Political News

How Cohen’s Audio Clip Unraveled Trump’s False Statements

Posted July 25, 2018 9:59 p.m. EDT
Updated July 25, 2018 10:01 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Just before Election Day, when The Wall Street Journal uncovered a secret deal by The National Enquirer to buy the silence of a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Donald Trump, his campaign issued a flat denial.

“We have no knowledge of any of this,” Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, told the newspaper. She said the claim of an affair was “totally untrue.”

Then last week, when The New York Times revealed the existence of a recorded conversation about the very payment Trump denied knowing about, Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, described the recording as “exculpatory” — suggesting it would actually help Trump if it became public.

Finally, the tape has become public. And it revealed the statements by Hicks and Giuliani to be false. The recording, which was broadcast by CNN late Tuesday, shows Trump directly involved in talks about whether to pay The Enquirer for the rights to the woman’s story.

The recording, and the repeated statements it contradicts, is a stark example of how Trump and his aides have used falsehoods as a shield against tough questions and unflattering coverage. Building upon his repeated cry of “fake news,” he told supporters this week not to believe the news. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” the president added.

In a capital where politicians have made an art form of the nondenial denial, press secretaries typically reserve their on-the-record denials for reports that are outright false. Candidates can weather most embarrassing stories, and spokespeople know that getting caught in a lie only makes things worse.

It was a lie about an affair, after all, that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment — though his most fateful move was testifying falsely under oath — just as it was a lie about infidelity that ended the political career of John Edwards, once a rising Democratic star (a story that broke in The Enquirer, coincidentally).

But Trump, both as a candidate and as president, has turned that thinking on its head. When faced with the evidence of its misstatements, the administration sidesteps and moves on. “I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said last month when confronted with her unequivocal, and false, denials that Trump had dictated his son’s misleading statement about meeting with Russians.

Trump ignored shouted questions from reporters Wednesday in the Rose Garden of the White House about the recording. A representative for Hicks declined to elaborate or explain her November comment, and asked to explain his denial from last week, Giuliani maintained that his client was not heard on the tape doing anything wrong. He did not explain why he characterized it as “exculpatory.”

The tape that surfaced Tuesday concerned the former model, Karen McDougal, who says she began a nearly yearlong affair with Trump in 2006. Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, she sold her story for $150,000 to The Enquirer. But the tabloid, which was supportive of Trump, sat on the story, a practice known as catch and kill. It effectively silenced McDougal for the remainder of the campaign.

The legal implications of the taped conversation for Trump are unclear. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, committed bank fraud or violated campaign finance laws by arranging payments to silence women critical of Trump. They are also eyeing the role of The Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., as they discern whether the payment to McDougal represented an illegal, coordinated campaign expenditure.

The recording is potentially significant because it places McDougal in the context of the presidential campaign. Trump and Cohen talk polling, surrogates, fending off journalists, and, finally, whether to buy McDougal’s rights from AMI.

The recording was among 12 handed over to prosecutors from a trove of Cohen’s material that FBI agents seized in April. It is the only recording of substance between Cohen and Trump, according to people familiar with the material. Others include Cohen speaking to figures in broadcast news, the people said. One captures a lengthy conversation Cohen had with CNN host Chris Cuomo, The Journal reported on Wednesday. The conversation involved “the usual discussion of politics and media,” said a lawyer for Cohen, Lanny J. Davis, adding that Cohen had a habit of recording conversations “in lieu of taking notes,” and had not intended to ever make it public.

In the recording about American Media and the McDougal deal, Trump does not appear surprised to hear about the arrangement with AMI. Cohen describes the agreement with “our friend David,” a reference to the company’s chief executive, David Pecker.

The tape surfaced as part of a widening rift between Trump and Cohen, his once-trusted adviser. Cohen has all but advertised his willingness to cooperate with federal prosecutors, an arrangement that could unearth many of the secrets that he helped bury in a decade of work as Trump’s fixer. No such cooperation deal has been reached, and prosecutors typically do not make such arrangements until they have finished reviewing the evidence they have collected.

The tape also shows how enmeshed the Trump Organization had become in politics and the effort to protect Trump’s image. Cohen can be heard telling Trump that he had consulted with the company’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, “when it comes time for the financing” of the payments to the Enquirer’s parent company.

“Wait a sec, what financing?” Trump is heard saying.

“Well, I’ll have to pay him something,” Cohen then says. Weisselberg was also involved in structuring Cohen’s reimbursements of more than $400,000 after he parted ways with the Trump Organization. Those reimbursements are said to have partly covered the $130,000 he spent to silence a pornographic film actress named Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels. She also claimed a previous affair with Trump that he has denied.

Like the deal involving McDougal, statements from Trump and his representatives about Clifford fell apart under legal scrutiny, in that case as part of the lawsuit Clifford filed to have her agreement — drafted by Cohen directly — nullified.

Around the time that Clifford filed her lawsuit in early March, Sanders said “there was no knowledge of any payments from the president” when reporters pressed her about it. Asked a month later whether he knew about it, Trump offered a flat “no,” adding, “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen.”

Giuliani directly contradicted the president a few weeks later, telling Fox News host Sean Hannity that “sometime after the campaign is over,” Trump and Cohen “set up a reimbursement, $35,000 a month, out of his personal family account.” He said at the time that he believed Trump only learned about Cohen’s payment to Clifford after he initially made it.

When the recording of Trump and Cohen discussing the AMI deal with McDougal surfaced last week, Trump’s lawyers drafted a transcript and circulated it to reporters. In their version, Trump told Cohen “don’t pay with cash” and then says, “check.”

The transcript, however, is based on widely circulated audio easily accessible with the click of a mouse, as Cohen’s legal team noted Wednesday. Trump’s team manufactured a dialogue to make it more favorable for their client. “They have been getting away with saying that a lie is the truth and don’t believe the media,” said Lanny Davis, a lawyer for Cohen. “But they walked into a trap here because a tape is a tape. It’s a fact. If you’re for Donald Trump, don’t believe me. I’m a Democrat. Believe your own ears.”

Repeated screenings of the tape do not clearly reveal Trump saying the words “don’t pay with,” an omission that would entirely change the meaning of his comment. That creates a chasm between what is heard on the tape and what Trump’s aides say is heard on the tape.