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Michael Cohen Recorded A Conversation With Trump About Paying An Ex-Playboy Model

Michael Cohen, a longtime lawyer of President Trump, reportedly taped their conversation about payments to Karen McDougal. The former Playboy model hoped to publish an account of her alleged affair with Trump.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
Michael Cohen, a longtime lawyer of President Trump, reportedly taped their conversation about payments to Karen McDougal. The former Playboy model hoped to publish an account of her alleged affair with Trump.

Updated at 7:42 p.m. EST

"The good news is that your favorite President did nothing wrong!" President Trump tweeted Saturday morning. His message follows a New York Times report on Friday that his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, secretly recorded their discussion about payments to a former Playboy model who said she had a 10-month affair with Trump.

The FBI found the recording after a raid on Cohen's office in April. It may provide evidence in an investigation into whether campaign finance laws were violated during the presidential race. It also suggests that the Trump campaign knew about payments to the model, despite prior denials.

The conversation took place at Trump Tower in September 2016, months before the vote that would result in Trump's presidency, Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, confirmed to NPR's Ryan Lucas.

During the campaign, model Karen McDougal hoped to publish an account of her alleged affair with Trump, which she said started in 2006, shortly after Melania Trump gave birth to Barron.

In August, American Media Inc., owner of the National Enquirer, paid McDougal $150,000 for exclusive rights to the story, The Wall Street Journal first reported. Then they never ran it — a tabloid practice known as "catch and kill."

In the conversation that Cohen recorded a month later, the attorney encourages Trump to think about buying the rights to McDougal's story as a way to wield "control," The Washington Post reported that sources said.

Trump responds with neither surprise nor familiarity, the Postreported. He says little but asks Cohen how they could buy the rights. The two discuss whether to pay with cash or a check, which would leave a record.

The recording cuts off while Trump is midsentence, a source told the Post.

Giuliani told NPR that on the recording, Trump tells Cohen to pay AMI for the story — and pay by check.

"The transaction never happened. AMI for its own reasons decided to keep it," Giuliani said. He said he has not heard the recording, but has read a transcript of it.

Giuliani said Trump's legal team learned of the recording two days before the New York Times broke the story.

Giuliani told the Times that the president did nothing wrong. "Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of it in advance," he said. On the contrary, it is "powerful exculpatory evidence."

Trump has spoken highly of the National Enquirer in the past. In the summer of 2016, he told the press, "I've always said, 'Why didn't the National Enquirer get the Pulitzer Prize?'" The chairman of AMI, David Pecker, is also a friend.

When Trump learned about the recording's existence, he said, "I can't believe Michael would do this to me," a source told CNN.

Carol Heller, McDougal's attorney, tweeted on Friday, "We are learning of this in real time just like everyone else."

A lawyer who negotiated a settlement between the former Playboy model and AMI tweeted, "When @realDonaldTrump said we were lying, do you think he meant we WEREN'T?"

Cohen appeared to hint, in an interview with ABC News, that his interests may not intersect with the president's. "To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty," he said.

When asked how he would respond if Trump or his legal team tried to discredit him, he added: "I will not be a punching bag as part of anyone's defense strategy. I am not a villain of this story, and I will not allow others to try to depict me that way."

Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, said in a statement, "Obviously, there is an ongoing investigation, and we are sensitive to that. But suffice it to say that when the recording is heard, it will not hurt Mr. Cohen. Any attempt at spin can not change what is on the tape."

Cohen long earned a reputation of being an aggressive "fixer" for Trump, intimidating adversaries, threatening journalists and, allegedly, adult film star Stormy Daniels.

He often recorded his conversations without the knowledge of others, a practice that is legal according to New York's " one-party consent" law. Some of those recordings may prove embarrassing to Cohen and people of "significance and consequence," CNN reported.

Giuliani told NPR that the president is not worried about other tapes Cohen may have of conversations with him.

"I have no concerns that the president did anything we have to worry about with Michael Cohen," Giuliani said. "Whatever problems Michael has have nothing to do with the president."

Thousands of items seized in the FBI raids have been turned over to special master Barbara Jones, who is charged with overseeing their review. Some 4,000 items were deemed by Cohen, Trump or the Trump Organization as protected by attorney-client privilege, but Jones rejected that designation on more than 1,400 items, NBC News reported. They will be sent to government investigators.

New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, who broke the story, told NPR that Cohen could imperil Trump both politically and legally. He said that federal prosecutors in New York are leading the Cohen investigation, after a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller. "But if Cohen were to flip and cooperate with the feds, they could actually kick the information back to Mueller."

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Sasha Ingber is a reporter on NPR's breaking news desk, where she covers national and international affairs of the day.