Cohen recorded Trump discussing payments

President Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen secretly recorded him discussing payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal before the 2016 election. The New York Times' Maggie Haberman and CNN's Dana Bash report.

Posted: Jul 21, 2018 5:59 PM
Updated: Jul 21, 2018 6:13 PM

The story, on its face, seems to be this: In the waning months of the 2016 election, Donald Trump and Michael Cohen talked about paying off former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal, who alleged an affair with Trump, to keep her quiet.

Pretty big news, right? (Kudos to The New York Times for breaking it.)

And it is! But the bigger story here isn't that one conversation between Trump and his fixer. After all, we know that Cohen did this sort of dirty work for Trump; Cohen paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 11 days before the 2016 election to ensure her silence about an alleged tryst she says she had with Trump in the 2000s. And we know, despite the initial denials from Cohen and Trump, that Trump paid Cohen back for that payout.

The big story here -- and it is a B-I-G story -- is that Cohen secretly recorded a conversation with Trump. And that this wasn't the only conversation with Trump he taped. And certainly not the only conversation that might be of interest to special counsel Robert Mueller that Cohen taped. These two paragraphs, from CNN's report on the taping, hit the nail on the head:

"Cohen has other recordings of the President in his records that were seized by the FBI, said a source with knowledge of Cohen's tapes and Giuliani, who described the other recordings as mundane discussions.

"There are other tapes of Cohen and other "powerful" individuals that the FBI seized beyond the President that could be embarrassing for the people on the tape and for Cohen, according to a source familiar with the tapes. The source said the people are of "significance and consequence."

First of all, mundanity is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe the rest of the Cohen-Trump tapes are just the two of them talking about the dismal state of the Knicks. Or about "Hamilton." Or whatever.

But maybe they are slightly less innocuous than that. That's not to say there is anything illegal contained in the tapes -- but remember that Cohen was Trump's longtime fixer, the Michael Clayton-figure in Trumpworld. Cohen was so valuable to Trump because he was willing to do what had to be done -- whatever had to be done -- to take pressure or problems off of his boss's plate. That means any recorded conversations between him and Trump are potentially problematic for Trump.

It also means that Cohen's conversation with other "powerful" individuals has the potential to contain a bombshell or two as well. It's not clear whether those revelations -- if they are indeed on tape -- would boomerang back onto Trump or anyone else in the President's inner circle. But, given Cohen's reputation as a secret-keeper willing to walk very, very close to the line of what's legal -- the fact that he secretly recorded a series of conversations with the man who is now President of the United States (and other "powerful" people) is a very big deal.

The fact that the existence of the recorded calls leaked should also be worrisome to the Trump White House and anyone else who said anything to Cohen over the phone that might be problematic if it went public. The news that the FBI is in possession of these audio records -- likely obtained in the massive search and seizure operation conducted against Cohen's hotel, house and office in April -- almost certainly came from one of two places: The FBI or Cohen (or one if his allies).

If it came from the Cohen side, that's yet more evidence that the man who once said he would take a bullet for Trump may be softening in his commitment to his former boss amid the possibility of significant jail time. Earlier this month, Cohen told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that "my wife, my daughter and my son have my first loyalty and always will. I put family and country first."

Lanny Davis, Cohen's newly hired attorney, made very clear what Cohen meant. "This is a new Michael Cohen with a new attitude about speaking his mind," Davis said in an interview with The Hill.

A Cohen freed from his almost-sycophantic relationship with Trump could be a dangerous thing for Trump -- not to mention the likes of Donald Trump Jr. and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. And that Cohen with possession of recordings he secretly taped of conversations with Trump as well as other "powerful" people is a prospect that should send a shiver of fear through Trump world.

That's the real story here. Don't miss it.

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