Cohen: Both Trump and I knew what we were doing was wrong

“He knows the truth, I know the truth,” Michael Cohen told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos this morning, “many people know the truth.” In an exclusive interview on Good Morning AmericaCohen declared that the real purpose behind the payoffs to Donald Trump’s mistresses was to protect his presidential campaign. “I knew what I was doing was wrong,” Cohen admits, and so did Trump:

Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to arrange hush-money payments with two women because then-candidate Trump “was very concerned about how this would affect the election” if their allegations of affairs became public, the president’s former personal attorney said in an exclusive interview with ABC News.

Cohen’s comments are his first since being sentenced earlier this week to three years in federal prison for financial crimes, lying to Congress and two campaign finance violations in connection with the deals with the women, Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, who claim past affairs with Trump.

“I knew what I was doing was wrong,” Cohen told ABC News’ Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos. “I stood up before the world [Wednesday] and I accepted the responsibility for my actions.”

When asked if the president also knew it was wrong to make the payments, Cohen replied, “Of course,” adding that the purpose was to “help [Trump] and his campaign.”

Cohen argues that this interpretation requires everyone to remember the timing. The arrangements got made, Cohen says, right after the Billy Bush-Access Hollywood-“grab ’em by the p****” tape emerged. With the campaign under fire, Cohen and Trump acted to make sure no more gasoline got dumped on the inferno. That’s why Cohen argues that the sole purpose of paying off the women at that point was to salvage Trump’s presidential bid.

But then Cohen contradicts that a bit when Stephanopoulos follows up. “To help the campaign,” Stephanopoulos remarks, and Cohen responds, “To help him — and the campaign.” That gets to the crux of the issue. In order to be a campaign contribution, the in-kind action has to be exclusively for the purpose of the campaign. If Trump had any other benefit from it, not only would it not qualify as a campaign expense, it would be prohibited from being considered one by FEC regulation, as former FEC commissioner Brad Smith explained this week. That may be a technicality that Robert Mueller’s willing to challenge, but it’s still a significant one that a court might recognize.

Cohen rejected Trump’s claim that he never directed Cohen to break the law. Look at the structure of Trump’s business, Cohen told Stephanopoulos. Who would keep their job if they didn’t do exactly as the boss wanted?

In his interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Cohen, who once vowed that he would “take a bullet” for Trump, flatly disputed the president’s assertion. He said Trump was well aware of important decisions involving his business.

“I don’t think there is anybody that believes that,” Cohen said. “First of all, nothing at the Trump Organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump. He directed me to make the payments. He directed me to become involved in these matters.”

There’s a nuance here too, though, that the comment disregards. Trump has admitted — after some denials last year — that he was part of the decision to pay off the women. That doesn’t mean Trump directed him to do so illegally. It was not and still is not illegal at all to reach monetary settlements with people to keep them quiet about embarrassing episodes. Trump can claim that he had no idea it would violate FEC regulations to do so, and in fact there is still quite a bit of debate as to whether it actually did (see above). Directing his attorney to reach settlements in the Stormy Daniels case would be no different than what attorneys do on a regular basis. The Karen McDougal payoff may have more issues due to the way she got hoodwinked into silence, but that would be a civil issue rather than criminal.

Much of this has to wait for Mueller’s interpretation, of course. The irony here is that while Cohen might represent Trump’s biggest legal risk, he’s also a sideshow in Mueller’s process. If the only actionable item that comes out of Mueller’s probe is a questionable allegation of campaign-finance violations over a couple of NDAs relating to private sexual behavior, Mueller will end up in Ken Starr’s shoes and everyone else will consider this a big, wasteful distraction. That’s still a very large if, of course, but either way, Cohen’s going to be nothing more than a footnote.

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