Attorney also created shell firm in September 2016 to buy rights to Karen McDougal’s story of having affair with Trump; rights weren’t ultimately purchased
Michael Cohen recorded a conversation he had with a reporter this year in which he said he arranged “on my own” a $130,000 payment in 2016 to a former adult-film star who alleged an affair with Donald Trump, according to people familiar with the matter.
In the nearly two-hour conversation with CNN reporter Chris Cuomo, which the people said appears to have been surreptitiously recorded by Mr. Cohen, the former Trump lawyer discussed at length the payment he arranged in October 2016, a month before the presidential election, to Stephanie Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels.
“I did it on my own,” Mr. Cohen said of the payment, according to the people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Cohen’s claims of personal responsibility for the deal echoed his public comments after The Wall Street Journal in January revealed that Mr. Cohen had arranged the payment to Ms. Clifford. Mr. Cohen said in a February statement that he “facilitated” the payment using his own funds, calling it a “private transaction.”
Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, later disclosed that Mr. Trump reimbursed Mr. Cohen for the payment through a monthly retainer but hadn’t learned of the deal with Ms. Clifford until afterward. The White House could use the tape to try distance Mr. Trump from the deal or to impeach Mr. Cohen’s credibility if he decides to cooperate with prosecutors and implicates Mr. Trump in the deal.
Mr. Cohen has often appeared on Mr. Cuomo’s CNN show in recent years, and on Tuesday his lawyer gave Mr. Cuomo a widely anticipated audio recording of a conversation Mr. Cohen had with Mr. Trump in 2016 about buying the rights to a former model’s story of an affair with the then-candidate.
The recording is one of a dozen tapes Mr. Cohen kept of conversations referring to matters related to Mr. Trump that federal investigators obtained in an April raid of his premises. The Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office is examining whether Mr. Cohen committed bank fraud or campaign finance violations and is probing the payment to Ms. Clifford. Mr. Cohen has denied wrongdoing and hasn’t been charged with any crimes.
On Monday, a former federal judge overseeing a review of materials seized in the raid released the 12 audio recordings to federal investigators, after Mr. Trump withdrew objections to the recordings. The recording of Mr. Cuomo was among them, according to people familiar with the probe. Mr. Cohen recorded his conversations with multiple reporters, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
Lawyers for Mr. Trump declined to comment or to share a transcript or copy of the recording of the conversation with Mr. Cuomo. “We can’t comment on a tape that hasn’t been released,” Mr. Giuliani said.
“It was Michael Cohen’s habit for many years to record conversations in lieu of taking notes,” said Lanny Davis, a lawyer for Mr. Cohen. “He had no intention of ever publicizing such tapes nor any intention to ever deceive anyone.”
A spokeswoman for CNN declined to comment on Mr. Cuomo’s behalf.
At the center of the Manhattan U.S. attorneys’ probe is the question whether Mr. Trump was aware of the payment to Ms. Clifford, according to people familiar with the matter. The president has denied such knowledge. Mr. Giuliani revealed earlier this year that Mr. Trump had later reimbursed Mr. Cohen for the $130,000 payment through monthly installments.
During the conversation with Mr. Cuomo, Mr. Cohen assured the reporter that he wasn’t running a tape, according to the people familiar with the matter. He told Mr. Cuomo he was placing the phone in his desk drawer and that the conversation was off the record. The phone appeared to record the entire conversation, the people said.
It isn’t clear whether Mr. Cohen makes any indication on the tape that he arranged the payment to Ms. Clifford in order to bolster Mr. Trump’s campaign. If Mr. Cohen did pay Ms. Clifford to help the candidate’s chances of being elected, he and the campaign may have violated campaign-finance law by making an in-kind contribution exceeding the legal limit and by not disclosing the contribution.
At one point, asked if the payment could be construed as an in-kind contribution, Mr. Cohen responds: “It wasn’t for the campaign. It was for him,” referring to Mr. Trump, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Tuesday evening, Mr. Cuomo aired a recording that Mr. Cohen surreptitiously taped of a September 2016 conversation he had with Mr. Trump in which they discussed buying another woman’s story of an affair with Mr. Trump.
In the tape, Mr. Cohen suggested to Mr. Trump that they buy the rights to former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story, which had been bought by the publisher of the National Enquirer a month earlier.
Mr. Cohen, then a top attorney at the Trump Organization, created a Delaware shell company, Resolution Consultants LLC, on Sept. 30, 2016, to purchase the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story from American Media Inc., according to a person familiar with the matter.
Mr. Cohen’s intention to use that company to buy the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story hasn’t previously been reported.
Mr. Cohen and an American Media executive discussed a sale of the rights but the company declined to pursue it, said people familiar with the matter.
A spokesman for American Media didn’t respond immediately to requests for comment on why the company didn’t sell Ms. McDougal’s story rights to Messrs. Cohen and Trump.
The Wall Street Journal in January reported that Mr. Cohen had created Resolution Consultants and then dissolved it on Oct. 17, 2016. On that same day, he created a second company, Essential Consultants LLC, which he used as a conduit for a $130,000 payment to Stephanie Clifford, a former adult-film star who also claimed she had a sexual encounter with Mr. Trump, the Journal reported. Ms. Clifford goes by Stormy Daniels professionally.
Mr. Trump has denied having sex with either woman.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on Mr. Cohen’s plan to use Resolution Consultants to buy Ms. McDougal’s story.
Mr. Cohen referred to his plan to create a company to buy her story in a September 2016 conversation with Mr. Trump that he secretly recorded and that was aired Tuesday by CNN.
Lawyers for Messrs. Trump and Cohen clashed Tuesday over whether Mr. Trump in the recording suggested making a cash payment to buy Ms. McDougal’s story from American Media Inc., owner of the National Enquirer. AMI, whose chief executive is a longtime ally of Mr. Trump’s, had purchased the rights for $150,000.
Messrs. Cohen and Trump never purchased the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story. Lawyers for Mr. Trump said they didn’t know why the president and Mr. Cohen hadn’t ultimately bought the story rights.
American Media declined to publish a story about the alleged affair, allowing Mr. Trump to avoid possible bad press after he locked up the Republican presidential nomination.
The recording was seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the April 9 raid of Mr. Cohen’s home, office and hotel room.
Mr. Trump on Wednesday morning criticized Mr. Cohen in a tweet for taping their conversation. “What kind of a lawyer would tape a client? So sad!” Mr. Trump wrote. “Is this a first, never heard of it before?”
The recording Mr. Cuomo aired Tuesday suggests that Mr. Trump already was aware at the time of his conversation with Mr. Cohen of American Media’s purchase of Ms. McDougal’s story. Mr. Cohen didn’t mention her name or what information was to be transferred, but Mr. Trump seemed to understand and follow along.
Mr. Giuliani said in an interview that the tape was “not definitive” on whether the president was aware before his conversation with Mr. Cohen that Ms. McDougal had sold the rights to her story. “There’s nothing here that suggests the president knew about it,” he said. “I’m not saying there’s anything here where he says, ‘I’m surprised, I never heard about this before.’ But there’s nothing here where he says, ‘I did know about it.’ ”
—Mark Maremont, Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Nicole Hong contributed to this article.
Corrections & Amplifications
President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen formed a Delaware company to buy a former Playboy model’s story. A headline published with an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the company was formed to pay the former model. (July 25, 2018)