Donald Trump’s longtime attorney Michael Cohen said the president directed him to orchestrate hush money payments during his 2016 presidential campaign to women alleging affairs because he was concerned that those allegations might damage his electoral changes.
Cohen, a longtime loyalist and fixer for Trump who flipped on the president earlier this year, told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an interview that aired Friday that Trump was “very concerned with how this would affect the election” if the alleged affairs came to light.
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Trump, who initially claimed he did not know about the payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, has insisted that the payments were wholly unrelated to his 2016 campaign and therefore not illegal. He has also argued that if the payments were illegal, it was Cohen’s responsibility, not his, to know the law and therefore it is Cohen who would be legally liable.
Cohen strongly disputed that defense.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that believes that. First of all, nothing at the Trump Organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump,” Cohen said. “He directed me as I said in my allocution.”
He also said Trump “of course” knew the payments were wrong, refuting the president’s possible defense that he didn’t engage in a “knowing and willful” violation of campaign finance law.
Cohen’s comments, aired Friday morning on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” are his first since he was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for tax and fraud charges, lying to Congress and a pair of campaign finance violations stemming from the hush money payments, which prosecutors have also alleged were carried out at Trump’s command.
Cohen has portrayed his entanglement in investigations of Trump and his decision to flip on the president as enlightening, and attributed his actions throughout his decade of work with Trump to “blind loyalty.”
In response to the rhetorical lashing he’s received from his former boss on Twitter over his cooperation, Cohen has begun to push back, telling Stephanopoulos he will not allow Trump to make him a scapegoat for his wrongdoing.
“I have my freedom and I will not be the villain as I told you once before, I will not be the villain of his story,” he said.
Cohen said in the interview that “I knew that what I was doing was wrong” when he arranged payments to Daniels and McDougal. Asked if Trump also knew the payments were wrong, Cohen that “of course” he did, noting that the payments were made in the final weeks of the 2016 race, following the release of the Access Hollywood tape that almost derailed his campaign.
The president’s former lawyer also said it was “correct” that Trump tried to conceal the payments to “help him and his campaign.”
Though prosecutors appear to have implicated Trump in the payments to McDougal and Daniels — he is apparently referred to in legal documents as “individual one” — he has not been charged with a crime. A longstanding Justice Department policy dictates that a sitting president cannot be indicted, but even so, prosecutors would need to prove that Trump made a “knowing and willful” attempt to break the law in regard to campaign finance violations.
In pushing back against Cohen, Trump and his allies and legal team have sought to challenge Cohen’s credibility, describing him as a hustler and accusing him of lying to get a lighter sentence. Cohen, in his interview with ABC, defended himself by pointed to the sentencing memo submitted by prosecutors for special counsel Robert Mueller, who contend that Cohen was able to provide credible assistance that was backed up by investigators.
“There’s a substantial amount of information that they possess that corroborates the fact that I am telling the truth,” Cohen said.
Cohen also asserted that Trump’s history of misstatements has damaged his own credibility in the case, calling it “sad” the president would not own his alleged mistakes.
“He knows the truth. I know the truth. Others know the truth and here is the truth, the people of the United States of America, the people of the world don’t believe what he is saying. The man doesn’t tell the truth and it’s sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.”
In addition to lying about the hush money payments, Cohen on Friday said he believed Trump was not being forthcoming in the investigation into whether or not his campaign colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 election.
Cohen pleaded guilty to charges in that probe of lying to Congress about his work on a real estate deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, but investigators for Mueller also found that Cohen had contact with a Russian during the campaign who wanted to establish “political synergy” with the Trump campaign.
Asked if he thought Trump was telling the truth about “everything related to Russia,” Cohen curtly responded, “No.”
Cohen declined to predict how either investigation into Trump would turn out, citing “respect for the process,” but he suggested that he was still cooperating with investigators and would continue to do so.