The Trump & Michael Cohen Tape Raises Some Burning Questions — Here's What Legal Experts Say
Questions about the Trump campaign's dealings are swirling again after a tape of a private discussion between President Trump and his former personal lawyer was released Tuesday night. An audio recording obtained by CNN shows the president and Michael Cohen talking about buying the rights to a story about Playboy model Karen McDougal's alleged affair with Trump. Since the new tape shows that Trump knew about McDougal's story, the tape of Trump and Cohen raises additional questions about whether or not the president's allies broke campaign finance law.
McDougal alleges she had an affair with Trump in 2006, which Trump has denied. The model sold the rights to her story to American Media Inc. (AMI), which owns The National Enquirer, in 2016, but the tabloid never published her story.
Now, the audio recording that Cohen's lawyer gave to CNN shows Trump and his former lawyer talking about setting up a company in order to transfer money and buy the rights to McDougal's story. "We'll have to pay," Cohen says in the recording. But while Trump's response includes the phrase "pay with cash," it's unclear whether he says they should or shouldn't pay for the rights to McDougal's story with cash.
Trump's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, told The New York Times that no payment was made. Legal experts tell Bustle the $150,000 payment McDougal received from AMI in August 2016 may have broken campaign finance regulations regardless of who actually paid it, though.
Why Does It Matter Whether Trump Said "Cash" Or "Check"?
"The cash would be an indication that [Trump] doesn’t want this to be traced, which would be an indication that they are in fact trying to avoid any link between them and the payment and any potential reporting requirements," Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School, tells Bustle.
It's unclear where the money AMI paid to McDougal came from, but legal experts say the payment is suspect — and paying in cash would only make it more suspicious. If the money was linked to Trump, and paid with the intent of aiding his presidential campaign, it would qualify as a campaign contribution that would need to be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
If Cohen provided the $150,000 that AMI paid McDougal, that amount would exceed the maximum $5,000 an individual is allowed to donate during an election cycle. A contribution from Cohen would also need to be reported to the FEC.
There's no evidence that Trump and/or Cohen bought the rights to McDougal's story. But the fact that there's an audio recording showing they discussed it suggests they could have coordinated with AMI, according to Levinson. If AMI paid McDougal to benefit Trump's presidential campaign, that would qualify as a campaign contribution.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University, tells Bustle via email that if AMI made the payment on behalf of the Trump campaign it would be "triple illegal." As she points out, corporations are prohibited from making direct campaign contributions to federal candidates; the $150,000 payment is well above the maximum $5,000 that political action committees can legally donate to a federal candidate each election; and the payment to McDougal wasn't disclosed as a campaign contribution.
Does This Audio Coming Out Actually Hurt Trump?
Despite the possibility that the Trump campaign violated multiple campaign finance regulations, the tape isn't proof of a violation on its own, Steven Duke, a law professor at Yale University, tells Bustle via email. "This is considerable evidence of a campaign violation, although not sufficient by itself to prove the case," he says.
The audio isn't directly tied to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, either. But it could prove useful to that investigation if it puts more legal pressure on Cohen and pushes him to cooperate with the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign.
"It could be helpful for Mueller in the sense that it could indicate Michael Cohen is facing additional legal problems, and therefore Mueller could put pressure on Cohen to help and... provide info related to the Russia investigation or other financial dealings," Levinson says.
What's On The Other Tapes Cohen Recorded Of Trump?
President Trump vented his frustrations around the tape, tweeting Tuesday morning: "What kind of a lawyer would tape a client? So sad!"
But the recording released Tuesday night was just one of 12 the FBI took when they raided Cohen's house in April. CNN reports that the other tapes don't involve Trump, but it's up to a federal prosecutor to decide whether they're relevant to any criminal cases.
As the list of Trump's potential legal problems continues to grow, the Cohen tape invites even more scrutiny on the way in which the Trump campaign and the president's allies responded to women who allege they had an affair with Trump.