On Tuesday night at 9 sharp, any pretense that Michael Cohen might still be in President Donald Trump’s camp ended.
That’s the moment when the previously secret recording of a 2016 conversation between Trump’s personal fixer and the then-presidential candidate aired on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time.”
The recording, in which the two men discussed a potential payoff tied to allegations of an affair made by a former Playboy model named Karen McDougal, was provided to CNN by Lanny Davis, the newly hired attorney for Cohen. Davis, in an interview with Cuomo following the playing of the tape, made very clear that Cohen had now broken free of his oft-pledged total loyalty to Trump and was now looking out for himself and his own interests.
“What is this about,” Davis asked rhetorically. “This is about honesty versus false disparagement of Michael Cohen. Why is (Trump lawyer Rudy) Giuliani out falsely disparaging Michael Cohen – because they fear him.”
Davis isn’t wrong. And the release of the tape suggests that we have now entered a new phase in the ongoing drama surrounding Cohen and Trump – one in which the man who once pledged he would take a bullet for his boss has now turned on him amid the possibility of major criminal charges following the raid of Cohen’s hotel, house and office by the FBI in April.
Trump confirmed – via Twitter – that his one-time ally has now turned foe on Wednesday morning. “What kind of a lawyer would tape a client,” Trump asked. “So sad! Is this a first, never heard of it before? Why was the tape so abruptly terminated (cut) while I was presumably saying positive things? I hear there are other clients and many reporters that are taped - can this be so? Too bad!”
For weeks – ever since Cohen made clear in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that his loyalty was to his family and his country rather than to Trump – it’s been becoming increasingly clear that Cohen is no longer the man who Trump relied on to fix the messiest of his problems.
What came into sharp relief on Tuesday night is that Cohen is willing to publicly betray his onetime boss, airing dirty laundry regarding Trump’s personal life that will almost assuredly enrage the President.
The specifics of what was revealed Tuesday night are already problematic for Trump. At issue is whether he knew McDougal or knew about the efforts by Cohen to potentially pay her off. (The discussion between Trump and Cohen regards paying David Pecker, the man who runs the parent company of the National Enquirer and who remains a close Trump friend, to obtain the right to McDougal’s story. Pecker had purchased McDougal’s story but never ran it, a tactic known as “catch and kill” in the tabloid business.)
The problem for Trump is that in the days leading up to the 2016 election, his campaign insisted that he had no knowledge of any sorts of payment to McDougal by Pecker or anyone else. “We have no knowledge of any of this,” then Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told The Wall Street Journal on November 4, 2016, when the news of the Enquirer’s “catch and kill” payment to McDougal was revealed.
That now seems to be a clear lie, given that Trump is heard on the tape discussing the possibility of buying the rights to McDougal’s story from Pecker with Cohen two months before that Hicks quote. And that deception doesn’t even deal with the possible campaign finance violations Cohen may have committed – and Trump may have been privy to – in paying off women who were alleging affairs with the then-Republican presidential nominee.
This episode with McDougal is not even the only payoff discussion we know about involving Cohen and Trump. Cohen paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 through a shell company just 11 days before the election to keep her silent about her own alleged affair with Trump during the mid-2000s. While Trump denied any knowledge of Cohen making that payment, we now know – thanks to Giuliani! – that Trump eventually reimbursed him.
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These two incidents highlight the sort of work that Cohen did for Trump. Cohen won Trump’s loyalty by his willingness to do whatever the real estate billionaire needed – and what no one else in Trump’s orbit was willing to do. Cohen, as the McDougal and Daniels episodes highlight, did the dirty work.
And that fact – coupled with the very clear decision by Cohen to abandon Trump in order to save himself from legal jeopardy (or at least mitigate his own legal jeopardy) should scare the hell out of Trump, Giuliani and the rest of the White House.
In short: Cohen gone rogue is Trump’s worst nightmare.
At minimum, the information Cohen possesses – whether in secret audio recordings like the one played Tuesday night on “Cuomo Prime Time” or in contemporaneous notes or emails – is hugely embarrassing for Trump and makes clear that the presidential candidate simply wasn’t telling the truth – or all of what he knew – about arrangements to silence women alleging affairs with him in the final days of the 2016 campaign.
At maximum, Cohen has evidence that suggests real criminal wrongdoing either by the President or those close to him.
Years ago, Trump placed his trust in Cohen under the belief that the lawyer was so loyal to his client that there was never a scenario in which Cohen might turn on him. Even following the raid of Cohen’s home, hotel and office in the spring, Trump was insistent that his lawyer would never turn on him. In a series of tweets soon after the raid, Trump wrote:
“The New York Times and a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with, are going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me in the hope that he will ‘flip.’ They use non-existent ‘sources’ and a drunk/drugged up loser who hates Michael, a fine person with a wonderful family. Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked & respected. Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don’t see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!”
Trump’s faith in Cohen has now been exposed as a bad bet. The only question now is how heavy a price Trump will pay for it.