The FBI is analyzing a dozen audiotapes that agents seized in April when they raided the office and homes of President Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen.
One of the recordings reportedly features a discussion between the president and Cohen, about arranging for hush money to be paid to a former Playboy model shortly before voters went to the polls in 2016.
The other tapes may also involve Trump. NBC News pointed out that Cohen had just two additional clients, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity and former Republican National Committee official Elliott Broidy, when the conversations took place.
The FBI was blocked from listening to the recordings until this week, when federal Special Master Barbara Jones determined that releasing the tapes to investigators would not violate attorney-client privilege.
CNBC reported that Trump was unaware Cohen recorded the men's discussion about Karen McDougal, the model who says she had a sexual relationship with the future president for about a year in the 2000s. Trump has denied her claim. “The president maintains that he's done nothing wrong,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Monday.
Trump lashed out at the FBI and Cohen on Saturday, tweeting: “Inconceivable that the government would break into a lawyer’s office (early in the morning). Almost unheard of. Even more inconceivable that a lawyer would tape a client. Totally unheard of & perhaps illegal. The good news is that your favorite President did nothing wrong!”
Multiple news outlets pointed out that New York law does not prohibit a lawyer from recording a conversation with a client. One of Trump's current attorneys, Rudy Giuliani, said the president's legal team withdrew its argument that the phone call qualified for attorney-client privilege protection.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump silenced McDougal by persuading American Media Inc., which publishes the National Enquirer, to buy the rights to her story for $150,000 and not print it. The model has filed a lawsuit to regain the right to speak publicly about the purported affair.
AMI's CEO, David Pecker, is a long-time Trump associate who has described himself as a “personal friend” of the president. Cohen proposed directly paying off the model, but Trump wanted to instead exploit his influence with AMI, according to The New York Times.
The New Yorker quoted former employees of the media firm who revealed that Pecker frequently purchases the rights to stories that he does not publish, effectively burying them for political purposes.
Giuliani argued that “nothing in that conversation (concerning McDougal) suggests that (Trump) had any knowledge of it in advance.” He said the FBI obtained no other “substantive tapes” in the Cohen raids.
“Obviously, there is an ongoing investigation, and we are sensitive to that,” Lanny Davis, a lawyer who is representing Cohen, told NBC News. “But suffice it to say that when the recording is heard, it will not hurt Mr. Cohen. Any attempt at spin cannot change what is on the tape.”
The special master said she reviewed 4,085 pieces of evidence from Cohen's home, office and hotel rooms to determine which items deserved attorney-client privilege status. She concluded that 1,452 of the materials are fair game for the FBI to use as evidence.
Cohen, who has been described as Trump's long-time “fixer,” once proclaimed that he was willing to “take a bullet” for the real-estate mogul. He also said he would prefer to “jump out of a building than turn on Donald Trump.”
However, Cohen indicated earlier this month that he might be considering turning state's evidence to avoid a possible long prison term. When asked whether he would “flip” on the president, the lawyer told ABC News: “Once I understand what charges might be filed against me, if any at all, I will defer to my new counsel, Guy Petrillo, for guidance. … To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty.”
The Wall Street Journal suggested in June that the relationship between Trump and Cohen had soured. The attorney was reportedly upset with the president for refusing to help pay his legal expenses. An unidentified source told CNN: “If they want information on Trump, (Cohen) is willing to give it.”
When Cohen resigned recently as the Republican National Committee's deputy finance chairman, he said he was doing so in part because he opposed the Trump administration's policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border.
Another sign that Cohen might be ready to flip on the president is that his legal team is no longer sharing information with Trump's lawyers. The Washington Post pointed out that attorneys representing former national security adviser Michael Flynn stopped cooperating with Trump's lawyers just before the retired general agreed to cooperate with Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating the Trump-Russia scandal.
There has been considerable speculation that the president might pardon Cohen in return for his silence.