President Trump said Thursday that his former lawyer and longtime fixer Michael Cohen should have known the hush-money payments — that U.S. prosecutors say Trump ordered — were illegal.
“I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law,” Trump tweeted. “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. That is why they get paid.”
On Wednesday, Cohen was sentenced to 36 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to tax and fraud charges related to his personal business dealings, and to campaign finance violations stemming from his role in arranging payments on the eve of the 2016 presidential election to two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump. Prosecutors say Cohen did so at the direction of then candidate Trump, and that the violations were felonies.
The president, who once denied knowing about the hush-money payments, did not dispute that he had directed Cohen to make them. Instead, he now contends they were a “civil” matter.
“Despite that many campaign finance lawyers have strongly stated that I did nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws, if they even apply, because this was not campaign finance,” Trump tweeted. “Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me, but he plead to two campaign charges which were not criminal and of which he probably was not guilty even on a civil basis. Those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did — including the fact that his family was temporarily let off the hook. As a lawyer, Michael has great liability to me!”
In an interview with Fox News’ Harris Faulkner later Thursday, Trump suggested U.S. prosecutors added the campaign finance charges to shame him.
“They put those two charges on to embarrass me,” he said. “They aren’t criminal charges.”
The president brought with him copies of various articles that quoted legal experts saying the felony campaign finance violations should not be treated as crimes.
Trump also characterized Cohen, his longtime fixer, as someone who did “very low-level” work for the Trump Organization.
“He did more public relations than he did law,” the president said.
Also on Wednesday, U.S. prosecutors announced that they had reached a non-prosecution agreement with National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc. for the company’s role in killing damaging stories about then-candidate Trump. In a court filing, AMI admitted it paid former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal $150,000 on Trump’s behalf to silence her about her alleged affair with him before the election. (Earlier this year, CNN obtained a secretly recorded audio tape — made by Cohen — of Trump discussing a potential payment to McDougal.)
On Fox, Trump said he wasn’t sure a payment was ever made.
“I don’t think we made a payment to that tabloid,” the president said. “I don’t think we made a payment.”
In an Oval Office interview with Reuters prior to Cohen’s sentencing, Trump laid out a similar narrative about the hush-money payments.
“Number one: It wasn’t a campaign contribution,” he said. “If it were, it’s only civil. And even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did. And to add a fourth little tranche to it: Michael Cohen is a lawyer. He’s supposed to know what to do. That’s what you rely on people for. That’s what you pay lawyers for.”
“Michael Cohen should have known what he was doing,” Trump added. “I hope he did. My lawyers say frankly that everything he did was fine.”
Cohen, who had been facing up to 62 months in prison, struck a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller earlier this month. The attorney admitted he lied to Congress in testimony about contacts he had with Russia in the course of trying to arrange a real estate deal during the 2016 presidential campaign. As part of the plea deal, Cohen agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s probe.
In response, Trump called his former fixer “a weak person.”
“Unlike other people you watch,” Trump told reporters, all Cohen is “trying to do is get a reduced sentence, so he’s lying.”
At his sentencing hearing Wednesday, Cohen responded to the president calling him weak.
“It was correct, but for a much different reason than he was implying,” Cohen told the court. “It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”
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