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The Many Stages of Donald Trump’s Michael Cohen Denials


It’s been an interesting year-plus observing the many different stages of President Donald Trump‘s statements, whether directly from him, his attorney Rudy Giuliani, or his ex-attorney Michael Cohen, about the arrangements of hush payments to porn star Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford) and Playboy model Karen McDougal. Let’s run through the evolution of Trump’s takes on the matter.

We Have No Idea What You’re Talking about

Who could forget that on Nov.  4, 2016, days before the election, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that American Media Inc. (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer, “caught and killed” McDougal’s story of an affair with Trump. At the time, Trump’s campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said of the agreement, “We have no knowledge of any of this.” She also said the affair claim was “totally untrue.” Hicks said the same of the Stormy Daniels affair.

A lot has changed since then: Cohen is going to prison for three years and has admitted Trump “directed” him to commit campaign finance violations by arranging $150,000 and $130,000 hush payments to prevent these affairs from influencing the election.

The Affairs Didn’t Happen

Cohen told the Wall Street Journal as late as Jan. 2018 that “President Trump once again vehemently denies any such occurrence as has Ms. Daniels. This is now the second time that you are raising outlandish allegations against my client.”

“You have attempted to perpetuate this false narrative for over a year; a narrative that has been consistently denied by all parties since at least 2011,” he added.

Cohen did not address the Daniels payment.

Cohen Paid Out of His Own Pocket, it Was Totally ‘Lawful’ and Trump Didn’t Know

Michael Cohen acknowledged in Feb. 2018 that there was a payment to Stormy Daniels that didn’t involve the Trump Organization or the Trump campaign. Both things, the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and Cohen now say, were untrue. SDNY asserts that these payments were made for the purpose of influencing the election and were, thereby, illicit campaign contributions.

“The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone,” Cohen said in Feb. 2018.

Then came April 5, when the infamous Air Force One interview occurred.

Trump denied having any knowledge of the $130,000 payment to Daniels and denied knowledge of where his lawyer got the money to pay her. When asked why Cohen paid her if Daniels’ affair claim was false, Trump passed the baton to Cohen.

“Well, you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. And you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen,” he said.

What an Outrageous Violation of Attorney-Client Privilege 

Then came the April 9 FBI raids on Cohen’s office, home and hotel room, after Special Counsel Robert Mueller referred the bank fraud, tax fraud, and campaign finance case to SDNY prosecutors.

The next day, Trump pronounced attorney-client privilege dead.

Blame the New York Times

Even after the April 2018, raids, Trump continued to defend Cohen on Twitter and blamed the New York Times. He said the Times was “going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen.

“Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always like & respected,” Trump continued. “Sorry, I don’t see Michael [lying or making up stories] despite the horrible Witch Hunt and dishonest media!”

Trump has since accused Cohen of lying to “embarrass” the president and get a lighter sentence. He’s also called Cohen “weak.”

Rudy Giuliani Needs to ‘Get His Facts Straight’

Giuliani’s arrival on scene happened pretty quickly after the Cohen raid. You may recall Giuliani’s May 2018 Fox News appearance, in which he told Sean Hannity that Trump actually reimbursed Cohen for Daniels payment, raising alarms of a possible campaign finance violation.

Giuliani said the money was “funneled […] through the law firm and the president repaid it.” He said Trump “didn’t know about the specifics of it,” as far as he knew, but “he did know about the general arrangement, that Michael would take care of things like this, like I take care of things like this for my clients.” He also said that in the end this would “turn out to be perfectly legal” and that the money wasn’t campaign money.

Giuliani’s comments were memorably called a “confession.

Why? Because Giuliani specifically mentioned the timing of the Daniels payment and pointed out the purpose of it.

“Imagine if [the Daniels story] came out on October 15, 2016 in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton,” Guiliani said. “Cohen didn’t even ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job.”

The next day, Trump tweeted, once again, that the payment was “not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign.” The day after that, he said Giuliani “started yesterday” and would “get his facts straight.”

Trump: Yes, the Money Came from Me, But There Are No Crimes to See Here

On Aug. 21, the same day that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted on eight counts of bank and tax fraud in the Eastern District of Virginia, Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance violations. This was the first time we heard from Cohen that Trump “directed” him to commit campaign finance violations.

While many regarded this as Cohen implicating Trump in a crime, the Trump response was that “there is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen.”

Two days later, Trump said the payments, the payments he denied all knowledge of and advised people to ask Cohen about, “came from me.”

“They weren’t taken out of campaign finance, that’s the big thing. They didn’t come out of the campaign, they came from me,” he said, adding that Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to crimes that had nothing to do with him.

“What Michael Cohen pled to weren’t crimes […] He made a great deal. He was in another business totally unrelated to me where I guess there was fraud involved,” he said. “A lot of lawyers on television and lawyers I have say they aren’t crimes. He makes a better deal when he uses me.”

This defense is essentially the one that continues to be used today, but in different formulations.

“Totally Clears the President, Thank You!”

This was President Trump’s response on Friday Dec. 7 to the filing of Michael Cohen’s sentencing memo, which said the following:

On approximately June 16, 2015, Individual-1, for whom Cohen worked at the time, began an ultimately successful campaign for President of the United States. Cohen had no formal title with the campaign, but had a campaign email address, and, at various times advised the campaign, including on matters of interest to the press. Cohen also made media appearances as a surrogate and supporter of Individual-1. During the campaign, Cohen played a central role in two similar schemes to purchase the rights to stories – each from women who claimed to have had an affair with Individual-1 – so as to suppress the stories and thereby prevent them from influencing the election. With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election. Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments.

The Status Quo: It Happened, But it Wasn’t a Crime

What about Barack Obama? What about John Edwards? There is no “Smocking Gun.” It was a “simple private transaction.”

These are all different ways of saying Trump was not implicated in a crime.

Rudy Giuliani has tweeted more of the same.

Maybe Cohen Lied to Save His Wife and Father-in-Law

Now to the current day. President Trump on Thursday suggested during an interview with Fox News that Cohen may not have “lied” just to “embarrass” him. He asserted without evidence that Cohen flipped on Trump to save his family members from legal peril.

“His father-in-law’s a very rich guy, I hear,” Trump said, speculating that maybe Cohen was trying to keep “his wife [and her father] out of trouble.”

It’s not the first time Trump has asserted this publicly without backing it up.

“‘Michael Cohen asks judge for no Prison Time.’ You mean he can do all of the TERRIBLE, unrelated to Trump, things having to do with fraud, big loans, Taxis, etc., and not serve a long prison term? He makes up stories to get a GREAT & ALREADY reduced deal for himself, and get his wife and father-in-law (who has the money?) off Scott Free,” he tweeted on Dec. 3, 2018. “He lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence.”

“I Don’t Think We Made a Payment to That Tabloid”

Also on Thursday, President Trump discussed the payment to AMI over the McDougal story. SDNY prosecutors announced on Wednesday that AMI got a non-prosecution deal and admitted to paying McDougal “in concert” with the Trump campaign to prevent damaging allegations from influencing the election:

The Office announced today that it has previously reached a non-prosecution agreement with AMI, in connection with AMI’s role in making the above-described $150,000 payment  before the 2016 presidential election. As part of the agreement, AMI admitted that it made the $150,000 payment in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that the woman did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election. AMI further admitted that it’s principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.

Assuming AMI’s continued compliance with the agreement, the Office has agreed not to prosecute AMI for its role in that payment. The agreement also acknowledges, among other things, AMI’s acceptance of responsibility, its substantial and important assistance in this investigation, and its agreement to provide cooperation in the future and implement specific improvements to its internal compliance to prevent future violations of the federal campaign finance laws. These improvements include distributing written standards regarding federal election laws to its employees and conducting annual training concerning these standards.

AMI CEO David Pecker, a long-time friend of Trump’s, and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg have both notably received immunity deals as a part of this investigation.

“I don’t think – and I have to go check – I don’t think they even paid any money to that tabloid. I don’t think we made a payment to that tabloid,” Trump said.

As CNN’s Kaitlan Collins pointed out, this seems problematic when you consider that there is already an audio tape out there of Trump and Cohen discussing the $150,000 payment to McDougal.

In that tape, Cohen said he needed to “open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David [Pecker]” and that he “spoke to Allen [Weisselberg] about it when it comes time for the financing […].”

Meanwhile, NBC News is reporting that Trump was “in the room during hush money discussions with [the] tabloid publisher.”

Former federal prosecutor Daniel S. Goldman surmised that that is a big deal.

“But if Trump is now in the room, as early as August of 2015 and in combination with the recording where Trump clearly knows what Cohen is talking about with regarding to David Pecker, you now squarely place Trump in the middle of a conspiracy to commit campaign finance fraud,” he said.

I Never “Directed” Cohen to Break the Law

This defense is, in short: Michael Cohen should have known better. For what it’s worth, Judge William Pauley III said the same on Wednesday at Cohen’s sentencing in Manhattan.

[Image via Bryan R. Smyth/AFP/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.