'He directed me to make the payments': Cohen says Trump's denials aren't believable

Donald Trump's former personal lawyer says buying the silence of two women because of their alleged affairs was directly tied to his prospects in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Trump says Cohen acted of his own volition and it was a private matter, not a campaign expense

Michael Cohen, U.S. President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer and fixer, is shown arriving at Federal Court for his sentencing hearing. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

Donald Trump's former personal lawyer says buying the silence of two women because of their alleged affairs was directly tied to the Republican candidate's prospects in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In an interview with Good Morning America that aired Friday, Michael Cohen said Trump "was very concerned about how this would affect the election."

Cohen was sentenced Wednesday to three years in federal prison. He pleaded guilty to several charges, including campaign finance violations and lying to Congress.

Cohen said he secretly used shell companies to make payments of $150,000 and $130,000, respectively, to silence former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election. The women have claimed they had affairs with Trump after the real estate mogul married his third wife, Melania.

Trump has insisted he only found out about the payments after they were made, despite the release of a September 2016 recorded conversation in which Trump and Cohen can be heard discussing a deal to pay McDougal for her story of a 2006 affair. 

Nothing at the Trump Organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump.- Michael Cohen

Returning to Washington on Air Force One on April 6, Trump for the first time answered questions about the reports of the Daniels payment, issuing a blanket denial to reporters while saying they would "have to ask Michael Cohen."

Three days later, the FBI raided Cohen's office, seizing records on topics including the payment to Daniels. Furious, Trump called the raid a "disgrace" and said the FBI "broke into" his lawyer's office. He also tweeted that "Attorney-client privilege is dead!"

The raid was overseen by the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan and arose from a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian election interference and potential co-ordination with the Trump campaign.

Earlier this year, Cohen said he arranged hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, left, and Karen McDougal, former Playboy playmate of the year, who have both claimed they had sexual encounters with Trump. (Matt Sayles/Associated Press, Evan Vucci/Associated Press, Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty for Playboy)

In recent weeks, Trump has shifted to asserting they were private transactions that weren't illegal.

"I never directed him to do anything wrong," Trump said of Cohen in an interview with Fox News broadcast on Thursday. "Whatever he did, he did on his own."

Cohen scoffed at that assertion in the ABC interview.

"I don't think there is anybody that believes that," he said. "First of all, nothing at the Trump organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump."

Cohen said there were certain things he couldn't talk about given that not all investigations have been completed, but that "there's a substantial amount of information that [the special counsel] possessed that corroborates the fact that I am telling the truth."

Likely distinction with Obama example

Cohen, Trump and David Pecker, chairman of the company that owns the National Enquirer, had a meeting at Trump Tower in August of 2015 to discuss ways the media company could help the campaign, including buying the silence of women who might talk publicly about affairs with Trump, according to documents made public by federal prosecutors.

It is part of what makes the case different than the one Trump has brought up this week in comparison, involving President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. The Federal Election Commission, which typically handles smaller campaign finance violations when the actions aren't wilful and with civil penalties that are typically fines, docked the Obama campaign $375,000 for regulatory civil violations. The fines stemmed from the campaign's failure to report a batch of contributions, totalling nearly $1.9 million, on time in the final days of the campaign.

But legal analysts said the accusations against Trump could amount to a felony because they weren't an oversight, but revolve around an alleged conspiracy to conceal payments from campaign contribution reports — and from voters.

It's unclear what federal prosecutors in New York will decide to do if they conclude that there is evidence that Trump himself committed a crime.

It is alleged that the National Enquirer, owned by AMI, which is chaired by David Pecker, went along with buying the silence of women who might come forward and allege affairs with Trump. (Marion Curtis via The Associated Press)

Trump has derided Cohen for co-operating with prosecutors and turning state's evidence, which is a staple of the criminal justice system. 

"It's called flipping and it almost should be illegal," said Trump. 

The president has downplayed his involvement with Cohen, who worked for him for a decade, saying he was just a "part-time" or "low-level" lawyer.

'I'm angry at myself'

Cohen said it was not his intention to embarrass Trump, but that "the man doesn't tell the truth."

"I think the pressure of the job is much more than he thought it would be … he doesn't understand the system," said Cohen, who is due to turn himself in to authorities on March 6.

He attributed his years of doing Trump's bidding to misplaced loyalty.

"I'm angry at myself because I knew what I was doing was wrong," said Cohen.

Cohen, second from right, Trump's former lawyer, is accompanied Wednesday to his court appearance by his wife Laura Shusterman, and children Samantha and Jake. (Craig Ruttle/Associated Press)

Cohen said he feels most badly for his family and for disappointing his parents.

Maurice Cohen, 83, reportedly wrote a letter to the court asking for leniency, in which he detailed the family's history; the elder Cohen survived the Holocaust and emigrated from Poland to Canada, he wrote, attending medical school in Toronto before finding work in the U.S.

Cohen, 52, also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about statements regarding a potential Trump building project in Moscow. The project, it is alleged, was talked about at the highest levels of Russian government, it was alleged, well into the 2016 campaign.

Trump has insisted the project wasn't a secret.

On Friday, White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley faulted the news media for "giving credence to a convicted criminal," and called Cohen "a self-admitted liar."

Cohen is among a number of people in Trump's orbit who have pleaded guilty to criminal charges. The list also includes his former presidential campaign chair, Paul Manafort, and Manafort's colleague, Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who was released last week after serving a short prison sentence.  

While Trump has mused about not being opposed to offering a presidential pardon to Manafort, Cohen's prosecution at the state level would make him ineligible for a pardon.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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