Sean Hannity, President Trump's political caddie, addressed the subject of Michael Cohen's testimony this week in part by expressing empathy with Trump's plight.
The Fox News host interviewed the president for his show from Hanoi, where Trump had been meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Hannity reminded Trump that at a court hearing last year involving Cohen, he too became a topic of conversation: Cohen, formerly Trump’s personal attorney, had been required to identify all of his legal clients, eventually forcing him to name Hannity. Hannity said at the time that he’d simply spoken with Cohen about some real estate deals.
"He was never my attorney,” Hannity told Trump during the interview. “He did apologize to me for his attorney saying that in court, and I can tell you personally, he said to me at least a dozen times, that he made the decision on the payments and he didn’t tell you--"
"Yes,” Trump interjected.
"— told me, personally,” Hannity continued.
The “payments” at issue refers to the $130,000 payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election. The payment led to a federal campaign finance charge against Cohen to which he pleaded guilty last August. Before that payment was revealed early last year, Cohen was repaid by Trump in a series of checks over the course of 2017. During Cohen’s appearance at the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, he presented copies of two of the checks he had received.
Cohen was pressed by Republicans on the committee on his claims that Trump had known about the payment prior to it happening, an argument that Trump continued on Hannity.
"No, he did,” Trump said about Hannity's assertion that Cohen acted on his own initiative without telling him. “And he made a decision. And remember this, he’s an attorney. Whatever decision he makes, you’re supposed to rely on an attorney to make a decision."
Trump’s argument that he didn’t know about the Stormy Daniels payment isn’t new. But it’s much, much harder to defend than it was when he first offered it last April.
“Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?” a reporter asked during a flight on Air Force One at that point.
“No,” Trump responded.
Another reporter later asked, “Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?”
“No,” Trump said. “I don’t know.”
The way Cohen presented the payment before the House committee — under oath, though that should be accompanied by the asterisk of his having pleaded guilty to lying to Congress previously — was straightforward. Cohen got wind that Daniels was shopping around a story about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump in early October, shortly after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape. That tape, in which Trump tells entertainment reporter Billy Bush that he had groped women, was pivotal, Cohen said.
“I don’t think anybody would dispute this belief that after the wildfire that encompassed the Billy Bush tape that a second follow-up to it would have been pleasant,” Cohen said, “and [Trump] was concerned with the effect that it had had on the campaign on how women were seeing him and ultimately whether or not he would have [a] shot in the general election.”
Cohen negotiated a payment with Daniels’s attorney but didn’t immediately pay her. In late October, with Daniels threatening to sell her story elsewhere if she wasn’t paid, Cohen says he raised it with Trump.
“I had gone into Mr. Trump’s office as I did after each and every conversation,” Cohen said on Wednesday, “and he had told me that he had spoken to a couple friends and it’s $130,000. It’s not a lot of money, and we should just do it. So go ahead and do it. And I was at the time with Allen Weisselberg where he directed us to go back to Mr. Weisselberg’s office and figure this all out.”
Weisselberg is the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization.
Cohen made the payment himself from a home equity line of credit — following Trump's instructions, he said — and the story was buried.
How'd Trump know he had that line of credit, Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) asked Cohen.
"Because we discussed it,” Cohen replied. “Because I told him the same thing that I didn't want my wife to find out about it.” He admitted, though, that he had no documentary evidence of Trump's order, no recording as he had in other circumstances.
When Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani first revealed the repayments in an interview with Hannity last May, Trump the next day clarified Giuliani’s (discombobulated) remarks in a series of tweets.
"Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA,” Trump wrote. “These agreements are very common among celebrities and people of wealth. ... The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair, despite already having signed a detailed letter admitting that there was no affair. Prior to its violation by Ms. Clifford and her attorney, this was a private agreement. Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction."
That seems like a tacit acknowledgment of Trump's awareness of the initial payment. But we need not rely on that or Cohen's testimony on Wednesday.
There are, for example, the documents from Cohen’s plea agreement in August. At the time, he pleaded guilty to six financial crimes and two felony campaign finance violations. Those related to the Daniels payment and another payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal earlier in 2016. That agreement, like the one to Daniels, came to Cohen’s attention through an employee of American Media Inc., the parent company for the National Enquirer. In the case of McDougal, though, it was the National Enquirer which made the payment, buying her story and then never running it.
In court, again under oath, Cohen described how the plan worked. He implicated Trump indirectly, saying that he'd made or coordinated the payments at the direction of the candidate involved, obviously referring to Trump. In the document outlining his admitted crimes, Trump is referred to as “Individual 1" — a pseudonym that Cohen on Wednesday very pointedly noted was a reference to Trump.
The document indicates that Cohen was alerted to the Daniels story the day after the “Access Hollywood” story broke, Oct. 8, 2016. Cohen negotiated the agreement and paid it in late October. After reaching an agreement with the Trump Organization to be repaid for the Daniels payoff, Cohen in February sent an invoice to Weisselberg, who ordered that Cohen be paid.
In a document submitted to the court at the time of Cohen's sentencing, the government was explicit about Trump's involvement.
“With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election,” the filing reads. “Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments. In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.”
Those are the prosecutors’ words.
They aren’t only informed by what Cohen told the government. Both the chairman of AMI, David Pecker, and Weisselberg himself provided information to investigators. AMI as a company even reached an agreement with prosecutors to avoid criminal liability.
It’s important that Cohen told the Oversight Committee that he’d been instructed to figure out how payment would work after talking to Weisselberg. It echoes that conversation for which there is a recording: Cohen’s discussion with Trump in early September 2016 about repaying Pecker and AMI for the $150,000 it paid to McDougal.
COHEN: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend, David [Pecker], you know, so that — I’m going to do that right away. I’ve actually come up and I’ve spoken —
TRUMP: Give it to me and [UNINTELLIGIBLE].
COHEN: And, I’ve spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with ...
TRUMP: So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?
COHEN: … funding. Yes. Um, and it’s all the stuff.
TRUMP: Yeah, I was thinking about that.
Trump then appears to give sign-off on the payment.
Here is Cohen, in the broader context of a conversation about the campaign, discussing with Trump how to repay Pecker and noting that he and Weisselberg have discussed how to make it happen.
Asked why he made that recording on Wednesday, Cohen explained that it was because “I knew he wasn't going to pay that money, and David Pecker had already chewed me out on multiple occasions regarding other moneys that he expended."
Ultimately, Pecker dropped the request for repayment in early October, reportedly at the advice of his attorneys who believed it exposed him to the risk of campaign finance charges.
Consider the timing here. Pecker pays McDougal in early August and expects to be repaid. Trump and Cohen drag their feet until, in early September Cohen presses Trump on it. He expects Trump to bail, though, so he records their conversation. A month later, three things happen, one on top of the other: Pecker drops his request to Cohen on advice of counsel, the “Access Hollywood” tape drops and AMI hears about the Daniels payment. Clearly, at this point, AMI isn’t going to get involved in paying Daniels, so Cohen reaches his own agreement — and Trump allegedly again drags his feet.
In late October, with the election looming, Cohen says he and Trump talked, that Trump agreed to make the payment and that Trump tells him to figure it out with Weisselberg. That sequence closely mirrors what’s heard in the recording.
If you’re curious, by the way, this violates the law because payments made in coordination with a campaign to influence an election must be paid with contributions to that campaign and reported. Cohen’s and AMI’s payments were illegal contributions to Trump’s campaign — as Cohen agreed last year. The repayment from Trump to Cohen should also have been reported.
In some ways, Trump's ongoing denial about the Daniels payment mirrors his approach to other significant issues: Stick to the same line even as evidence piles up suggesting the contrary.
It may be a tough sales job.
"I don’t believe there’s anybody out there that believes that I just decided to pay $130,000 on his behalf,” Cohen said during questioning on Wednesday.
That’s likely broadly true, Trump and Hannity notwithstanding.