Michael Cohen in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Opinion writer

The Post reported on Friday:

Two months before the 2016 election, longtime Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen secretly taped a conversation with the then-GOP presidential nominee about whether to purchase the rights to Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal’s account of her alleged extramarital affair with Trump, according to three people familiar with the conversation.

The recording, which Cohen made surreptitiously in Trump Tower in early September 2016, was seized by federal agents who are investigating Cohen for potential bank and election-law crimes, according to multiple people familiar with the probe.

Trump and Cohen’s discussion came a month after AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer, bought the rights to McDougal’s story for $150,000, then shelved it.

There is much we do not know about this incident: Did AMI eventually make a payment at Trump’s behest? Did Trump reimburse AMI? Did anyone associated with AMI disclose the donation as a campaign-related expense?

While less politically compelling than the president’s actions as an overt, pro-Russian turncoat, the revelation has grave legal implications for the president. “Since the federal search warrants were first served on Michael Cohen, it has been likely that he and his most famous client, the president were in trouble,” says former White House ethics counsel Norman L. Eisen. “The passage of time has only made that clearer, with these tapes the latest evidence.” He adds, “Despite current presidential fixer Rudy Giuliani, Cohen’s latest successor, saying that the tapes are good for the president, it is hard to see an upside to secretly taped recordings about payments to a former mistress during the heat of a presidential campaign, and other sources are already contradicting Giuliani’s spin.”

Eisen explains, “Among other things, this news raises the question whether the president was involved in facilitating what may have been an illegal campaign contribution. Another even more troubling question is raised as well: What other tapes or additional evidence from Cohen’s files of possible Trump wrongdoing is now in prosecutors’ hands? A presidency may hang in the balance of the answer to that query.”

Put differently, as Common Cause’s Paul S. Ryan told me via email, “If the earlier reporting that AMI consulted with Cohen (an ‘agent’ of candidate Trump) before making the payment to McDougal is correct, then AMI’s payment to McDougal was a political expenditure ‘coordinated’ with Trump.” He continued, “Coordinated expenditures are treated as in-kind contributions under campaign finance law and corporations are prohibited from contributing to federal candidates, so AMI’s payment to McDougal [would be] an illegal corporate contribution to Trump.” Indeed, this was the basis for complaints that Common Cause filed earlier this year with the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission.

An experienced prosecutor notes how peculiar was Giuliani’s reaction to the tapes. The Post reported:

“Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of [the AMI payment] in advance,” Giuliani said. “In the big scheme of things, it’s powerful exculpatory evidence.”

However, the recording shows that Trump — whose spokeswoman denied he had any knowledge of the AMI deal with McDougal when it became public days before the election — in fact knew of her claims and efforts to keep her quiet at least two months earlier.

Former federal prosecutor Joyce White Vance tells me, “The only people who really need exculpatory evidence are defendants in criminal cases. It’s remarkable that that is where Giuliani’s thoughts turn first when he’s discussing a taped phone call involving his client.”

For Trump’s apologists, the revelation creates a new wave of angst. (The Los Angeles Times reported, “ ’We all knew there were going to be a lot of women cropping up with allegations and that it was Michael’s job to take care of it,’ said an associate of Cohen’s, speaking on condition of anonymity.”) If there are a flock of women — those whose names have already surfaced in association with Trump or others we have yet to hear about — who received similar payments, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that there was a conspiracy to avoid reporting embarrassing and possibly illegal campaign donations. While Trump’s evangelical lackeys gave him a “mulligan” on his payoff to Stormy Daniels, it’s not clear a wider audience will countenance a president who got through a campaign by secretly paying off gobs of women, especially if any of those women claimed to have been the victims of non-consensual sexual conduct.

There are many reasons (e.g., knowledge of Trump’s finances, awareness of Trump’s Russia connections) Trump has been freaked out by the search of Cohen’s office, hotel and home. Cohen is no John Dean, but in the end he may prove more problematic for Trump than Dean was to Nixon.