- On Tuesday, CNN aired a secret recording of a September 2016 conversation between President Donald Trump and his former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen in which the two men discussed payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
- The tape created more questions than answers.
On Tuesday night, an attorney for President Donald Trump’s former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen gave CNN a September 2016 audio recording of Trump and Cohen discussing payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
The existence of the tape was first revealed on Friday. Cohen made the recording without Trump’s knowledge. It was seized by the FBI in April raids of Cohen’s home, office, and hotel room as part of a criminal investigation into him. Trump’s attorneys waived privilege claims over that tape and 11 others that were seized from Cohen.
McDougal has alleged that she had an affair with Trump in 2006. The National Enquirer purchased McDougal’s story for $150,000 in August 2016, but never published anything on it. That practice is known as “catch and kill,” and it effectively silenced McDougal’s allegations.
The tape contains a conversation between Cohen and Trump in which they discuss a plan to purchase the rights to McDougal’s story from the outlet’s publisher for about $150,000. David Pecker, the head of American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer, is a longtime friend of both Trump and Cohen.
Trump’s team, namely his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, said the recording was good for the president and that a payment was not ultimately made. Cohen’s camp said the tape was not good for Trump.
CNN aired the tape and it led to more questions than answers. Here are some.
Does Trump say ‘pay with cash’ or ‘don’t pay with cash?’
On the tape, Cohen says he needs to open up a company for “the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David,” referencing Pecker. He said he spoke with Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, “about how to set the whole thing up.”
Trump asks, “So what’re we going to pay? 150?” That was a possible reference to the eventual sum of $150,000.
Cohen says yes, mentioning again that he spoke with Weisselberg “about when it comes time for the financing.”
“What financing?” Trump says, followed by the comment in question.
The three words that are audible are “pay with cash.” What is less clear because of the muddled audio is whether the all-important word “don’t” preceded it. In any case, Cohen replied, “no, no, no.”
Then you can hear a voice that sounds like Trump’s saying “check” before the tape cuts out.
Giuliani told Fox News after the tape aired on CNN that there was “no way the president is going to be talking about setting up a corporation then using cash, unless you’re a complete idiot
“And again, the president is not an idiot,” he said.
Alan Futerfas, an attorney representing the Trump Organization, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that “cash” was being used in the conversation as a reference to a one-time payment rather than financing a possible transaction over time.
“The notion that they were discussing using a bag of cash or green currency is ridiculous,” Futerfas said.
Lanny Davis, Cohen’s attorney who provided the tape to CNN, said it was clear that Giuliani had previously misrepresented the tapes. Last week Giuliani said it was Cohen who referenced “cash” and that Trump then suggested he pay with a check.”Everybody heard just now Donald Trump say the word ‘cash,'” Davis told CNN. “After Michael Cohen mentioned financing.”
Why does the tape cut out at the word ‘check?’
At a pivotal point in the recording, the tape abruptly ends: When a voice that sounds like Trump’s says “check.”
This question remains unanswered, and is clearly on Trump’s mind.
“Why was the tape so abruptly terminated (cut) while I was presumably saying positive things?” he tweeted Wednesday morning.
What was Allen Weisselberg’s involvement?
Cohen’s reference of Weisselberg represents an under-the-radar but critical comment in the tape. Weisselberg’s involvement in such discussions and/or other payments involving women could drag the Trump Organization’s top financial officer into the Cohen investigation, opening the door to Trump’s books.
In May, The New York Times reported that Weisselberg had known of the reimbursement made to Cohen for his $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 presidential election since 2017, long before Giuliani told Fox News in May that Trump had reimbursed Cohen.
Futerfas disputed Cohen’s comments from the tape in his interview with The Post.
“The notion that Mr. Cohen would have spoken to Mr. Weisselberg about a proposition he had yet to even make to the president does not ring true,” he said. “Mr. Weisselberg is a bookkeeper who simply carries out directions from others about monetary payments and transfers. There would be no reason for Mr. Cohen to have any conversation with Mr. Weisselberg prior to him recommending and obtaining approval for the purchase he was suggesting.”
What is the significance of the conversation about David Pecker?
When Cohen and Trump first began discussing the idea of purchasing the McDougal story from Pecker, Cohen said, “You never know where that company – you never know what he’s gonna be.”
“David gets hit by a truck,” Trump replies.
“Correct,” Cohen responds. “So, I’m all over that.”
To some observers, this portion of the conversation made it obvious that Trump wanted to keep quiet McDougal’s allegations, and that could be critical for any examination of whether campaign finance laws were broadly violated even if no payment was ultimately made with respect to McDougal.
Cohen and Trump did not ultimately purchase the story, which brings up further questions: Did Pecker assure them it would not be published? Or did they just take their chances?
Does the conversation about Ivana’s divorce papers matter?
Right before Trump and Cohen discuss the McDougal payment, they mentioned the New York Times’ effort to unseal divorce papers between Trump and his first wife, Ivana.
“They should never be able to get that,” Trump said, later adding, “All you’ve got to do is delay for [unclear].”
Cohen responds that “even after that, it’s not ever going to be opened.”
Election Day at this point was weeks away. To some observers, the conversation seems aimed at making sure, on a broad scale, potentially damaging information is not released during the campaign.
“Trump says about Ivana divorce paper that the release just needs to be delayed until after the election,” tweeted NBC News legal analyst Daniel Goodman. “Shows idea of suppressing bad publicity until after election is on top of his mind. Very relevant to campaign finance fraud.”
The New York Times lost its effort to unseal those records. But in mid-September 2016, The New York Daily News published details from the divorce papers, which contained allegations that Trump “verbally abused and demeaned” his ex-wife. Ivana alleged his treatment of her was “cruel and inhuman.”