursday dropped their opposition, Wood appointed attorney Barbara S. Jones to be a special master in the case, as the position is known. Wood said she hoped the review would be speedy.
Jones served as a federal prosecutor in New York under former U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani, who joined Trump’s legal team last week. She is accustomed to high-profile cases; as an arbitrator in 2014, she overturned the NFL’s indefinite suspension of running back Ray Rice, who was filmed punching his fiance in an elevator.
FBI agents raided Cohen’s office, home and the hotel room where he was staying as part of an investigation that is reportedly focused, at least in part, on whether he violated federal banking and campaign finance laws with the hush-money payments.
Using a shell company called Essential Consultants, and fake names on a contract, Cohen paid $130,000 to Daniels 12 days before the 2016 election. Cohen also intervened in a deal to steer a $150,000 payment to a former Playboy model who also says she had an affair with Trump.
The president’s comments Thursday appear at odds with his statement on April 6 that he knew nothing about Cohen’s payment to Daniels, including why Cohen made it or where he got the money.
Cohen has said he used his own money and never consulted Trump about it. The White House has denied that Trump and Daniels had an affair.
The actress’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, said Trump’s latest comment proved his previous statement was false.
“Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen previously represented to the American people that Mr. Cohen acted on his own and Mr. Trump knew nothing about the agreement with my client,” Avenatti said on Twitter. “As I predicted, that has now been shown to be completely false.”
After Daniels disclosed her encounters with Trump, Cohen filed an arbitration proceeding seeking to enforce the original deal to keep quiet. Avenatti countered with a lawsuit, now in federal court in Los Angeles, that argues the deal is unenforceable — in part because Trump never signed it.
Cohen’s attempts to force Daniels into silence appear to have backfired. His lawyer, Brent Blakely, has moved to put the lawsuit on hold, saying that Cohen can’t defend himself because any statements would put him in jeopardy in the criminal case in New York.
“Based on the advice of counsel, I will assert my 5th Amendment rights in connection with all proceedings in this case,” Cohen declared in a court filing Wednesday, citing the raids and the ongoing criminal investigation.
Legal experts said Trump was putting himself and Cohen at risk by publicly discussing the case.
“There’s a reason why it’s conventional wisdom that, if you are in litigation, you should stop talking and let your lawyer talk for you in court,” said Harry Sandick, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan.