This article has been updated.
Fox News teased parts of its interview with President Trump in a series of tweets Wednesday. It included this exchange, in which Trump tries to rationalize why his former attorney Michael Cohen swore under oath that Trump had ordered him to make hush-money payments to two women that resulted in campaign finance violations.
“Did you know about the payments?” Fox’s Ainsley Earhardt asks.
“Later on I knew,” Trump replies. “Later on.”
He goes on to say that the payments to the women — $150,000 paid to former Playboy model Karen McDougal by the publisher of the National Enquirer and $130,000 paid by Cohen himself to adult film actress Stormy Daniels — didn’t come from campaign money.
“That’s a much bigger thing,” Trump said. “Did they come out of the campaign? They didn’t come out of the campaign. They came from me.”
It’s not clear why Trump might think that. Had the campaign paid and reported the money, it wouldn’t have been illegal. That the payments were made and then not reported did violate the law, according to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Cohen is culpable because the violations were intentional. If Trump knew, as Cohen alleges, he may be culpable, too.
The “alleges” in that sentence refers to the fact that, while Cohen admitted guilt, as far as the public is concerned it’s his sworn testimony against Trump’s public denials. Government prosecutors told the court Tuesday that they had evidence bolstering the charges to which Cohen pleaded guilty that included documents seized from his home and office, audio recordings, witness testimony and documents from the Trump Organization and American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer. None of that is public, including anything which might prove that Trump directed Cohen’s actions. That gives Trump an opportunity.
Trump says that, contrary to Cohen’s assertions, he only knew about the payments “later,” though when later isn’t clear. When he knew, of course, is central to evaluating whether Cohen’s presentation of what happened is accurate and, by extension, the extent to which Trump might be implicated in having violated federal law.
There’s another situation where the same question needs to be answered: When did Trump know about the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016? If he knew about it in advance, legal experts who have spoken with The Post suggest that Trump could be considered to have been involved in a conspiracy to violate legal prohibitions against soliciting something of value from a foreign actor.
In light of those concerns, let’s evaluate what Trump may have known about the Trump Tower meeting and the payments to Daniels and McDougal as well as how and when he’s denied knowing about them.
We can visualize the information as follows.
The Trump Tower meeting
The first mention of a possible meeting between Trump campaign officials and a lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton provided by the Russian government came in an email to Donald Trump Jr. on June 3, 2016. Over the next few days, Trump Jr. and his contact with a Russian musician and developer named Emin Agalarov worked to establish where and when the meeting would take place. Trump Jr. and Agalarov probably spoke by phone twice June 6 to finalize that the meeting would occur. Between those calls, Trump Jr. spoke with someone calling from a blocked number. Immediately afterward, he called Agalarov back.
His father’s home number is blocked.
The next night, June 7, after the meeting was set, Trump gave a speech celebrating primary wins in which he promised another speech the following week where he would “be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.” The dirt offered by the Russians in the June 9 meeting wasn’t considered useful by Trump Jr. and others present; the Trump speech about the Clintons was postponed.
When news reports emerged last month — on July 26, 2018 — that Cohen was prepared to tell investigators that Trump knew about the meeting in advance, Trump again denied that this was the case.
Update: In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday, Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis made the most direct assertion to date that Trump might have known about the Trump Tower meeting in advance. Cohen, Davis said, was present for a conversation between Trump and Trump Jr. in which the meeting was discussed.
The Daniels payment
As with the Trump Tower meeting, our understanding of how the agreement between Daniels and Cohen came about has evolved over time.
We know, from documents filed by the government in relation to the hearing Tuesday in which Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, that the chairman of AMI had allegedly reached out to the Trump campaign only two months after Trump announced his candidacy. The chairman, David Pecker, is an old friend of Trump and, according to the government document (which Cohen didn’t contest) “offered to help deal with negative stories about [Trump’s] relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided.” That was in August 2015.
On Oct. 8, 2016, Daniels’s attorney contacted AMI. In the next few days, the government document alleges, AMI contacted Cohen, who quickly made a deal to buy Daniels’s story. No payment was made for weeks, though, prompting Daniels’s attorney to threaten to take the story to another outlet. On Oct. 27, Daniels was paid.
There’s no concrete evidence besides Cohen’s sworn testimony that Trump knew about the payment at this point. But Cohen, according to the government document, reached an agreement with the Trump Organization to be repaid for fronting the $130,000 payment Daniels received under the cover of false invoices. The first payment was made Feb. 14, 2017.
It wasn’t until Jan. 12, 2018, that the agreement with Daniels was reported by the Wall Street Journal. On April 5, as the story unfolded, Trump was asked directly about whether he knew about the payment by Cohen. His response was terse: “No.”
As more details emerged, including about the repayment of the money to Cohen, Trump’s attorney, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, indicated that he didn’t know when Trump knew about the payment, but that it was after the agreement was reached. (At one point, Giuliani claimed that Trump didn’t know until after the repayments had occurred.)
In that interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Trump offered his “later on” explanation for when he knew.
The McDougal payment
That applied, too, to the payment to McDougal. That assertion, though, is much more questionable.
A representative for McDougal approached AMI in June 2016 about her story. In short order, Pecker and an editor contacted Cohen, according to prosecutors. Cohen agreed to reimburse AMI for buying McDougal’s story. On Aug. 5, the company finalized an agreement with McDougal for $150,000.
In late August or early September of that year, Cohen agreed to buy the rights to McDougal’s story from AMI for $125,000. On about Sept. 6, Cohen and Trump discussed the agreement. They agreed that while Pecker could be trusted not to release the McDougal story, Trump could be at risk if Pecker “gets hit by a truck,” as Trump put it.
How do we know this? Because of the recording Cohen made of the conversation.
In early October, for unknown reasons, AMI canceled the agreement with Cohen, according to prosecutors. On Nov. 4, the Journal reported on the agreement with AMI. Trump never explicitly denied knowledge of the agreement before it being made until Wednesday.
Update: A report from the Wall Street Journal indicates that Pecker provided evidence to prosecutors that included “Mr. Trump’s knowledge of the deals.”
During the briefing Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked whether Trump was lying in April when he denied knowing about the Daniels payment.
“Can you stand here today and say the president has never lied to the American people?” NBC’s Hallie Jackson asked. “Because so many people now look back at that tape of him on Air Force One saying he knew nothing about these payments, when in fact we now know he knew everything about these payments. So has he lied?”
“Look, again, I think that’s a ridiculous accusation,” Sanders replied. “The president in this matter has done nothing wrong, and there are no charges against him.”
That’s a different issue, of course. If Trump was lying, though, and if, as Cohen attests, he knew about the payments before their occurring, he could have violated the law. If he knew about the Trump Tower meeting in advance, the same risk exists.
It’s why knowing what Trump knew and when is so important — and why the president could have an incentive to lie about those details.