This week has been a particularly dramatic one for the Trump administration, and it's put the president's staunchest public advocates on the defensive. Things got heated on CNN on Thursday night, Aug. 23, when Kellyanne Conway discussed Michael Cohen's payments with Chris Cuomo.
Cohen, the president's one-time lawyer and fixer, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to committing a range of financial crimes, including two campaign violations that he said he did "in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office." That candidate, though unnamed, is assumed to be President Donald Trump, which implicates the president in Cohen's crimes. Conway and Cuomo sat down on CNN to discuss the matter.
Jabs flew even as the two greeted each other. Conway mentioned that President Trump "had always liked" Cuomo's mother, a former first lady of New York state. She told him, "Don't embarrass her tonight."
Cuomo argued that Trump must have lied repeatedly about his interactions with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, the women to whom Cohen made the payments that brought him the campaign finance violations. Daniels and McDougal allege that they had affairs with Trump. He continues to deny it.
"The president lied about what he knew about these women," Cuomo said. "He should not lie to the American people, in their face, time and again."
Cuomo's main sticking point was with Trump's claims that he didn't know about Cohen's payments when they were made (including when he told reporters on Air Force One in April that "no," he didn't know about the Daniels payment, and when White House spokespeople repeatedly denied his knowledge of either one). But CNN obtained a tape last month that seems to feature Cohen talking to Trump about the McDougal arrangement. On the tape, Trump reportedly agrees to compensate someone named David, thought to be David Pecker of AMI, the publisher that bought and then never published McDougal's story. He asks Cohen, "What do we got to pay for this?"
Glenn Kessler, author of The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" blog, wrote a detailed post on Wednesday about why Trump's claims about the payments warrant the label of "lies." It's the first time Kessler has used the word "lie" when describing what he calls Trump's "loose relationship with facts" — he says it's difficult to prove that the president is aware that he's saying untrue things. But in this situation, according to Kessler, evidence shows that Trump knew about the payments before they happened.
When Cuomo discussed the tape on Wednesday with the president's former lawyer, Jay Goldberg, Goldberg claimed that Trump lied about the payments. "That should concern the public," Goldberg said, "that the president can't be counted on to tell the truth."
"His own lawyer admits he lied," Cuomo told Conway on Thursday. He kept emphasizing the seemingly damning evidence of the tape, but she repeatedly deflected. "The president has said that he has not lied," she said. "You know what tape I want to hear? Tell us what's on the tape of Chris Cuomo and Michael Cohen."
Cohen sat down for an off-the-record conversation with Cuomo when news of his payment to Daniels was first circulating. He reportedly secretly recorded their discussion. "Tons of stuff" is on that tape, Cuomo told Conway on Thursday, to which she replied, "OK, well tell us!"
"I'll tell you why I can't," Cuomo said. "Because there's a little difference between you and me and the shop you're working for: integrity." He continued: "It was off the record, and I respect that, even though he did me wrong. That's called integrity."