In a secretly recorded phone call between Donald Trump, at the time a candidate for president, and Michael Cohen, his attorney, the portion prompting intense scrutiny now is the one in which Trump and Cohen appear to discuss a payment made to Karen McDougal, who says she had an affair with Trump.
But before the pair discussed the Playboy model, they discussed a perhaps-unexpected subject: pastors.
“Your guy is a good guy,” Trump told Cohen, according to a transcript released Tuesday, after CNN obtained a recording of the September 2016 phone call.
“Who, Pastor Scott?” Cohen asked. A moment later, he realized that Trump meant a different pastor: “No, you’re talking about Mark Burns.”
At the time, Burns had just had a very bad week. The South Carolina pastor, who appeared frequently on TV during the campaign as an outspoken supporter of Trump, first tweeted a cartoon of Hillary Clinton in blackface, then apologized for it. Days later, a CNN reporter asked Burns on camera about numerous inconsistencies in his résumé.
Asked about a fraternity he claimed to be a member of, Burns first said that he started the process of joining, then said that “obviously” a hacker had added that claim to his online biography. The reporter pointed out that Burns had served in the National Guard, not the Army Reserves as he had claimed. Then when the reporter raised Burns’s claim to have received a bachelor of science degree from North Greenville University and to be pursuing a master’s degree at Andersonville Theological Seminary, Burns first said the whole interview had been off the record (the reporter said Burns hadn’t said that before and knew the camera was rolling) and then eventually walked out.
Burns apologized on Facebook: “As a young man starting my church in Greenville, South Carolina, I overstated several details of my biography because I was worried I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a new pastor. This was wrong, I wasn’t truthful then and I have to take full responsibility for my actions.”
His Facebook statement also said: “I do also want to set the record straight about why this attack is happening — because I am a black man supporting Donald Trump for President.”
That was the context in which Trump brought up Burns, while talking with Cohen. Cohen apparently thought at first that Trump was talking about Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor who also supported Trump during the campaign.
Both pastors are among Trump’s relatively few supporters in the black church. Black voters overall went overwhelmingly for Clinton over Trump, 88 percent to 8 percent.
On the call, after telling Cohen that he believes Burns is “a good guy,” Trump said he “can’t believe this” about “what’s happening,” apparently to Burns. He asked Cohen: “Can we use him anymore?”
The audio recording does not include Cohen’s precise response about whether the campaign could keep using Burns as a surrogate despite his bad press that week. Cohen replied, “You’re talking about Mark Burns. He’s, we’ve told him to —.” But what exactly Cohen told Burns is unintelligible on the call.
Trump replied then, “I don’t need that — Mark Burns, are we using him?” Cohen said, “No, no.” Then another person cut in, changing the subject.
Both Burns and Scott did not immediately respond to calls from The Washington Post on Wednesday morning. But Burns tweeted his interpretation of the call late Tuesday night.
He said the tape shows what he already believed — that other people in the campaign wanted to push him out but that Trump wanted to keep him involved.
Burns did stay involved until Election Day and after. More than a year after Trump’s election, Burns was in the Oval Office — where he rescued the president from a spider.