Trump did nothing wrong, White House says after Cohen's guilty plea
Trump says in new interview he knew about payments 'later on' despite existence of earlier recording
The White House is stressing that President Donald Trump has not been charged with a crime and did "nothing wrong" in his dealings with longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen.
Cohen pleaded guilty Tuesday in New York to campaign finance violations.
Most damaging to Trump were statements by Cohen indicating he and Trump had arranged the six-figure payments of hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels and a former Playboy model Karen McDougal, to influence the election by stifling the publication of potentially damaging stories about Trump.
Despite the prospect of prison time, Cohen would not accept a pardon from Trump if offered, his lawyer Lanny Davis predicted.
"The answer is definitely no, under no circumstances, since he came to the judgment after Mr. Trump's election [as] president of the United States, that his suitability is a serious risk to our country," Davis told CNN.
Cohen's lawyer's statements came as Trump offered another version of his knowledge of the payments in an excerpt of an interview released by Fox News.
"Later on I knew," Trump said in the clip, with the full interview set to air Thursday morning. "And they weren't taken out of campaign finance ... they didn't come out of the campaign; they came from me."
It wasn't clear from the clip what timeframe Trump meant by "later on." It also wasn't clear if Trump was asked why he never followed the proper channels in reporting his knowledge of the payments.
In March, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said "there was no knowledge of any payments from the president, and he has denied all these allegations."
A month later Trump on Air Force One denied knowledge of the payments to reporters.
"You'll have to ask Michael Cohen," he said. Michael is my attorney. You'll have to ask Michael."
In audio recorded by Cohen and made public in July, Trump is made aware during the 2016 campaign of a payment to the publisher of the National Enquirer to help quash a story concerning McDougal.
Sanders couldn't explain the apparent contradiction between Trump's most recent "later on" statement and the recording of him hearing about a potential payment before it is even made.
"Just because Michael Cohen has made a deal, doesn't mean anything with regards to the president," she said.
When asked if it's possible that payments to women other than Daniels and McDougal would be revealed, Sanders declined to comment, saying it was a question for the "president's outside counsel."
The possibility of Trump issuing a pardon has been raised by Trump's own statements on the subject, as well as by critics who have accused the president of politicizing the process by issuing pardons for convicted felons who are hardline conservatives and perceived allies. Those include controversial former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and the writer and filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza.
Russian probe spillover
As special counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating for over a year co-operation between members of Trump's campaign team and Russia ahead of the 2016 election, Trump has publicly asserted he has the "absolute right to pardon myself."
In the first courtroom test for Mueller, and within the same afternoon as the Cohen plea, Trump's former campaign chair Paul Manafort was found guilty of eight counts of bank and tax fraud, with jurors deadlocked on the other 10.
Sanders said Wednesday she was unaware of any potential pardon for Manafort and rejected a suggestion the Cohen and Manafort legal developments were a reflection of Trump's poor hiring judgment or a lack of vetting.
"The president has employed thousands of people in his lifetime," she said.
Cohen is scheduled for sentencing late in the year, but before then, there is a danger for Trump that his former lawyer's knowledge could spill over into the Russia investigation, in which the special counsel has the authority to pursue indictments for any alleged criminal activity that is uncovered.
"I believe he has knowledge that would be of interest to the special counsel," Davis told CNN, without specifying whether that interview had been scheduled or had already taken place.
Michael Avenatti, a lawyer for Daniels, who has said she had sex with the president, told CNN on Wednesday that if Trump tried to pardon Cohen, it wouldn't necessarily mean the case would "go away," as the state of New York could conceivably pursue its own charges that are not subject to a pardon.
In addition, Avenatti is seeking to depose Trump for questions in Daniels's ongoing civil case related to the hush payments, with the next hearing in the case scheduled for Sept. 10 in Los Angeles.
Mixed statements on Cohen
Davis admitted Cohen's characterization of the payments and his loyalty to the president have undergone an "evolution" over time, while Avenatti admitted "neither one of these two individuals … have the utmost credibility."
But, Avenatti said, even with Cohen's incentive to testify under oath and co-operate with the special counsel, "at the end of the day, Michael Cohen is far more believable than Donald Trump."
At a rally in Charleston, West Va., on Tuesday night, the president did say he felt "badly for both" Cohen and Manafort, but he largely ignored Cohen's guilty pleas to eight felonies.
But then early Wednesday he sent off a tweet mocking his so-called "fixer" of nearly two decades. In a subsequent tweet, he praised Manafort — "unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to 'break,'" Trump said.
Today he stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?—@LannyDavis
Cohen in his plea admitted to lying to a financial institution by failing to disclose more than $14 million US in debt and obtaining a $500,000 home equity line of credit. Cohen used that credit line to fund the Daniels payment, prosecutors said.
After making the hush money payments, Cohen submitted phoney invoices to Trump's company, ostensibly for services rendered in 2017, according to prosecutors.
Before the election, Cohen had been a trusted member of the Trump organization, working out of an office in Trump Tower next to one used by his boss. He raised millions for Trump's campaign.
Avenatti told CNN there was an easy solution for any "he said-he said" scenario of accusations and counter-claims that may emerge – releasing all pertinent recordings Cohen made that concern Trump and Daniels.
"We want the American people to hear all of these recordings so they can decide who's lying to them and who's telling the truth," Avenatti said.
The New York Times reported last month that Cohen had turned over at least 12 recordings to authorities, though it wasn't clear what they entailed or who they involved.
Trump confidants reasserted late Tuesday it is the White House position that a president cannot be indicted, referring to a 2000 opinion of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice and guidance to executive branch agencies.
Trump's lawyers have said Mueller plans to adhere to that guidance, though Mueller's office has never independently confirmed that.
Trump has asserted there was no "collusion" between his campaign and Russia, but there is no such federal crime for collusion. The president could be damaged politically should there be findings of conspiracy or obstruction of justice in a report Mueller is expected to deliver at the conclusion of the investigation.
Trump's vulnerability could depend on whether the Republicans retain the House in the November midterm elections or if the Democrats gain control. There has been no appetite from the leadership of both parties currently in beginning impeachment proceedings against the president.
If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!—@realDonaldTrump
The president seemed to convey the stakes in Charleston, warning the crowd, "You aren't just voting for a candidate. You're voting for which party controls the House and which party controls the Senate."
With files from The Associated Press