Trump wanted top ally in charge of Cohen probe: report

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE reportedly asked former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker late last year whether the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, a Trump ally, could take over the investigation into money paid to two women who alleged they had affairs with the president, among other subjects.

The New York Times reported that Trump requested that U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman be put in charge of the investigation that has since resulted in jail time for former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, even though Berman recused himself from the probe.

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Whitaker, whose tenure ended last week with the confirmation of Attorney General William Barr, knew Berman could not un-recuse himself, the Times reported. Trump then grew frustrated with Whitaker and the appointee's inability to address his mounting legal problems.

The Times cited the previously unreported request from Trump as one of several examples of the president seeking to influence the investigations into his presidency, his associates and his business interests.

Asked about the report a short time after it was published, Trump denied he had asked Whitaker to change who was in charge of the investigation into Cohen.

"I don’t know who gave you that," Trump said, calling the report "fake news."

He offered praise for Whitaker, calling the former acting attorney general a "very straight shooter" and "a very fine man."

Department of Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement to The Times that the White House has not asked Whitaker to interfere in investigations.

"Under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, then-acting Attorney General Whitaker stated that ‘at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation,’ ” Kupec said. “Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony.”

The statement referred to Feb. 8 testimony where Whitaker clashed with Democrats on the House Judiciary panel. The Times reported that House Democrats are now looking into whether Whitaker perjured himself.

Trump's treatment of the Justice Department has raised red flags among Democrats who have expressed concern that his appointment of Whitaker, and later Barr, were intended to curtail special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Trump regularly decries that probe as a "witch hunt."

Berman, who donated to Trump's 2016 campaign, recused himself from the investigation prior to an FBI raid of Cohen's hotel room and office last April. Trump had interviewed Berman personally for the U.S. attorney job in New York's Southern District in a break with traditional hiring practices for the role.

The Southern District's investigation into Cohen resulted in the longtime Trump ally pleading guilty to bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance violations. The latter charge was related to the payments made during the 2016 campaign to two women who alleged they had affairs with Trump.

Cohen has since been sentenced to three years in prison for those crimes, as well as a charge of lying to Congress.

Trump has accused Cohen of lying to secure a more favorable prison sentence, deriding his former associate as a "rat."

Cohen is set to testify before Congress in the coming weeks.

Updated at 4:25 p.m.