A Day After Cohen Guilty Plea, Trump Contradicts His Former Personal Lawyer

Aug 22, 2018
Originally published on August 23, 2018 4:37 pm

Updated at 4:23 p.m. ET

President Trump said Wednesday that he only found out "later on" about payments his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen arranged before the 2016 election to try to silence two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump.

However, Trump has been heard on a tape with Cohen discussing arranging payment to one of the women.

Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felony charges, including campaign finance violations and tax evasion. Cohen also said in court Tuesday that then-candidate Trump directed him to make the illegal payments. The president had told reporters in April aboard Air Force One that he knew nothing about the payment to one of the women, adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

But, in an interview Wednesday with Fox News' Ainsley Earhardt, Trump gave a different account, a day after Cohen pleaded guilty.

"Later on I knew, later on, but you have to understand, Ainsley, what he did — and they weren't taken out of campaign finance. That's the big thing. That's the much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn't come out of the campaign; they came from me," Trump said.

"In fact my first question, when I heard about it, was 'did they come out of the campaign?' Because that could be — a little dicey," the president continued in the interview, which will air in full Thursday morning on Fox News Channel. "And they didn't come out of the campaign, and that's big. But they weren't — it's not, it's not even a campaign violation. If you look at President Obama, he had a massive campaign violation, but he had a different attorney general and they viewed it a lot differently."

Earlier on Wednesday, Trump lashed out on Twitter, slamming Cohen, who has signaled a willingness to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But the president expressed sympathy for his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted on eight counts in a federal tax and bank fraud trial on Tuesday.

Trump attacked Cohen, tweeting, "If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don't retain the services of Michael Cohen!"

Cohen's lawyer, Lanny Davis, told NPR's Rachel Martin that his client believes Trump is "both corrupt and a dangerous person in the Oval Office" and that Cohen would not accept a pardon from Trump.

Trump's allies, including Manafort's predecessor in leading Trump's 2016 campaign, Corey Lewandowski, have questioned Cohen's credibility, calling him a "serial liar" and noting that he admitted to dishonest behavior as part of his guilty plea.

Also on Twitter and in the Fox News interview, Trump falsely claimed that Cohen had admitted guilt to two counts of campaign finance violations that are "not a crime" — they are, in fact, felonies. Trump noted that Obama "had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled!"

Obama's 2008 campaign did, in fact, pay $375,000 to the Federal Election Commission as a result of campaign reporting errors; others, including Republican nominee Bob Dole's 1988 campaign, also paid fines for similar reasons.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders repeatedly insisted during Wednesday's briefing that "the president has done nothing wrong," that there were "no charges filed against him" and that "there was no collusion." As to whether Trump had lied previously to the American people about his knowledge of the payments, Sanders said that was a "ridiculous accusation." Trump has denied the affairs with Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal.

There has been speculation that Manafort, who has maintained his innocence, may be hoping for a presidential pardon as a reward for his loyalty. On Twitter, Trump praised Manafort, saying he feels badly for him and his "wonderful family." He added, "Such respect for a brave man!"

In another tweet, Trump noted that the jury could not reach agreement on 10 of the 18 counts against Manafort.

Sanders said there are no discussions at the White House on whether to grant Paul Manafort a pardon.

Still, the White House has been relatively mum on Tuesday's developments. Sources close to the White House have acknowledged to NPR that advisers are "very worried" — or at least ought to be — about the mounting legal troubles swirling around Trump and his former associates.

Arriving in West Virginia for a campaign rally Tuesday night, Trump said he felt badly for Manafort and called him a "good man" before adding, "It doesn't involve me." Trump did not mention Manafort or Cohen during the rally, complaining only briefly about the "witch hunt," his favored term for Mueller's investigation into Russian interference.

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The White House is publicly downplaying yesterday's extraordinary developments, where we saw guilty verdicts and guilty pleas for two former close associates of President Trump. But as our correspondent at the White House is hearing today, in reality there's growing concern about what all this could mean for the president. We start our coverage with NPR's Sarah McCammon. Hey, Sarah.


CHANG: So tell us what Trump is saying today about Manafort and Cohen.

MCCAMMON: Well, he spoke out not long ago about Cohen specifically and insisted that Trump himself has done nothing wrong here. Cohen of course told prosecutors that the president illegally directed him to arrange payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump in an effort to avoid fallout in the 2016 election. Trump of course denies those affairs. And in an exclusive interview today with Ainsley Earhardt of Fox News, Trump contradicted Cohen. He insisted he only knew about the payments after the fact.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Later on, I knew - later on. But you have to understand, Ainsley, what he did. And they weren't taken out of campaign finance. That's a big thing. That's a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn't come out of the campaign. They came from me.

MCCAMMON: In that interview airing on Fox News tomorrow, Trump insisted that because the money came from him and not the campaign, it couldn't be a campaign finance violation. But he's really missing the point here. The larger issue is whether the money was meant to influence the election because, if so, that has lots of implications for how the money is reported. And that's what got Cohen into trouble.

CHANG: And how is the White House answering questions about that larger issue, that missing point?

MCCAMMON: Well, press secretary Sarah Sanders held a briefing today, and she was asked about this. She wouldn't answer questions about the payments and basically stuck to her talking points. And she took issue with a question about whether Trump had lied to the American people months ago when he originally said that he knew nothing about those payments.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look. Again, I think that's a ridiculous accusation. The president in this matter has done nothing wrong, and there are no charges against him.

MCCAMMON: And Sanders was asked about what the president believes should count as a campaign contribution. She declined to discuss that and said just because Cohen made a deal with prosecutors doesn't mean anything regarding the president.

CHANG: OK. So it sounds like they are trying quite hard to downplay any potential damage to the president. But behind the scenes, does it feel like a different story?

MCCAMMON: Right. A little bit. I mean, publicly they're insisting the president's done nothing wrong. He continues to call the Russia investigation a witch hunt. A White House source acknowledged to me the president is frustrated with the investigation, as he's said publicly. But overall, they're projecting a belief that the Russia investigation is unfairly targeting him and people close to him.

Privately, though, I'm hearing from sources close to the White House that there is real concern, or at least a sense that there should be. And I would expect at least some Republicans to make this an issue heading into the November midterms. Some of them will try to make the case that voting for Democrats is voting essentially to impeach the president.

CHANG: Now, this morning the president tweeted praise for former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. He said he felt very badly for his conviction yesterday. Are there any signals yet that President Trump could be considering a pardon for Manafort?

MCCAMMON: The White House is being careful about this. You're right. The president expressed sympathy for Manafort and his family after those felony convictions, tweeted that he has such respect for a brave man. So far the White House, though, isn't saying a lot about a possible pardon for Manafort. Sarah Sanders was asked about it today. She said she hadn't been aware of any discussion so far about that. But she also did not come out definitively and say, no pardon for Manafort. So we'll see.

CHANG: We'll see. NPR's Sarah McCammon at the White House. Thanks, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.