The Slatest

Cohen: Trump Knew Hush-Money Payments Were Wrong

Cohen, appearing very sad, walks out of a doorway followed by people in suits.
Michael Cohen leaves US Federal Court in New York after pleading guilty to charges of tax evasion, false statements, and illegal campaign contributions on December 12, 2018.
Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

A somber-looking Michael Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday over charges related to campaign finance violations, bank fraud, and lying to Congress about a Trump Tower deal in Moscow, appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America to apologize for his loyalty to Donald Trump and call for the president to take responsibility for his actions.

In the interview, which was filmed late Thursday, Cohen said he knew at the time of his crimes that what he was doing was wrong and that he regretted the “bad path” he followed and his 10 years of loyalty to Trump. But he also insisted he would “not be the villain of his story” and that he has hope that he “will be remembered as helping to bring this country back together.”

The interview served as a reminder of the major transformation Cohen, who once said he would “take a bullet” for the president, has made. “I gave loyalty to someone who truly does not deserve loyalty,” he said. He later added: “I’ll spend the rest of my life to fix the mistake I’ve made.”

Cohen also asserted that Trump was directly involved in the hush money payments to suppress the stories of Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels and emphasized that Trump knew the payments were “wrong” but made them to protect his campaign. “You have to remember at the point in time that this matter came out two weeks or so before the election, post-Billy Bush comments, so he was very concerned how it would affect the election,” Cohen said.

When George Stephanopoulos asked Cohen why the public should believe him now, given his record of lying, Cohen initially acted defensive but then said he should be trusted because the special counsel’s office found him credible. Asked if he was still cooperating with the special counsel investigation, Cohen said he would answer any questions investigators had for him.

On the separate issue of the special counsel’s probe into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians before and during the time Russian operatives were working actively to meddle in the election, Cohen said definitively he believed that Trump was lying. The topic was not pursued further.

The interview was filmed after Trump tweeted a string of tweets that morning insisting Cohen was “supposed to know the law” and that “a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made.” The president also insisted he did nothing wrong, anyway, because the hush money payments made to women were not campaign costs. “Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me, but he plead to two campaign charges which were not criminal and of which he probably was not…guilty even on a civil basis,” he tweeted. “Those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did-including the fact that his family was temporarily let off the hook.”

As Ben Mathis-Lilley pointed out on Slate, there is no evidence Trump asked for Cohen’s advice as to how to make the payments legally, and even then, getting a lawyer involved in committing a crime wouldn’t mean Trump didn’t commit the crime if he was aware of the illegal nature of the payments, as Cohen insists he was.

Trump’s tweets Thursday were likely sparked in part by the news not long after Cohen’s sentencing that American Media Inc., the publishing company behind the National Enquirer, admitted to involvement in the hush money payment to Karen McDougal in exchange for immunity. Since Cohen had already been convicted in the scheme, it appears the cooperation could only mean bad news for the president, who, it has been reported, met directly with AMI’s Chairman and CEO, David Pecker (also a personal friend of Trump’s), to discuss the payment. In his interview with ABC, Cohen emphasize that Trump took the lead on the McDougal payment: “[It] was really between him and David Pecker and David Pecker’s Counsel,” he said. “I just reviewed the documents.” Asked if Trump knew the deal was wrong, Cohen said yes.

As for the more personal elements of Trump’s tweet, Cohen rejected the notion that he wanted to embarrass the president. “Instead of him taking responsibility for his actions, what does he do? He attacks my family,” Cohen said. “It’s never good to be on the wrong side of the president of the United States.”