The feud between President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE and Michael Cohen entered a new phase this week when Trump lashed out at his former personal lawyer for releasing a secret recording of a sensitive conversation the two men had in September 2016.
The fight has intensified legal and political problems for the president surrounding efforts to quiet an ex-Playboy model who said she had an affair with Trump in 2006. It also creates a new headache for the White House as it continues to deal with fallout from Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and trade disputes with some of the world’s biggest economies.
“It’s a distraction, and it also raises concerns about what else [Cohen] could release or give to authorities,” said Republican strategist Ryan Williams, who added that the tape’s release should be “very troubling for the president and the White House.”
Cohen’s recording strongly suggests Trump knew about the model’s plan to sell her story about their alleged affair, and the tape set off alarm bells about what is on the dozen other recordings made by Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer that are now in the hands of investigators.
Williams said Cohen’s decision authorizing his lawyer, Lanny Davis, to release the tapes shows he has “clearly jettisoned the president and his interests” and is willing to hurt Trump with the information he has at his disposal — possibly by cooperating with federal prosecutors investigating Cohen’s business dealings. Davis is a columnist for The Hill.
Cohen’s shift in loyalty has prompted some Trump allies outside the West Wing to voice their annoyance with Cohen, who previously said he would “take a bullet” for Trump. They said his decision to release the tape was unethical and may have violated attorney-client privilege, even though Trump’s legal team waived privilege to allow prosecutors to obtain the recording.
Others voiced hope that Cohen’s recordings might shine a negative spotlight on members of the news media who spoke with him, which they said could shift the focus away from his conversations with Trump.
“Cohen recorded everything,” said Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign official. “The juiciest parts may be yet to come.”
Trump hinted at the same thing Wednesday morning when he tweeted that “there are other clients and many reporters that are taped — can this be so? Too bad!”
Trump’s anger at his former attorney was also on full display.
“What kind of a lawyer would tape a client?” he asked.
On Wednesday, speculation was firmly focused on whether Cohen might have other dirt on Trump and whether there would be any legal consequences for the president if it comes to light.
The September 2016 recording undercut the Trump campaign’s denial that Trump had any knowledge of a possible payoff for the former Playboy model, Karen McDougal.
It also raised questions about whether recordings exist of possible conversations about payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, who says she had an extramarital affair with Trump in 2006.
“For months, we have been demanding the release of the tapes concerning my client,” Daniels’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, tweeted. “Mr. Cohen and his [attorneys] refuse to provide us the tapes, which is a direct ethical violation (see letter). If Mr. Cohen wants to do the right thing, where are tapes relating to my client?”
Federal prosecutors are reportedly looking into whether payments to McDougal and Daniels violated campaign finance law.
The tape connects Trump with Cohen’s actions, but legal experts are divided on whether it is enough to prove the two men had intent to make an illegal in-kind contribution to the president’s campaign by squelching the affair allegation.
Trump has previously denied knowledge of the $130,000 payment to Daniels that was facilitated by Cohen.
Prosecutors in New York are also looking into whether the publisher of the National Enquirer, American Media Inc. (AMI), acted improperly on behalf of Trump through its dealings with Cohen, according to The Wall Street Journal.
McDougal sold the rights to her story to American Media in August 2016 for $150,000. On the tape, Cohen referred to a plan to purchase the rights to McDougal’s story from AMI, but it is unclear whether such a payment was made.
The White House stayed publicly silent about the tapes on Wednesday, leaving the response effort to Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani has disputed the notion that the recording shows Trump had prior knowledge of the McDougal deal, and he argued that the tape contains “powerful exculpatory evidence” that exonerates Trump.
He also disputed the veracity of the tape by saying Trump did not say Cohen should “pay with cash,” as Davis claimed.
“If Cohen is telling the truth why are he and Lanny Davis misrepresenting the language from President Trump ‘Do not pay by cash...CHECK.’ And why are they leaking falsely privileged and confidential information. So much for ethics!” Giuliani tweeted on Wednesday.