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U.S. Politics Michael Cohen says Trump directed him to make hush payments, knowing they were wrong

Michael Cohen, former lawyer of U.S. President Donald Trump, leaves federal court after his sentencing in New York on Dec. 12, 2018.

Craig Ruttle/The Associated Press

Shaken and facing a prison term, U.S. President Donald Trump’s long-time personal lawyer said Friday that Mr. Trump directed him to buy the silence of two women during the 2016 campaign because he was concerned their stories of alleged affairs with him “would affect the election.” He says Mr. Trump knew the payments were wrong.

Michael Cohen – who for more than a decade was a key power player in the Trump Organization and a fixture in Mr. Trump’s political life – said he “gave loyalty to someone who, truthfully, does not deserve loyalty.” Mr. Cohen spoke in an interview with ABC that aired Friday on Good Morning America.

Mr. Cohen said that “of course” Mr. Trump knew it was wrong to make the hush-money payments, but he did not provide any specific evidence or detail in the interview. Federal law requires that any payments made “for the purposes of influencing” an election must be reported in campaign finance disclosures.

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Speaking to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Cohen appeared shaken over the series of events that swiftly took him from Mr. Trump’s “fixer” to a man facing three years in prison.

“I am done with the lying,” Mr. Cohen said. “I am done being loyal to President Trump.”

He added, “I will not be the villain of this story.”

Mr. Cohen was sentenced on Wednesday to three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to several charges, including campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. Prosecutors have said Mr. Trump directed Mr. Cohen to arrange the payments to buy the silence of porn actress Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the run-up to the 2016 campaign.

The decisions to pay off Ms. Clifford, who alleged she had sex with a married Mr. Trump in 2006, during the run-up to the 2016 election was made soon after an old Access Hollywood tape surfaced, in which Mr. Trump was heard talking about groping and trying to have sex with women, Mr. Cohen said.

“He was very concerned about how this would affect the election,” Mr. Cohen said.

The hush money wasn’t initially reported on campaign finance documents and, in any case, far exceeded the legally acceptable amount for in-kind contributions. The federal limit on individual contributions is US$2,700.

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As to whether Mr. Trump knew it was wrong to make the payments, Mr. 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.”

Mr. Trump has denied directing Mr. Cohen to break the law and has asserted in a barrage of tweets over the past several weeks that Mr. Cohen is a “liar” who cut a deal in order to get a reduced prison sentence and to help himself and his family.

Loyalty has long been a core value for Mr. Trump, who has been stung by the behaviour of Mr. Cohen and other former associates who have dissociated themselves from the President, intent on saving themselves. That list also includes former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman and former National Security adviser Michael Flynn.

“He knows the truth. I know the truth. Others know the truth,” Mr. Cohen said. “And here is the truth: People of the United States of America, people of the world, don’t believe what he is saying. The man doesn’t tell the truth. And it is sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.

“Instead of him taking responsibility for his actions, what does he do? He attacks my family,” Mr. Cohen said.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Friday that reporters were “giving credence to a convicted criminal.”

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When asked specifically about Mr. Cohen’s claims that Mr. Trump had directed Mr. Cohen to make the payments, Mr. Gidley said: “I understand that. He’s a self-admitted liar. You guys all know that and for him to say, ‘I’m going to start – I’m going to stop lying starting now,’ is somewhat silly.”

Mr. Cohen insists that Mr. Trump is a different person now than when he was running his real estate empire in New York and said he believes the pressure of being the president of the United States is “much more than he thought it was going to be.”

Ms. Clifford was paid US$130,000 as part of a non-disclosure agreement that was signed days before the 2016 election and she’s currently suing to dissolve that contract.

In August, 2016, the parent company of the tabloid National Enquirer reached a US$150,000 deal to pay Ms. McDougal for her story of a 2006 affair, which it never published, a tabloid practice known as catch and kill.

Mr. Cohen insisted he just reviewed the McDougal deal and said the payment was negotiated directly between Mr. Trump and David Pecker, the chief executive officer of the tabloid’s parent company.

Both Mr. Cohen and American Media Inc. now say they made hush-money payments were to help Mr. Trump’s 2016 White House bid. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan reached a non-prosecution agreement with the company.

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In a separate case, Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his work on a possible Trump real estate project in Moscow and said he did so to be consistent with Mr. Trump’s “political messaging.”

The charges in that case were brought by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office and Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors have said Mr. Cohen has provided key information in their investigation. Mr. Cohen has said he is continuing to co-operate with investigators in the Russia probe, which the President has repeatedly called a “witch hunt.”

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