In addition to confirming that Trump is an adulterer who repeatedly lied to the public during the campaign (denying any knowledge of a payment to McDougal), the tape raises a number of questions for Trump and Cohen, with the latter now seemingly seeking a deal with prosecutors.
First, what kind of lawyer secretly tapes his client? It would be instructive to find out whether Cohen knew what he was discussing with Trump was legally problematic. Was he taping the conversation to protect himself in case Trump later denied knowledge of Cohen’s actions? This is not the normal conduct of a lawyer.
Second, why did Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis think releasing the tape to CNN would help his client? Maybe it’s an attempt to signal that he has the goods on Trump (there are purportedly about a dozen tapes), but prosecutors already would know what’s in the tapes. Frankly, the recording makes both Cohen and Trump seem sleazy. Trump’s TV lawyer Rudy Giuliani inexplicably commented that “I’ve got 4,000 hours of mafia people on tape. I know how to listen to them, I know how to transcribe them. I’ve dealt with much worse tapes than this.” Alrighty then. (One wonders whether there is a “bad lawyer” contest underway between Davis and Giuliani.)
Third, isn’t this evidence of a possible illegal campaign-finance issue? Maybe. Cohen discussed the McDougal payoff in conjunction with other campaign matters, including a poll and possible revelation of documents from Trump’s divorce from his first wife. In this case, Trump/Cohen never purchased the rights to McDougal’s story from AMI, but we do not know whether they previously urged AMI to tie up the rights. In any case, using a corporation to disguise the payment (and apparently considering a payment of cash) suggests a deliberate effort to conceal what would have amounted to a campaign expenditure, one that Trump certainly did not report. A pattern of secret payments deliberately left off financial disclosures can transform run-of-the-mill civil campaign violations into a criminal matter. While some may think campaign violations are trifles, remember that Al Capone was brought down by financial crimes (tax cheating), not his underlying deeds.
Fourth, how many other payments and women are out there? It is far from clear that McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels are the only women Trump considered paying off. If there were other payments to hush up women, investigators will need examine who made the payments, the context in which they were made and whether a pattern of deliberate campaign-finance violations emerges. One does wonder just how many “mulligans” Trump’s evangelical flunkies are willing to give him.
Fifth, did anyone else, including the Russians, know about Trump’s payments? For those who think the Russians “have” something on Trump, this provides an interesting line of inquiry. Russian operatives’ knowledge of Trump’s sex life, of a list of accusers and of payoffs, would be powerful leverage for Moscow. One thing is clear: Trump conducted himself in such a way as to leave himself open to blackmail. There may or may not have been the Steele dossier’s alleged tape of Trump in Moscow with prostitutes, but there is certainly reason to believe that there was enough evidence of Trump’s poor personal conduct to fill a whole file cabinet in some Russian intelligence agency’s office.
In sum, the first released Cohen tape gives the public and investigators a glimpse into the shady fix-world of Cohen. How much “fixing” he did — and whether it leads to more evidence, more witnesses and more bad facts — remains to be seen, but this first installment of the Cohen tapes suggests that we know only a fraction of the facts that prosecutors could be assembling.