Donald Trump was in the room when his then-lawyer Michael Cohen discussed organizing hush money payments to two women with the publisher of the National Enquirer in 2015, NBC News and CNN reported Thursday.
The revelation ― first made public last month by The Wall Street Journal and corroborated this week ― came after the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., signed a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors in which it admitted to paying off former Playboy model Karen McDougal in 2016 in order to protect Trump’s chances in the presidential election.
The publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, is a longtime friend of Trump.
The payments to both McDougal and the adult film star Stormy Daniels, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, became a central point in prosecutors’ case against Cohen. The attorney was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday for a litany of convictions, including violating campaign finance laws, tax evasion and lying to Congress, and said he did so “in coordination with and at the direction” of the president.
The claims potentially implicate Trump in illegality, although it’s unclear how the Justice Department would proceed if investigators found the president had, in fact, broken the law. The agency has traditionally found that a president cannot be indicted while in office.
The Journal first reported in November that Trump played a key role in organizing those payments to the two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump in 2006 and 2007, after the then-real estate mogul married Melania. Trump has denied that the affairs took place. He has moved to distance himself from Cohen and the payments, calling the one to Daniels a “simple private transaction” that was “wrongly” called a campaign contribution.
“I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called ‘advice of counsel,’ and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made,” Trump wrote in a tweet this week. “That is why they get paid.”
As part of AMI’s deal, the company said that it made a $150,000 payment to McDougal “in concert” with the Trump campaign as part of a plan to quash negative stories about Trump. AMI also “admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election,” prosecutors said in a statement this week.
McDougal had claimed the Enquirer bought her story as part of a “catch-and-kill” effort, meaning it acquired exclusive rights without intending to ever publish her story.