On Wednesday, Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to a series of charges, including campaign finance violations that he said he committed at the direction of his former top client, then-candidate Donald Trump. Federal prosecutors say that in addition to the evidence presented by Cohen, they have reached a non-prosecution agreement with America Media Inc., parent company of the National Enquirer, who says that they worked “in concert” with the Trump campaign to squash stories featuring alleged Trump paramour former Playmate Karen McDougal.
On Thursday, NBC News reported that it has “confirmed” that Trump was the mysterious “third person” in the room during an August 2015 discussion between Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker about countering negative stories about Trump.
Prosecutors revealed Wednesday that AMI has admitted that Pecker “offered to help deal with negative stories about that presidential candidate’s relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided.” The company admitted to making a $150,000 payment to McDougal “in concert with the [Trump] campaign” to “catch-and-kill” her stories during the 2016 campaign. The company also noted that “at least one other member of the campaign” was at the meeting.
An NBC source says that Trump was that unnamed “other member,” a claim also made in a Wall Street Journal report in November.
NBC quotes NBC analyst and former assistant U.S. attorney Daniel Goldman as asserting that if it’s true that Trump was in the room at the meeting, combined with his apparent awareness of the deal with Pecker in a secretly taped call, you could now “squarely place Trump in the middle of a conspiracy to commit campaign finance fraud.”
Trump and his legal team have countered the claim by arguing that the hush money deals were “personal transactions” intended to spare him and his family of public embarrassment, rather than expressly for the purpose of protecting his presidential campaign.
Trump took to Twitter Thursday to refute Cohen’s claims. “I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law,” he wrote in a series of tweets. “He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called ‘advice of counsel,’ and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid.”
The campaign finance angle, he argued, was flawed. “Despite that many campaign finance lawyers have strongly stated that I did nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws, if they even apply, because this was not campaign finance,” he wrote.
Cohen, who was convicted of tax evasion and fraud in addition to the campaign finance violations, was only trying to reduce his sentence, Trump asserted. “Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me, but he plead to two campaign charges which were not criminal and of which he probably was not guilty even on a civil basis,” he wrote. “Those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did-including the fact that his family was temporarily let off the hook. As a lawyer, Michael has great liability to me!”
Cohen responded to Trump’s statements in an interview with ABC News that aired Friday morning. “I knew what I was doing was wrong. I stood up before the world and I accepted the responsibility for my actions,” he said, referencing his sentencing plea Wednesday. Trump, he said, “of course” knew that the “hush money” payments were “wrong.”