The Memo: Cohen fans flames around Trump

Michael Cohen, President TrumpDonald John TrumpVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' Brown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration Pence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ MORE’s former lawyer, is posing a public relations threat, as well as a legal one, to the White House as he keeps himself center stage in the media. 

Cohen gave an interview to ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday, in which he insisted that “of course” Trump knew payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal were wrong.

Asked by anchor George Stephanopoulos about Trump’s assertion that he had not directed his longtime attorney to do anything wrong, Cohen responded, “I don’t think there’s anybody that believes that.”

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Cohen also said the payments, apparently intended to suppress the women’s accusations that they had affairs with the then-candidate about a decade earlier, were made “to help him and the campaign.”

If Trump was indeed complicit in making concealed payments to boost his election chances, it would appear to be a felonious violation of campaign law.

Trump vigorously disputes that suggestion.

“I did nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws, if they even apply, because this was not campaign finance,” the president tweeted on Thursday. “Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me, but he plead to two campaign charges which were not criminal.”

Still, Trump had initially claimed that he had no knowledge of the payments to the women.

The shift in his story — and the willingness of Cohen to blast his former client in the media — creates real dangers for the administration. At a minimum, it keeps the spotlight on Trump’s changing explanations.

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“I think it is very problematic,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist and Trump critic who was communications director for Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz5 takeaways from Barr’s testimony Republicans seek to temper fallout from latest Russia bombshells Cruz says Americans outside Beltway unconcerned with Mueller investigation MORE (R-Texas) during the 2016 presidential primaries.

“It’s not just his word against Trump’s,” he said. “Now it’s his word, corroborated by others including former friend David Pecker. In combination, it’s devastating.”

Pecker is the chairman of American Media Inc. (AMI), the publisher of the National Enquirer. 

Prosecutors this week announced a nonprosecution agreement with AMI over payments it made to McDougal. NBC News reported on Thursday that Trump, Cohen and Pecker had discussed ways that the publisher could help stifle damaging stories about the future president back in August 2015.

It is generally expected on all sides that Cohen will give more media interviews, since he does not have to begin his three-year prison sentence until March.

The man who once said he would “take a bullet” for Trump has turned on him comprehensively, and now seems to see his road to redemption as one that involves a full-bore attack on Trump. 

He also claims to have a higher purpose. In his “Good Morning America” interview, Cohen told Stephanopoulos that he hoped he would “be remembered in history as helping to bring this country back together.”

That kind of grandiosity doesn’t play well with the president’s aides and allies.

Speaking with reporters at the White House on Friday, deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said that the media were “giving credence to a convicted criminal” by paying attention to Cohen.

Gidley added, “He’s a self-admitted liar. You guys all know that. And for him to say, ‘I’m going…to stop lying starting now,’ is somewhat silly.”

There are plenty of Republicans outside the White House who take a similar view, arguing that the extent to which Cohen has changed his tune, together with the crimes of which he has been convicted, render him lacking in credibility.

“One of his crimes has to do with fraud on taxi cabs, so how can you trust anything this guy says?” said John Feehery, a longtime GOP strategist who is also a columnist for The Hill. “Yes, that reflects badly on Trump because Trump hired him — but the more [Cohen] jabbers on, the more damage he does to his own credibility.”

Others loyal to the president contend that Cohen’s media appearances have no real power beyond the capacity to excite the media and people who detest the president anyways. 

“He’ll find plenty of people to talk to, but at this point it’s just people who hate Trump who will love what he has to say,” said Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to the president’s 2016 campaign. “People who love Trump will think they know why he’s saying it.” 

To Bennett, Cohen’s U-turn and fondness for blasting Trump stems from him “feeling jilted or whatever.”

Still, Cohen’s statements come as the waters are rising around Trump. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is due to be sentenced shortly; The Wall Street Journal and New York Times have both reported that prosecutors are looking at the funding of his 2017 inauguration; and special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s probe grinds on.

In that context, even people broadly supportive of the president think Cohen is an unwelcome presence on the media landscape. 

GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said he did not consider Cohen a “particularly credible person.”

But even so, Mackowiak added, “I’m sure [the White House] would prefer he not do all this. It adds fuel to the fire and that’s not what they need.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.