Bolstering allegations that Donald Trump violated campaign finance laws by paying hush money to Karen McDougal—a former Playboy model who alleges she had an affair with Trump—the president's longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen released a recording of a conversation between himself and then-candidate Trump discussing payments aimed at keeping McDougal from going public before the 2016 election.
"This raises serious questions about Donald Trump campaign finance law violations that must be fully investigated. No president is above the law."
— Rep. Jim McGovern
Aired exclusively by CNN Tuesday night, Cohen's tape appears to contradict repeated claims by the president's team that Trump had no knowledge of any payments to silence McDougal.
Listen to the brief recording, which may be among the 12 audio tapes federal officials reportedly seized in a raid of Cohen's office earlier this year:
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 25, 2018
In the unwieldy tape, Cohen and Trump appear to be discussing plans to set up a shell company to buy the rights to McDougal's story, which was purchased by American Media Inc. (AMI)—the parent company of the National Enquirer—for $150,000. The Enquirer never ran the story, a fact that many argue strongly suggests that the tabloid killed it at Trump's behest.
"I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David," Cohen said in the recording, which is likely a reference to AMI chief David Pecker.
"They're discussing a conspiracy to repay a tabloid owner for buying and spiking a story by the candidate's mistress. Which is not only a major scandal, but a felony campaign finance violation."
"So, what do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?" Trump asks. Cohen says yes.
While Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani continues to insist that the president never made the hush payment and that the tape does not reveal any wrongdoing, lawmakers and ethics experts argued that the newly released audio provides evidence of a serious campaign finance violation, which was committed in the service of squashing an embarrassing pre-election story.
"This tape is more evidence that Donald Trump himself was directly involved in a campaign finance law violation," Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) declared on Twitter. "And because the amount exceeded $25,000, it would be punishable as a felony. [The] Trump Tapes also show Rudy Giuliani lied. But that's not news."
"This raises serious questions about Donald Trump's campaign finance law violations that must be fully investigated. No president is above the law," added Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
Echoing Lieu and McGovern, journalist David Atkins argued that the tape shows Trump and Cohen "discussing a conspiracy to repay a tabloid owner for buying and spiking a story by the candidate's mistress. Which is not only a major scandal, but a felony campaign finance violation. It's conspiracy to commit a felony."
I don't see why it even matters. They're discussing a conspiracy to repay a tabloid owner for buying and spiking a story by the candidate's mistress. Which is not only a major scandal, but a felony campaign finance violation.
It's conspiracy to commit a felony. https://t.co/oZkLjUBNIm
— David Atkins #11Justices (@DavidOAtkins) July 25, 2018
In response to the newly released Cohen tape, the ethics watchdog Common Cause simply pointed to its complaint filed with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) earlier this year, which noted: "All indications are that AMI made the payment to McDougal in consultation with Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal lawyer and 'fix-it' man, which makes AMI's payment a 'coordinated expenditure' and in-kind corporate contribution to the Trump campaign."
"The payment had nothing to do with journalism—and thus cannot qualify for any sort of 'press' exemption," Paul S. Ryan, Common Cause vice president for policy and litigation, said in a statement. "This payment was made to buy the silence of Karen McDougal."