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President Donald Trump claimed on Saturday that he “did nothing wrong” after reports surfaced that Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney, secretly recorded him shortly before the 2016 presidential election talking about buying the rights to the story of a former Playboy model who alleges she had an affair with Trump.
In his first public comments since a series of explosive reports in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal on Friday, Trump said it was “inconceivable that a lawyer would tape a client — totally unheard of & perhaps illegal.”
The recording was seized in April when the FBI raided Cohen’s office and hotel rooms in Manhattan, The Times reported, citing lawyers and others familiar with the recording.
Laws on taping private conversations differ from state to state, and it is not clear where Cohen recorded Trump. New York state, for example, has a “one-party consent” law, which makes it a crime to record an in-person or telephone conversation unless one party participating in the conversation consents.
The Journal reported the conversation took place in September 2016, a month after American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer, had purchased the rights to ex-Playmate Karen McDougal’s story of the alleged extramarital affair.
Cohen suggested that he and Trump consider buying the rights to her story themselves, which would have effectively reimbursed the Enquirer for its payments to McDougal. It is unclear why they didn’t, The Journal said.
McDougal has said that AMI agreed to pay her $150,000 for her story but then did not publish it.
David Pecker, the CEO and chairman of AMI, is a Trump supporter who reportedly described the president as a “personal friend.” Former AMI employees told The New Yorker that Pecker often buys the rights to a story in order to bury it — a tabloid-industry practice called “catch and kill.”
McDougal says she had an year-long affair with Trump more than a decade ago, which Trump has denied.
McDougal also has filed a lawsuit seeking the right to speak publicly about her alleged affair with Trump. Adult film star Stormy Daniels has also sued the president to nullify a nondisclosure agreement about an alleged affair, which the White House also has denied.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, said the recording demonstrated no wrongdoing by Trump.
“Nothing in that conversation suggests that [Trump] had any knowledge of it in advance,” Giuliani said. “In the big scheme of things, it’s powerful exculpatory evidence.”
Trump was “unaware” that Cohen was recording him, CNBC reported on Friday, citing a source familiar with the matter. The source also said other tapes exist, but the president’s legal team is not aware of any other “substantive tapes.” NBC News has confirmed that report.
The White House declined to comment.
Often described as Trump’s “fixer,” Cohen is the subject of a probe by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan.
Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, said, “Obviously, there is an ongoing investigation, and we are sensitive to that. But suffice it to say that when the recording is heard, it will not hurt Mr. Cohen. Any attempt at spin can not change what is on the tape.”
Barbara Jones, the special master overseeing the review of evidence seized from Cohen, said on Friday she was provided with 4,085 items that Cohen, Trump or the Trump Organization marked as attorney-client privilege. But Jones pushed back on the designation of 1,452 of those items, so those will be handed over to government investigators.
Cohen’s lawyers found the recording when reviewing the seized materials from the raid and shared it with Trump’s lawyers, The Times said, citing three unnamed sources.
Trump has previously sought to play down reports that Cohen could turn on him despite his ongoing legal battles.
Cohen reportedly parted ways with his legal team last month to hire new counsel as federal investigators continue to dig into his business dealings.
After the initial raid on Cohen’s office and hotel room, Trump unleashed a furious assault on Special Counsel Robert Mueller, saying of the raid, “It’s an attack on our country … what we all stand for.”
“It’s a disgraceful situation,” the president said, calling Mueller’s team biased and riddled with conflicts of interest. “I have this witch hunt constantly going on.”