WASHINGTON — Abandoned by two of his most powerful protectors, President Donald Trump insisted Thursday that he did not violate campaign finance laws and that the liability for hush-money payments to two women alleging affairs with him rests with his former fixer, Michael Cohen.
Both Cohen and American Media Inc., the company that owns the National Enquirer tabloid, now say they made hush-money payments to a porn actress and a Playboy Playmate for the purpose of helping Trump's 2016 White House bid, a campaign finance violation. Trump, in recent months, has gone from denying knowledge of any payments to saying they would have been private transactions that weren't illegal. He offered yet another explanation Thursday.
"I never directed him to do anything wrong," Trump said of Cohen in an interview with Fox News. "Whatever he did, he did on his own."
Federal prosecutors say the payments were made at Trump's direction. The president, reiterating his claim that he is victim of an overzealous investigation, also argued that any payments were unrelated to his presidential campaign and thus not a violation of federal law.
"Nobody except for me would be looked at like this," Trump said.
Trump tweeted earlier Thursday that Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance charges "in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence." The president claimed the charges were "unrelated to me."
"In retrospect, I made a mistake" in hiring Cohen, Trump told Fox News. "I hire usually good people."
Although prosecutors have implicated Trump in a crime, they haven't directly accused him of one, and it's not clear that they could bring charges against a sitting president even if they want to because of Justice Department protocol.
Nonetheless, Trump's changing explanations have clouded the public understanding of what occurred and are running head-on into facts agreed to by prosecutors, AMI and Cohen, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other crimes and was sentenced on Wednesday .
"You now have a second defendant or group of defendants saying that these payments were made for the primary purpose of influencing the election, and that it was done in coordination with Trump and his campaign," said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.
Trump's first explanation of the payment that would eventually help lead Cohen to a three-year prison sentence came at 35,000 feet (10,700 meters) over West Virginia.
Returning to Washington on Air Force One on April 6, Trump for the first time answered questions about the reports of $130,000 in hush-money paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels, issuing a blanket denial to reporters while saying they would "have to ask Michael Cohen."
Three days later, the FBI raided Cohen's office, seizing records on topics including the payment to Daniels. Furious, Trump called the raid a "disgrace" and said the FBI "broke into" his lawyer's office. He also tweeted that "Attorney-client privilege is dead!"
The raid was overseen by the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan and arose from a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian election interference and potential coordination with the Trump campaign. In May, Trump and his attorneys began saying Cohen received a monthly retainer from which he made payments for nondisclosure agreements like the one with Daniels. In a series of tweets, Trump said that those agreements are "very common among celebrities and people of wealth" and that "this was a private agreement."
People familiar with the investigation say Cohen secretly recorded Trump discussing a potential payment for former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal two months before the election. On the tape, Cohen is heard saying that he needed to start a company "for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David," a possible reference to David Pecker, Trump's friend and president of AMI.
When Cohen began to discuss financing, Trump interrupted him and asked, "What financing?"
"We'll have to pay," Cohen responded.
Prosecutors announced Wednesday that AMI acknowledged making one of those payments "in concert" with the Trump campaign to protect him from a story that could have hurt his candidacy. The company avoided prosecution under a deal with prosecutors.
In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other charges, saying he and Trump arranged the payment of hush money to Daniels and McDougal to influence the election. That next day, Trump argued that making the payments wasn't a crime and that the matter was a civil dispute, then took a swipe at his former employee.
"If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don't retain the services of Michael Cohen!" he tweeted.
Earlier this week, Trump compared his situation to one involving President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. The Federal Election Commission, which typically handles smaller campaign finance violations when the actions aren't willful and with civil penalties that are typically fines, docked the Obama campaign $375,000 for regulatory civil violations. The fines stemmed from the campaign's failure to report a batch of contributions, totaling nearly $1.9 million, on time in the final days of the campaign.
But legal analysts said the accusations against Trump could amount to a felony because they revolve around an alleged conspiracy to conceal payments from campaign contribution reports — and from voters. It's unclear what federal prosecutors in New York will decide to do if they conclude that there is evidence that Trump himself committed a crime.
The Justice Department, in opinions issued by its Office of Legal Counsel, has said a sitting president cannot be indicted because a criminal case would interfere with the duties of the commander in chief. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, and with Mueller's office, would presumably be bound by that legal guidance unless the Justice Department were to nullify the opinions.
For the payments themselves to be a crime rather than a civil infraction, prosecutors would need to show that Trump knew that what he was doing was wrong when he directed Cohen to pay the women and that he did so with the goal of benefiting his campaign.
Trump has not yet laid out a detailed defense, though he could conceivably argue that the payments were made not for the purposes of advancing his campaign but rather to prevent sex stories from emerging that would be personally humiliating to him and harm his marriage.
That argument was advanced by former Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, in a similar campaign finance case that went to trial. But that may be tougher for Trump than it was for Edwards given the proximity of the president's payment to the election — timing that, on its face, suggests a link between the money and his political ambitions.
Still, the cases aren't always easy, as proved by the 2012 trial of Edwards. Jurors acquitted Edwards on one charge of accepting illegal campaign contributions but couldn't reach a verdict on the five remaining counts, including conspiracy and making false statements. Prosecutors elected not to retry Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004 and a candidate for president in 2004 and 2008.