President Donald Trump acknowledged Thursday for the first time that his longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen represented him in efforts to silence Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress who has alleged a sexual encounter with Trump more than a decade ago.
Trump earlier this month denied any knowledge of the $130,000 payment to Daniels that was arranged by Cohen and is the subject of a federal investigation, telling reporters: “I don’t know” about the payment or where Cohen got the money. And the White House repeatedly has insisted that Daniels’ allegations that she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006 were false.
But in an interview with Fox News on Thursday morning, Trump appeared to reveal that he had knowledge of Cohen’s payment to Daniels.
“Michael represents me, like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal, he represented me,” Trump said. “And from what I’ve seen, he did absolutely nothing wrong. There were no campaign funds going into this.”
Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, weighed in a few minutes later on MSNBC and said that Trump had made a “hugely damaging admission.”
Trump’s comments came during a wide-ranging telephone interview with the hosts of the “Fox & Friends” morning show that the president regularly watches and praises.
Trump described Cohen as one of many members of his legal network. “I have so many attorneys you wouldn’t believe,” Trump said.
And asked how much of his legal work Cohen is responsible for, Trump said: “As a percentage of my overall legal work, a tiny, tiny fraction.”
Cohen is under criminal investigation by the FBI and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. This month, FBI agents raided Cohen’s home, office and a hotel room where he had been staying and seized records relating to numerous issues, including Cohen’s work on Trump’s behalf to negotiate the settlement with Daniels.
Federal prosecutors in the case moved quickly to take legal advantage of Trump’s comments, filing a letter to the court less than three hours after “Fox and Friends.” In the letter, prosecutors argued those comments prove that relatively few documents seized during the raids are likely to be confidential communications between Cohen and Trump.
The prosecutors’ speedy incorporation of Trump’s Fox interview into legal documents provided a vivid illustration of the strategic downsides of the president’s media interviews and off-the-cuff remarks and tweets.
U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood appointed a special master to review the seized material, acceding to Cohen’s request that an independent party review the material before federal prosecutors can access it.
Wood appointed retired federal judge Barbara Jones to serve in the special master role to assess whether the documents include any confidential communications between Cohen and his legal clients, including Trump.
Jones, who served as a federal judge for 16 years in the Southern District of New York, is a former organized-crime prosecutor who was chief assistant to Robert Morgenthau, the longtime Manhattan district attorney.
Wood laid out a basic framework in which the special master and Cohen’s attorneys will receive the material about the same time, review it independently and then discuss areas of potential disagreement.
Wood said that both sides should be prepared to return to court May 25 to discuss how the document review has proceeded.
Both sides appeared to accept the choice of Jones without objection. Stephen Ryan, an attorney for Cohen, declared her “a fine choice.”
On Wednesday, Cohen told a federal judge that he will invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself in a lawsuit brought by Daniels. Asked on Fox for his reaction to Cohen’s plea, Trump said: “He’s a good person.”
Trump went on to attempt to distance himself from Cohen, who has handled Trump’s most sensitive legal and personal affairs for more than a decade, but the president told the Fox hosts that he is more of a businessman than a lawyer.
“This doesn’t have to do with me,” Trump said. “Michael is a businessman. He’s got a business. He also practices law. I would say, probably, the big thing is his business. I have nothing to do with his business.”