WASHINGTON - Two months before the 2016 election, longtime Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen secretly taped a conversation with the then-GOP presidential nominee about whether to purchase the rights to Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal's account of her alleged extramarital affair with Trump, according to three people familiar with the conversation.
The recording, which Cohen made surreptitiously in Trump Tower in early September 2016, was seized by federal agents who are investigating Cohen for potential bank and election-law crimes, according to multiple people familiar with the probe.
Trump and Cohen's discussion came a month after AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer, bought the rights to McDougal's story for $150,000, then shelved it.
In the 90-second conversation, Cohen can be heard urging Trump to consider buying the rights to McDougal's claims to better "control" the story, according to people familiar with the exchange.
"I think we need to bring this in-house," Cohen tells Trump, according to one person with knowledge of the recording.
In a statement Friday, President Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani confirmed the recording's existence and said no payment was ever made. He said the conversation does not pose any legal jeopardy for the president.
"Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of [the AMI payment] in advance," Giuliani said. "In the big scheme of things, it's powerful exculpatory evidence."
However, the recording shows that Trump - whose spokeswoman denied he had any knowledge of the AMI deal with McDougal when it became public days before the election - in fact knew of her claims and efforts to keep her quiet at least two months earlier.
The timing of the conversation between the GOP nominee and his longtime "fixer" also provides more evidence that Cohen was trying to squash embarrassing stories about Trump before the election - a major focus of the investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
As part of their probe, investigators have sought documents related to Cohen's interactions with AMI, as well as to an October 2016 hush-money payment he arranged with adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, who also claimed to have had a sexual encounter with Trump.
To pursue criminal charges against Cohen for breaking federal election law, prosecutors would have to have evidence that the payments went to the women to influence the election, rather than just to protect Trump personally.
Cohen, who served for a decade as a lawyer at the Trump Organization, was known to sometimes record conversations with associates, store them digitally and then replay them for colleagues, as The Washington Post reported in April.
In the brief recording made in September 2016, Cohen can be heard telling Trump that AMI had recently purchased the rights to McDougal's account of a 10-month affair that allegedly took place soon after he married Melania.
Cohen then proposed that Trump buy the rights to "control" the inflammatory story, according to multiple people familiar with the exchange.
Two people familiar with the conversation said Cohen was suggesting Trump buy the rights from AMI.
Trump is largely silent in the conversation, the people said, neither expressing surprise nor indicating whether he knew previously about the AMI deal.
He asks Cohen how they would pursue buying the rights. The two men discuss whether to use a check, rather than cash, which would create a record, according to the people. A Trump adviser said Trump suggested using a check, while a person close to Cohen claimed Cohen was the one who advised that route.
The recording cuts off with Trump mid-sentence, one person said, and picks up in the middle of a conversation Cohen is having with another person.
The New York Times first reported the existence of the recording.
It is unclear why Cohen and Trump discussed how to purchase the story from AMI and then apparently did not complete the transaction.
The revelation of the recording of their conversation comes as Cohen has signaled that he might be willing to cooperate with the investigation into his business dealings.
On Friday, Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, said in a statement: "Obviously, there is an ongoing investigation, and we are sensitive to that. But suffice it to say that when the recording is heard, it will not hurt Mr. Cohen. Any attempt at spin can not change what is on the tape."
The recording was seized in April when FBI agents raided Cohen's residences and office, seeking records related to McDougal and Cohen, among other documents.
A person familiar with the investigation said Trump's attorneys, who are reviewing all the material seized in the raids, have not claimed the recording is a privileged attorney-client conversation.
The Wall Street Journal first reported four days before the November 2016 election that McDougal had been paid by the National Enquirer. At the time, Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks called McDougal's claims "totally untrue."
"We have no knowledge of any of this," she said.
Earlier this year, in an interview with CNN, McDougal detailed what she said was a 10-month affair she had with Trump in 2006 and 2007.
The former Playboy model said that after their first sexual encounter, Trump tried to offer her money. She said that she turned down the offer and that she began a relationship that included interactions between the two "many dozens of times."
In August 2016, AMI paid McDougal $150,000 for the right to her story but never published an article based on her account. As part of the deal, McDougal signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevented her from revealing the affair.
She filed a lawsuit against AMI this year seeking to regain the rights to her story and settled with the company in April.
In her lawsuit against AMI, McDougal said she was happy when AMI bought her story then did not publish it, because she was not anxious for publicity. But she said her opinion changed this year when she learned new details about the deal, including that her attorney at the time and AMI had both been in contact with Cohen while her deal was being negotiated.
On Friday, McDougal attorney Carol Heller wrote on Twitter that she was "learning of this in real time just like everyone else." She declined to comment further.
Peter Stris, a lawyer who negotiated McDougal's settlement with AMI earlier this year, tweeted, "When @realDonaldTrump said we were lying, do you think he meant we WEREN'T?"
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The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey, Tom Hamburger and Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.
STAINES-UPON-THAMES, England - By ancient law and custom, the queen is entitled to claim ownership of any wild swan paddling in her vast realm. This is because mute swans were viewed as royal birds, symbols of high status, and once-upon-a-time aristocrats enjoyed roasting the young ones for Christmas feasts. Yum!
Much has changed since 1186 - the goose has swapped places with the swan on the holiday carving board - but one ritual that has survived into the 21st century is the annual Swan Upping, the atavistic, bizarre but wonderful count of the mute swan population along the Thames River.
Each year, in the third week in July, grown men in white pants squeeze themselves into brightly varnished skiffs and, commanded by the Swan Marker to Her Majesty the Queen, a hearty 68-year-old bloke named David Barber, who sells boat engines, they row up the Thames and wrangle the swans to shore for inspection, marking and counting.
As far as poultry tourism goes, watching Swan Upping cannot be beat: These snowy white beasts, with their long curved necks, are truly elegant waterfowl. They're also super-territorial and, despite the official name of the species, anything but mute. They hiss and snort and holler.
This week, as the queen's swan wranglers made their way past Penton Hook Lock, the watermen cried out "All-Up!" signaling they'd spotted a pair of adults - he a cob, she a pen - with a half dozen downy gray cygnets.
In quick order, the skiffs surrounded the swans and herded them toward shore. The crew members grabbed the birds by the necks and torsos, plucked them from the river one by one and, while steadying the swans against the floor of the boats, tied the birds' legs behind their backs with lengths of shoe lace.
This operation is not for the timid, and best done with speed and decisiveness.
At The Swan pub on Monday, one of the oarsmen, Roger Spencer, 54, was hoisting a few pints before luncheon, when he told me that an adult that morning had gnashed him on his belly with a claw, which protrudes from the bird's webbed feet.
"It's the claws you watch for," he advised.
You might think it'd be the powerful wings or the honking big beak, but no.
"They eat grass. There's nothing to the beak. A little serrated edge," Spencer said. "They might nibble you a bit, but that's it."
The swans, surprisingly, were pretty chill after they were caught. The young made anxious piping noises, but the adults - famous for their fierce guardianship of the brood - remained regal and unruffled. Mostly, they voided their bowels, sat patiently in a pile of their own poop and allowed venturesome children to pet their feathers.
The queen's swan man, bedecked in a scarlet jacket embroidered in gold, took extra care not to soil his splendid uniform. "I've got enough gold braid that if I fell into the river, I'd drown," said Barber, who had tucked a large swan feather into his naval cap. He applied for this job 25 years ago. His predecessor, Capt. John Turk, was memorialized with a riverside bronze statue.
The oarsmen - some representing the queen, the others from the old trade organizations of the Vintners and Dyers - rowed past Windsor Castle, through the various locks, alongside stubborn bits of remnant wild land and the reeds the swans need for their nests.
It is called the Swan Upping, Barber explained for the thousandth time, "because we row up the river and pick up the swans."
In olden times, the upping took place all over England, with hundreds of boats and gamesmen plying all the major rivers and tributaries.
Swans likely populated England after the last ice age. The bones of mute swans can be found here in trash heaps from the Roman conquest. From the 12th century, there began an elaborate system of ownership, with the crown granting special license to landed lords and special institutions, such as the universities, abbeys and livery companies, to husband the swans.
The lucky few who were granted permission, and paid fees, marked their swans' beaks with nicks of a sharp knife - hieroglyphs of triangles, crosses, dots and bands, which were recorded on rolls of velum.
By 1378, there was an Office of the Keeper of the King's Swans. By 1405, no one could own a swan unless given permission by the crown. By 1547, it was illegal to mow the grass within 40 feet of a nest, according to Arthur MacGregor's research published in the journal Antropozoologica.
Miscreant yeoman who poached a swan egg, or harassed nesting swans, or - heaven forbid - ate a swan could be punished by a year and a day in jail.
Now the upping is limited to six boats and a 79-mile stretch of the Thames River between Sunbury Lock and Abingdon Bridge, and nobody eats the birds.
"It's all about education and conservation today," Barber said.
This all takes place a 45-minute train ride west of central London, in exurban fringe villages, Theresa May country, which exudes the simulacra vibe of ye ole England - populated by quaint riverside pubs, arthritic Labradors and garden fetishists. A few miles away are dreary auto shops and dying high streets. Above is the 24/7 roaring flight path of nearby Heathrow International Airport.
"So glad to be here and see it," said Richard Poad, 70, a retired airline pilot who lives nearby aboard his houseboat, Otto.
"The tradition is wonderful and it's important to educate the young," Poad said, remarking that the swans have been harassed by "the hooligan element" armed with air rifles.
He was impressed by professionalism of the uppers. He recalled that a generation ago, the annual count was "was more of a drunken pub crawl."
On Monday, opening day, a press boat accompanied the upping. At Romney Lock, the crews hoisted their glasses for a photograph, drank a tot of rum and hailed, "The queen!"
They counted 33 cygnets in eight broods by the time they reached Eton College. "Not bad at all," Barber said.
On the lawns, the teams laid the trussed birds side by side, weighed them and gave them a quick inspection. (The most common problem for the swans is becoming entangled in plastic trash or fishing line, and the uppers can usually free them on site.)
Then the swans were divvied up between those belonging to Queen Elizabeth II and the Vintners and Dyers guilds. The crown usually claims half of the new cygnets. And so, on this first day, 17 of 33 of the juveniles went to the queen and remained unmarked, the others went to the guilds and were awarded a numbered ring on their webbed feet.
The whole ritual is aided by Oxford professor Christopher Perrins, the queen's Swan Warden.
Studies of swan mortality by Perrins and colleagues discovered that the small lead pellets used by fishermen to weight their lines were being consumed by the swans and slowly poisoning them.
After a lead ban in the late 1980s, the swans rebounded and the population doubled in size. Now the numbers have mostly leveled off, though Perrins warns the swans are still threatened by aggressive dogs, habitat loss, non-native mink, reckless boaters and, for the first time this year, a nasty strain of avian flu, which decimated some of the Windsor Castle flocks.
An earlier authority on swans, Norman Ticehurst, observed in 1926 that the royal license required to keep swans, alongside the annual upping, conducted and recorded over centuries, probably saved the birds. He praised the system as "one of the most interesting experiments in combined bird protection and aviculture that England has produced."
The Oxford professor agrees. The aristocrats craved the status that a pair regal swans in the castle moat or manor lake could afford them. "It is rare to preserve such a big edible, easily caught bird in a heavily populated area," he said. "If it weren't for the snob appeal of owning swans, we probably wouldn't have them."