From the moment federal agents knocked on Michael Cohen’s door in April, President Trump’s friends and foes have wondered whether the lawyer would flip and share incriminating information about his longtime client.
Whether Cohen, who faces a criminal investigation that could threaten his freedom and his ability to provide for his family, has sat down with prosecutors to formally offer his cooperation remains unknown. But that he has flipped is no longer in doubt.
Once given to florid pronouncements of loyalty toward Trump, Cohen is actively working to undermine the president, most notably on Tuesday evening, when he released a once-secret recording of a conversation the two men had shortly before the presidential election.
Although the recording’s existence was first revealed last week, the contents had not become fully public. During the roughly three minutes of audio, Cohen and Trump can be heard discussing a financial arrangement that ensured the election-year silence of Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate who says she had a nearly one-year affair with Trump more than a decade ago.
Trump has denied both the affair and knowing about the payment to keep McDougal quiet during the presidential campaign. The recording seriously undermined that first denial and countered the second.
The manner in which Cohen released the recording made clear he was twisting the knife. Cohen has teamed up with Lanny Davis — a lawyer and spokesperson who previously helped Bill and Hillary Clinton navigate scandals over the years — and provided the recording to CNN, Trump’s least favorite cable news network.
Davis, without citing any specific evidence, has promised new revelations from Cohen, who has been privy to Trump’s personal and business secrets for more than a decade.
“I am telling you, we have truth, and they are afraid,” Davis told CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.
Trump exploded in anger on Wednesday morning.
“What kind of a lawyer would tape a client?” he tweeted. “So sad! Is this a first, never heard of it before?”
Trump himself has long been said to have recorded conversations with people, as have others in his inner circle.
Michael Caputo, a former political advisor and aide to Trump, said the recording may not be evidence of legal wrongdoing, but it was “meant to embarrass the president.”
“All bets are off,” he said.
The recording’s release fits a pattern for Davis, who has long urged clients to aggressively pursue their cases publicly rather than shy away from media attention.
“Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself,” is the approach he advocates.
Davis rose to prominence two decades ago as a high-profile defender of the Clintons when they faced an independent counsel investigation. After they left the White House, he positioned himself as a defender of all kinds of reputations — personal, corporate and political.
His client list has included Martha Stewart, who was convicted of insider training, and Dan Snyder, the controversial owner of the Washington Redskins football team.
When the sexual abuse scandal exploded at Pennsylvania State, Davis provided communications advice to the university. Most controversially, he worked for Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, dictator of the African nation of Equatorial Guinea. Davis said the leader had promised democratic reforms.
Now Davis is spinning for Cohen, and providing a new narrative for him.
The message, Davis told the news website Axios, is that his client is “no longer the previous Michael Cohen that you knew — taking a bullet for Donald Trump, saying anything to defend him, being a good soldier.”
“That is over.”
The recording of Cohen and Trump was seized in April when federal agents searched the lawyer’s home, office and hotel room. Cohen has not been charged, but prosecutors have said in a court filing that he “is being investigated for criminal conduct that largely centers on his personal business dealings.”
After the search, a judge appointed a special master to oversee the weeks-long process of sorting through all of the documents, emails and other records seized to ensure prosecutors don’t have access to anything that is shielded by attorney-client privilege.
Among the materials were a dozen recordings. Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and the president’s personal lawyer, said the one made public on Tuesday was the only one involving Trump.
The recording is of poor quality, and much of the conversation is garbled. But it’s clear Trump was familiar with the issue at hand.
“I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend, David,” Cohen said.
Trump responds, “So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?”
At this point, National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc., owned by David Pecker, had purchased the rights to McDougal’s story for $150,000. But instead of running the salacious tale, the company kept it under wraps, essentially silencing McDougal.
On the recording, Cohen and Trump discussed adding an additional level of security in case Pecker and American Media turned out not to be reliable custodians of McDougal’s story — they could buy the rights themselves.
“Here, you never know where that company, you never know what he’s ...” Cohen starts to say.
Trump interjects, “Maybe he gets hit by a truck.”
“Correct. So, I’m all over that,” Cohen says.
Before the recording abruptly ends, Trump and Cohen can be heard talking about how to pay Pecker.
The meaning of the exchange is hotly contested by both sides.
Cohen’s team insists that Trump was suggesting that they surreptitiously pay with cash.
Trump’s side argues that he wanted to use a check and properly document the payment, which they note was never made.
“I don’t think anyone can suggest that this represents where the president did anything wrong,” Giuliani told Fox News on Tuesday night. He also said Trump did not know about the original payment from American Media Inc. to McDougal before it happened.
Davis has insisted the recording is evidence in a larger scandal.
“Just as Richard Nixon learned, tapes don’t lie!” he tweeted on Wednesday. Nixon was forced to resign as president soon after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the White House to turn over recordings of conversations in which the president talked about clamping down on the investigation into the break-in of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex.
Davis also pointed to a more recent scandal in an interview with NBC News, saying the payment involving McDougal ”certainly sounds like the John Edwards case.”
Edwards was indicted for arranging to have wealthy friends make payments to a mistress while he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 — a scheme that prosecutors said violated campaign finance laws. The judge declared a mistrial after the jury acquitted Edwards on some charges and deadlocked on others.
Earlier this month, Cohen forecast what was coming during an interview with ABC News. Asked about loyalty to the president, Cohen said, “To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country, have my first loyalty.”
At that point, Davis and Cohen had already been talking to one another, and shortly afterward Davis announced that Cohen would be his client.
“Michael Cohen deserves to tell his side of the story,” Davis said.