It does not appear as though President Trump will be reconciling with his jilted former lawyer-fixer, Michael Cohen, anytime soon. Four days after the New York Times reported that Cohen secretly recorded a conversation he had with Trump regarding payment to bury a story about Trump’s alleged affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal prior to the 2016 election, CNN on Tuesday night released the tape. The network obtained it from — who else? — Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis.
Full audio: Presidential candidate Trump is heard on tape discussing with his attorney Michael Cohen how they would buy the rights to a Playboy model's story about an alleged affair Trump had with her years earlier, according to the audio recording "https://t.co/YmC0QuDqTx pic.twitter.com/fBbq7r1Lq9
— Cuomo Prime Time (@CuomoPrimeTime) July 25, 2018
Trump, as usual, responded with a gangly tweet:
What kind of a lawyer would tape a client? So sad! Is this a first, never heard of it before? Why was the tape so abruptly terminated (cut) while I was presumably saying positive things? I hear there are other clients and many reporters that are taped – can this be so? Too bad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2018
While the recording does not contain any bombshell revelations, it does confirm that Trump knew about the effort to kill the story of his 10-month affair with McDougal, which his campaign had denied. (For reasons that are unclear, the payment was never made.) The recording sheds light on the pre-election dynamic between Trump and Cohen, who was not supposed to have been involved in campaign affairs. The tape also proves that Trump’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was lying when he said that it was Cohen who brought up the idea of paying in cash. Proving this to be false is presumably why Cohen’s team decided to leak the tape.
Here’s more of what you need to know.
So what exactly is going on here?
A lot. Before the recording comes around to the McDougal payment, we hear Trump telling someone on the phone, “It’s so false what they’re saying. It’s such bullshit.” We hear Trump asking his secretary to bring him a Coke. We hear him wondering whether they can still “use” Pastor Darrell Scott. He and Cohen discuss how the Times is trying to unseal the divorce filings of his first wife, Ivana, which Trump insists can’t be allowed to happen — at least until after the election. It all amounts to an interesting glimpse into how Trump handles his affairs before we get to the discussion of the payment for McDougal’s story.
“I need to open up a company for the transfer of that info regarding our friend David,” Cohen says. “I’m going to do that right away. I’ve spoken to [Trump Organization CFO] Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up.”
The “David” here is David Pecker, a longtime friend of Trump’s who runs American Media, Inc., the company that owns the National Enquirer and other publications. In August 2016, AMI purchased the rights to McDougal’s story about her affair with Trump for $150,000. Pecker purchased the story without any intention of running it – a practice known as “catch and kill” – he just didn’t want it to get into the public, which, weeks before the election, would have damaged Trump considerably. After Cohen says he’s going to talk to Weisselberg about setting up the payment, Trump says, “So what are we going to pay? 150?” This is followed by Cohen and Trump confirming that they need to purchase the rights to the story because, though Pecker is holding it for Trump, something could happen to “the company,” meaning AMI, or Pecker himself, which could put the rights to the story in the hands of someone who could publish it. “[What if] he gets hit by a truck?” Trump says of Pecker.
So: The plan appears to be that Cohen is going to set up a shell company through which they will purchase McDougal’s story for $150,000 in order to ensure it will not go public before the election. How will the payment be made?
“I spoke to Allen about it, and when it comes time for the financing—”
“What financing?” says Trump.
“Well, we have to pay them something,” says Cohen.
Then … it’s hard to say. Trump either tells Cohen to pay in cash, or instructs him to make sure not to pay in cash. Cohen then says “no” a bunch of times, which would be a plausible response, regardless. Then the recording cuts off.
Cash or no cash?
Speaking to Chris Cuomo Tuesday night, Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, seems absolutely certain that Trump suggested making the payment in cash. (Davis even turned to address the camera directly to implore viewers not to buy whatever spin Trump’s team attempts to put on the recording.) “Mr. Giuliani knows from being U.S. attorney that the only people who use cash are drug dealers and mobsters,” Davis said. “Cash is not what you do. It was Michael Cohen who said, ‘no no no no.’”
Alan Fuertas, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, provided a statement to CNN. “Whoever is telling Davis that cash in that conversation refers to green currency is lying to him,” it read. “There’s no transaction done in green currency. It doesn’t happen. The whole deal never happened.”
He said something similar to NBC’s Hallie Jackson.
Trump Org atty Alan Futerfas on the "cash" comment: "It’s like when you’re buying a house, and a person says – are you going to get financing, or are you paying cash? It’s identical context – no one expects or understands you’re showing up to the closing with green currency.”
— Hallie Jackson (@HallieJackson) July 25, 2018
The statement is bizarre in that it implies that the alternative to paying in cash would have been some sort of installment plan, which isn’t typical of under-the-table deals to buy incriminating stories about yourself from tabloids. Also strange is that while Futerfas is defending the “cash” comment, Trump’s legal team is contending that their client said not to pay in cash, which, if true, would render Futerfas’ argument moot. In the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to tell what exactly Trump says here, and the payment was never made, anyway.
Are there legal implications?
Probably not, but we’ll see. The primary issue is whether the Trump campaign violated campaign finance law. Part of the argument as to why Cohen paying Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about her affair with Trump was not a violation of campaign finance law is that Cohen was not formally affiliated with the campaign. But after listening to the recording released Tuesday, it’s hard to argue that Cohen was not involved. This likely won’t be relevant as it pertains to the payment for McDougal’s story, though, as, again, the payment was never actually made.
As Bloomberg‘s Tim O’Brien points out, however, if Weisselberg is relevant to investigators, it could spell trouble for Trump.
Weisselberg worked as Fred Trump’s accountant and has been Donald Trump’s CFO for years.. He knows more about the Trump Organization’s finances than almost anyone. If he’s now exposed to investigators, this all moves into the heart of Trump’s business dealings. https://t.co/8e9WfYu27c
— Tim O'Brien (@TimOBrien) July 25, 2018
Of course, the recording could be material to Mueller in some way that cannot be discerned by the public. For now, though, it doesn’t seem to contain anything too damming.
The only real takeaway from the tape — other than Trump’s affinity for Coca-Cola extending deeper than any of us realized — is that the president had knowledge of a payment to bury a story of an affair he had shortly after his wife gave birth. The story would have damaged his campaign, and he and Cohen were trying to figure out a way to pay $150,000 to keep that story from going public. As is the case with a handful of daily occurrences relating to the president, this would be the defining scandal of pretty much any other administration. But this isn’t any other administration, and nothing divulged in the tape is remotely surprising.
It was long ago clear to anyone even passively paying attention that this affair did indeed take place, and that Trump was probably working to cover it up. The Trump campaign lied about it then, and his legal team is lying about it now. Meanwhile, the president is openly conspiring with an authoritarian leader hellbent on breaking down the Western order.