U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Cohen Reiterates That Trump Directed Hush Payments to Women

(Bloomberg) -- Michael D. Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, re-asserted Friday that it was Trump who directed him to make hush-money payments to two women claiming affairs with the then-candidate and that it was done to avoid any negative fallout for the 2016 campaign.

In an interview with ABC News -- Cohen’s first since he was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for a host of crimes including those payments -- he rebuffed Trump’s assertions that he had acted on his own and that Trump had relied on him as a lawyer to say if something was illegal. Cohen insisted Trump acted knowingly.

“Nothing at the Trump Organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump,” Cohen said. “He directed me. As I said in my allocution and I said as well in the plea, he directed me to make the payments, he directed me to become involved in these matters.”

Cohen’s appearance capped a whirlwind week during which federal prosecutors placed Trump squarely in the middle of a scheme to influence the 2016 election through “secret and illegal” payments meant to silence women with potentially damaging information on Trump.

Also on Wednesday, federal prosecutors in New York announced that American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer, had been cooperating with their investigation. The filing included details of an August 2015 meeting involving David Pecker, chief executive officer of AMI and long-time Trump supporter, Cohen and another person -- since identified as Trump -- in which they discussed “assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided.”

When Cohen pleaded guilty, he admitted the efforts to pay hush money continued well into Trump’s 2016 campaign, including payments made to the women between June to October of that year. According to Cohen’s plea, he received a copy of the final confidentiality agreement with Stephanie Clifford, a pornographic-film actress known as Stormy Daniels, on Nov. 1, a week before the election.

President Trump said Thursday in his first comments on the news that if there was anything illegal, it was on Cohen. “I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law,” Trump said. “He was a lawyer, and he is supposed to know the law.”

But in his television interview Friday with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Cohen said Trump knew what he directing him to do was wrong, especially after a tape emerged in October 2016 of Trump speaking with “Access Hollywood” TV host Billy Bush about groping women, adultery and other crude, sexually aggressive comments. 

“He was doing that to help his election?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“You have to remember at what point in time that this matter came about -- two weeks or so before the election, post the Billy Bush comments,” Cohen said. “So yes, he was very concerned about how this would affect the election.”

The emergence of Trump’s participation is just the latest in a series of legal and political headaches that have gripped the White House, as the Justice Department has been investigating Trump’s conduct before and after he won the 2016 election.

“The fact that he was in the room will increase his culpability and will make his lawyers very nervous,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor of election law and governance issues at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

AMI’s admission and Cohen’s comments undercut Trump’s defense that the payments were unrelated to the campaign and simply a private matter, as well as his position that he didn’t knowingly and willingly violate campaign finance laws, Levinson said.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

AMI paid $150,000 to silence former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claimed she had an extramarital affair with Trump. The practice of acquiring stories and not running them, common in the tabloid industry, is known as “catch and kill.”

Later in the campaign, Cohen directly was involved in another payoff, this time Clifford. She was paid $130,000 shortly before election day to stay quiet about a relationship she claims she’d had with Trump that began in 2006.

Cohen said in his interview that Trump’s deal to pay McDougal was brokered by Trump, Pecker and the media executive’s counsel.

“He directed me to make the payments,” Cohen said of Trump. “He directed me to become involved in these matters. Including the one with McDougal, which was really between him and David Pecker and then David Pecker’s counsel. I just reviewed the documents in order to protect him. I gave loyalty to someone who truthfully does not deserve loyalty.”

Cohen was asked about the president’s tweets accusing him of lying to protect his wife and father-in-law.

“Inaccurate,” Cohen said. “He knows the truth. I know the truth. Others know the truth and here is the truth: the people of the United States of America, people of the world, don’t believe what he is saying. The man doesn’t tell the truth. And it is sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.”

Cohen said he’d lied for Trump for more than 10 years. Asked why, he said, “Out of loyalty to him. I followed a bad path and hence how we started this conversation. I have my freedom, and I will not be the villain -- as I told you once before -- I will not be the villain of his story.”

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