The Slatest

Michael Cohen Secretly Recorded Trump Discussing a Hush Agreement, Reportedly In Person

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, walks down Park Avenue on June 15 in New York.
Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, walks down Park Avenue on June 15 in New York.
Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

Update: 3:20 p.m.: The Wall Street Journal is reporting the shocking new detail that Michael Cohen was meeting Donald Trump in person when he recorded their conversation about a hush agreement with a Playboy model Karen McDougal, who has alleged an affair with Trump. The Journal reports:

In the conversation, Mr. Cohen told Mr. Trump about the American Media deal [to buy McDougal’s story] and suggested that they consider acquiring the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story themselves, the people with knowledge of the matter said. Mr. Trump, appearing open to the suggestion, asked how to proceed and whether he should write a check or pay in another manner, they said. It isn’t clear why Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump didn’t ultimately acquire the rights from American Media.

The recording of the conversation, reported earlier Friday by The New York Times, was less than two minutes long and cut off before the conversation ended, the people said.

Original post: Two months before the 2016 election, Donald Trump’s then–personal attorney Michael Cohen secretly recorded him discussing payments to a Playboy model who alleged an affair with Trump, the New York Times reported on Friday.

The president’s current attorney, Rudy Giuliani, confirmed to the Times that Trump and Cohen had discussed payments to Karen McDougal on tape. From the Times:

Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, confirmed in a telephone conversation on Friday that Mr. Trump had discussed the payments with Mr. Cohen on the tape but said the payment was ultimately never made. He said the recording was less than two minutes and demonstrated that the president had done nothing wrong.

“Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of it in advance,” Mr. Giuliani said, adding that Mr. Trump had directed Mr. Cohen that if he were to make a payment related to the woman, write a check, rather than sending cash, so it could be properly documented.

“In the big scheme of things, it’s powerful exculpatory evidence,” Mr. Giuliani.

According to the Times, the recording was among the files seized during an FBI raid of Cohen’s offices in April. On Thursday, the special master overseeing the attorney-client privilege discovery in that case ruled that 1,452 of Cohen’s 4,085 privilege requests are not protected, which suggests prosecutors in the Southern District of New York might now have a tape of the president that is directly related to their investigation of potential campaign finance violations.*

Richard Hasen, an elections expert and University of California–Irvine School of Law professor (and occasional Slate contributor), told Slate that the contents of the recording could have an impact on any campaign finance case.

“If Trump indicates [a payment] is motivated to help the campaign he could be in trouble,” Hasen said. But, he added, if the conversation were “about his marriage things would look much better for him legally.”

The news is further shocking because of the identity of the woman who was being discussed. It is notably McDougal and not adult film performer Stormy Daniels. Unlike Daniels, McDougal never had any agreement with Trump. Her non-disclosure agreement, which has since been nullified following a lawsuit and a settlement, was with American Media Inc., the company that owns National Enquirer.*

In her since settled lawsuit with AMI, McDougal said she had no idea that her attorney at the time, Keith Davidson, had been in contact with Cohen about the negotiations. Trump was not a party to the deal between her and AMI, and thus would have had no reason to be informed about it. The Times had previously reported that McDougal’s lawyer had informed Cohen when the AMI deal was done, a fact McDougal said in legal filings she only learned from that reporting. Friday’s news indicates that Cohen may have actually passed this information on to Trump. Again, the ramifications here for any campaign finance case involving payments made by AMI to potentially benefit the Trump campaign without disclosing them could be very important.

Trump’s spokespeople have repeatedly denied that he had an affair with McDougal. When news of the deal between AMI and McDougal broke days before the election, campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said, “We have no knowledge of any of this” and called McDougal’s claim of an affair “totally untrue.”

In February, a White House spokesperson told the New Yorker that Trump denied any affair: “This is an old story that is just more fake news. The President says he never had a relationship with McDougal.”

McDougal detailed the alleged affair in an interview with Anderson Cooper in March, but since reaching an agreement to regain her “life rights” surrounding the affair, she has not spoken publicly about it and has not been reported to try to profit off of those life rights in any way.

This post originally misstated that the Special Master’s ruling on attorney-client privilege had occurred on Friday. This post originally misspelled the name of the National Enquirer as the National Inquirer.