Updated at 4:23 p.m. ET
President Trump said Wednesday he only found out “later on” about payments his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen arranged before the 2016 election to try to silence two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump.
However, Trump has been heard on a tape with Cohen discussing arranging payment to one of the women.
Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felony charges, including campaign finance violations and tax evasion. Cohen also said in court Tuesday that then-candidate Trump directed him to make the illegal payments. The president told reporters in April aboard Air Force One he knew nothing about the payment to one of the women, adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
But, in an interview with Fox News’ Ainsley Earhardt, Trump gave a different account, a day after Cohen pleaded guilty.
“Later on I knew, later on, but you have to understand Ainsley, what he did — and they weren’t taken out of campaign finance. That’s the big thing. That’s the much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn’t come out of the campaign; they came from me,” Trump said.
“In fact my first question, when I heard about it, was did they come out of the campaign? Because that could be — a little dicey,” the president continued in the interview, which will air in full Thursday morning on Fox News Channel. “And they didn’t come out of the campaign, and that’s big. But they weren’t — it’s not, it’s not even a campaign violation. If you look at President Obama, he had a massive campaign violation, but he had a different attorney general and they viewed it a lot differently.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump lashed out on Twitter, slamming Cohen, who has signaled a willingness to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But the president expressed sympathy for his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted on eight counts in a federal tax and bank fraud trial on Tuesday.
Trump attacked Cohen, tweeting, “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!”
Cohen has said Trump illegally directed him to make payments to silence women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump in an effort to influence the 2016 election; the president has denied the affairs. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, told NPR’s Rachel Martin that his client believes Trump is “both corrupt and a dangerous person in the Oval Office” and that Cohen would not accept a pardon from Trump.
Trump’s allies, including Manafort’s predecessor leading Trump’s 2016 campaign, Corey Lewandowski, have questioned Cohen’s credibility, calling him a “serial liar” and noting that he admitted to dishonest behavior as part of his guilty plea.
Also on Twitter and in the Fox News interview, Trump falsely claimed that Cohen had admitted guilt to two counts of campaign finance violations that are “not a crime” — they are, in fact, felonies. Trump noted that former President Barack Obama “had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled!”
Obama’s 2008 campaign did, in fact, pay $375,000 to the Federal Election Commission as a result of campaign reporting errors; others, including Republican nominee Bob Dole’s 1988 campaign, also paid fines for similar reasons.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders repeatedly insisted during Wednesday’s press briefing that “the president has done nothing wrong,” there were “no charges filed against him” and “there was no collusion.” As to whether Trump had lied previously to the American people about his knowledge of the payments, Sanders said that was a “ridiculous accusation.” Trump has denied the affairs with Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal.
There has been speculation that Manafort, who has maintained his innocence, may be hoping for a presidential pardon as a reward for his loyalty. On Twitter, Trump praised Manafort, saying he feels badly for him and his “wonderful family.” He added, “Such respect for a brave man!”
In another tweet, Trump noted that the jury could not reach agreement on 10 of the 18 counts against Manafort.
Sanders said there are no discussions at the White House on whether to grant Paul Manafort a pardon.
Aside from the president’s tweets, the White House has been largely mum on Tuesday’s developments. Sources close to the White House have acknowledged to NPR that advisers are “very worried” — or at least ought to be — about the mounting legal troubles swirling around Trump and his former associates.
Arriving in West Virginia for a campaign rally Tuesday night, Trump said he felt badly for Manafort and called him a “good man” before adding, “It doesn’t involve me.” Trump did not mention Manafort or Cohen during the rally, complaining only briefly about the “witch hunt,” his favored term for Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference.