WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump directed the payment of hush money to two women shortly before the 2016 U.S. presidential election and knew that doing so was wrong, his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen said in a television interview aired on Friday.
“He directed me to make the payments. He directed me to become involved in these matters,” Cohen told the ABC programme “Good Morning America,” referring to the $150,000 paid to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and the $130,000 paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels.
Both women have said they had sexual relationships more than a decade ago with Trump, which the president and his representatives have denied.
Cohen, a former member of Trump’s inner circle who in the past called himself the president’s “fixer,” was sentenced on Wednesday in federal court in New York to three years in prison for campaign finance law violations related to the payments and other crimes to which he pleaded guilty.
Trump said on Twitter on Thursday that he had never directed Cohen to do anything illegal, and that Cohen should have known better.
“I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law,” Trump wrote.
Asked if Trump knew the payments were wrong, Cohen said, “Of course.”
Cohen bristled at Trump’s accusation that he was trying to embarrass the president and protect his own family.
“Here is the truth: The people of the United States of America, the people of the world don’t believe what he’s saying. The man doesn’t tell the truth, and it’s sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds,” Cohen said.
“I gave loyalty to someone who truthfully does not deserve loyalty,” Cohen added.
Trump has lashed out at Cohen as “weak” and accused him of lying. The Republican president told Fox News on Thursday Cohen did only “low-level work” for him, mostly in public relations.
Cohen, in his first televised interview since he was sentenced, said Trump was worried about the potential impact on the election if voters learned about the two women’s account of the alleged affairs. Cohen said Trump told him to pay them to keep quiet.
The payments were made “about two weeks or so before the election” following the release of a recording of Trump boasting to celebrity interviewer Billy Bush years earlier about grabbing the genitals of women, Cohen said. “So yes, he was very concerned about how this would affect the election,” Cohen said in the interview taped on Thursday, adding that the payments were intended “to help him and the campaign.”
Trump’s explanations of the payments have shifted over time. After earlier saying he knew nothing of the payments, Trump on Thursday said he never told Cohen to break the law.
The Cohen criminal cases have intensified the legal pressure on Trump, whose presidency has been clouded by multiple investigations and lawsuits including a U.S. special counsel probe into Russia’s role in the 2016 election and whether the president’s team conspired with Moscow to help him win. Trump has denied collusion. Russia has denied meddling in the election.
Trump previously acknowledged repaying Cohen for the $130,000 paid to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
In a deal with prosecutors, American Media Inc (AMI) [AMRCM.UL], the publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid newspaper, said on Wednesday it paid the $150,000 in hush money to McDougal “in concert” with Trump’s campaign. AMI’s Chief Executive David Pecker was a longtime friend of Trump.
Trump told Fox News he did not think a payment was made to the National Enquirer.
Federal law requires the disclosure of contributions of “anything of value” to a campaign, and limits individual donations to no more than $2,700.
“This all suggests Trump could become a target of a very serious criminal campaign finance investigation,” a bipartisan group of lawyers, including George Conway, whose wife Kellyanne Conway works as a top Trump adviser, wrote in the Washington Post on Friday.
Cohen on Wednesday was sentenced to prison for the payments to the women as well as separate crimes of tax evasion, misleading banks and lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower project in Russia.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley on Friday faulted the news media for “giving credence to a convicted criminal,” and called Cohen “a self-admitted liar.”
Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Makini Brice; Editing by Will Dunham and Kevin Drawbaugh