The Washington Post has confirmed that potential turning point of a story. Investigators have a tape of Cohen and Trump discussing purchasing the rights to Playboy model Karen McDougal's story of an alleged affair with Trump from the National Enquirer's parent company, about two months before the 2016 election. The New York Times first reported the story. Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani confirmed the tape exists but said it is actually “exculpatory,” because Trump suggests the payment should be documented, and the payment was not actually made.
Let's assume for a moment that is true and nothing on the tape is, in and of itself, damning. It still raises some important questions, the most important of which is: Why were they even talking about such things?
Our understanding of Trump and Cohen's arrangement was that Cohen handled these matters while deliberately leaving Trump in the dark. That is the defense that has been offered in the case of porn star Stormy Daniels, who actually did get a payment from Cohen. It also seemed to be the Trump team's defense for McDougal. “We have no knowledge of any of this,” spokeswoman Hope Hicks said when it was revealed the National Enquirer had paid for McDougal's story.
That denial has now fallen apart; Trump clearly knew about the Enquirer paying for the story, given he was talking about buying the rights to it. And if Cohen kept Trump in the dark about Daniels, why wouldn't he also keep Trump in the dark about McDougal? Why wall it off for the porn star but not the Playmate? That doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
The other key question is how this plays into the payment McDougal did get from the Enquirer's publisher, American Media Inc. Given the Enquirer is run by Trump ally David Pecker, it has long been alleged and suspected that Pecker was doing Trump a favor by buying McDougal's story and then not running it — a practice known as “catch and kill.” The practical effect was basically the same as Cohen paying Daniels: The woman alleging the affair was not allowed to go public with her claim. And we know, based on The Post's reporting last month, that Cohen was given a heads-up about stories the Enquirer was going to run on Trump. It suggested a very cozy relationship.
There is plenty we still need to learn here, not least of which is what Trump actually said on the tape. But we know now at least the firewall between Trump and Cohen on these matters was not as impenetrable as we have been led to believe. If they talked about this, there is no telling what else they talked about and what else Cohen, who appears increasingly anxious to cooperate with authorities, might be able to spill — that is not already on tape.