President Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, secretly recorded a conversation with Mr. Trump two months before the presidential election in which they discussed payments to a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump, according to lawyers and others familiar with the recording.
The F.B.I. seized the recording this year during a raid on Mr. Cohen’s office. The Justice Department is investigating Mr. Cohen’s involvement in paying women to tamp down embarrassing news stories about Mr. Trump ahead of the 2016 election. Prosecutors want to know whether that violated federal campaign finance laws, and any conversation with Mr. Trump about those payments would be of keen interest to them.
The recording’s existence appears to undercut the Trump campaign’s denial of any knowledge of payments to the model. And it further draws Mr. Trump into questions about tactics he and his associates used to keep aspects of his personal and business life a secret. And it highlights the potential legal and political danger that Mr. Cohen represents to Mr. Trump. Once the keeper of many of Mr. Trump’s secrets, Mr. Cohen is now seen as increasingly willing to consider cooperating with prosecutors.
The former model, Karen McDougal, says she began a nearly yearlong affair with Mr. Trump in 2006, shortly after Mr. Trump’s wife, Melania, gave birth to their son Barron. Ms. McDougal sold her story for $150,000 to The National Enquirer, which was supportive of Mr. Trump, during the final months of the presidential campaign, but the tabloid sat on the story, which kept it from becoming public. The practice, known as “catch and kill,” effectively silenced Ms. McDougal for the remainder of the campaign.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, confirmed in a telephone conversation on Friday that Mr. Trump had discussed payments to Ms. McDougal with Mr. Cohen on the tape. He said the recording was less than two minutes long, said Mr. Trump did not know he was being recorded and claimed that the president had done nothing wrong.
Mr. Giuliani said there was no indication on the tape that Mr. Trump knew before the conversation about the payment from the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., to Ms. McDougal.
“Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of it in advance,” Mr. Giuliani said.
Mr. Giuliani initially indicated the men discussed a payment from Mr. Trump to Ms. McDougal — separate from the Enquirer’s payment — to buy her story. Later, he said that Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen had actually discussed buying the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story from the Enquirer, a move that would have effectively reimbursed the newspaper for its payments to her.
That payment was never made, Mr. Giuliani said, adding that Mr. Trump had told Mr. Cohen that if he were to make a payment related to Ms. McDougal, to write a check rather than send cash, so it could be properly documented.
Neither of Mr. Giuliani’s descriptions of the conversations explains why, when The Wall Street Journal revealed the existence of the A.M.I. payment days before the election, Mr. Trump’s campaign spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, said, “We have no knowledge of any of this.” She said Ms. McDougal’s claim of an affair was “totally untrue.”
Mr. Cohen’s lawyers discovered the recording as part of their review of the seized materials and shared it with Mr. Trump’s lawyers, according to three people briefed on the matter.
Mr. Cohen rejected repeated requests for comment. “We have nothing to say on this matter,” Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny J. Davis, said when asked about the tape.
David J. Pecker, the chairman of A.M.I., is a friend of Mr. Trump’s, and Ms. McDougal has accused Mr. Cohen of secretly taking part in the deal — an allegation that is now part of the F.B.I. investigation.
“It can’t be more than a minute and a half,” Mr. Giuliani said, referring to the length of the conversation. “Twice someone walks in — someone brings soda in for them. It’s not some secret conversation.”
He added: “Neither one seems to be concerned anyone would hear it. It went off on irrelevant subjects that have nothing to do with this. It’s a very professional conversation between a client and a lawyer and the client saying, ‘Do it right.’”
Because the tape showed Mr. Trump learning about the A.M.I. payment, it actually helps Mr. Trump, Mr. Giuliani argued. “In the big scheme of things, it’s powerful exculpatory evidence,” he said.
The recording is potential evidence in the campaign finance investigation, but became tied up in a legal fight over what materials are protected by attorney-client privilege and thus off limits to prosecutors. It is not clear whether a federal judge has ruled on whether prosecutors can listen to the recording.
For a decade, Mr. Cohen served as one of Mr. Trump’s most trusted fixers, aggressively taking on journalists, opposing lawyers and business adversaries. He frequently taped his conversations, unbeknown to the people with whom he was speaking. New York law allows one party to a conversation to tape conversations without the other knowing.
Mr. Cohen used to say he would take a bullet for Mr. Trump, but the relationship soured in the aftermath of the F.B.I. raids in April. In one conversation, Mr. Cohen’s lawyers inquired whether Mr. Trump planned to pardon him, but Mr. Trump’s lawyers gave no indication that the president would do so, according to two people familiar with the discussion.
Mr. Cohen has publicly and privately discussed the idea of cooperating with the F.B.I. In an interview with ABC News this month, Mr. Cohen seemed to be openly inviting prosecutors to talk to him.
“My wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will,” Mr. Cohen said. “I put family and country first.” The words got Mr. Trump’s attention, and he asked people if they thought Mr. Cohen was trying to send a message, either to him or the Justice Department.
The Cohen investigation began with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating the Trump campaign’s links to Russia. But as the Cohen case became increasingly focused on Mr. Cohen’s personal business dealings and his campaign activities unrelated to Russia, Mr. Mueller referred it to federal prosecutors in Manhattan, who are now leading the investigation.
The wide-ranging search warrants served on Mr. Cohen this spring show that prosecutors are investigating Mr. Cohen’s involvement in payments to silence women about their relationships with Mr. Trump. In addition to Ms. McDougal’s arrangement, prosecutors also sought evidence of payments to the adult film star Stephanie Clifford, who is better known as Stormy Daniels.
Mr. Trump has denied knowing about those payments, though people familiar with the arrangement have said he was aware of them. But his denial helped suppress public allegations of an affair during the final months of the campaign.
Such payments, depending on how and why they were made, could represent campaign finance violations — a case that harks back to the failed prosecution of the former Democratic senator John Edwards, who tried to hide a pregnant mistress during his presidential campaign.
Mr. Cohen’s case is unusual because the payment to Ms. McDougal was made by American Media Inc. In August 2016, A.M.I. bought the rights to her story about Mr. Trump for $150,000 and a commitment to use its magazines to promote her career as a fitness specialist.
Federal agents are also scrutinizing Mr. Cohen’s personal financial dealings and whether he committed fraud by lying about his assets on bank forms. In particular, the authorities are scrutinizing taxi medallions that Mr. Cohen owned, and whether he accurately accounted for their value, according to several people close to the case.
Source: MATT APUZZO, MAGGIE HABERMAN and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
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