The leaked Cohen tape may be “sad!” for Donald Trump, but there’s more to come

The recordings of Trump talking to his lawyer about hush payments is likely only the first in revelations about the President’s dealings.

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The things that Donald Trump thinks are sad rarely align with the kinds of things that ordinary, empathetic people might think of as sad. He feels sadness when Europe and the US take in Syrian refugees, and when the Fake News Media is “wrong” and “dirty”, and when America is “ripped apart” by the removal of statues of racists, for example.

At 5.34 am Eastern Standard Time on 25 July, the President of the United States was feeling sad because his former lawyer Michael Cohen had released an audio recording of a phone conversation that took place two months before the election in which the pair discuss hush money to be paid to Karen McDougall, a Playboy bunny with whom Trump had an affair.

“What kind of a lawyer would tape a client? So sad! Is this a first, never heard of it before? Why was the tape so abruptly terminated (cut) while I was presumably saying positive things? I hear there are other clients and many reporters that are taped - can this be so? Too bad!,” he tweeted.

The recording was obtained from Cohen’s lawyer and was first broadcast on CNN, and if the American public have anything to feel sad about it’s that Cohen could do with getting himself a better Dictaphone. You can listen to the audio in full, here. After discussing various other matters, including an effort by the New York Times to unseal Trump’s divorce papers (the newspaper lost), Cohen says he will need to set up a company in order to facilitate the payment to McDougall.

“I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David,” said Cohen, apparently referring to David Pecker, the head of American Media Inc. According to court filings, Cohen helped broker a “catch and kill” agreement with the media company that would prevent McDougall for discussing her 2006-2007 affair with the then-presidential candidate. Under the agreement, McDougal was paid $150,000.

Cohen says he has spoken to the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization about setting the whole thing up, and the pair discuss how to bring the agreement in house, to ensure there are no leaks. Then Cohen says “when it comes to the financing, which will be…”

Trump interrupts him: “Wait a sec, what financing?”

Cohen: “Well, we’ll have to pay him something”

Trump’s reply then becomes unclear. When I listened to the audio slowed down it sounds like he says, “don’t pay with cash”, at normal speed you might hear “we’ll pay with cash”.

“No, no, no, no, no. I got it,” Cohen replies. And then Trump says “cheque?” and the recording cuts out.

The conversation is important, because if Trump tried to instruct Cohen to pay cash (which is what Cohen’s legal team is arguing) that suggests that he was carefully avoiding any paper trail. Trump’s lawyer, Rudoph Giuliani, says that he said, “don’t pay cash” and wanted the payment to be properly documented.

It’s easy to get hung up on the ambiguity. Clearly Trump has been at pains to keep this arrangement private and understandably so. It offers clear evidence that the president was well-briefed and fully involved in the efforts to pay for McDougall’s silence, something that he’s on occasion denied.

It also hints at the kinds of revelations that might still emerge now that Michael Cohen has agreed to cooperate with investigators, having come under concerted legal pressure since his home and office was raided by the FBI in April following a referral from Robert Mueller, who is leading the inquiry into Russian election interference. Cohen is under investigation for fraud, and for possibly breaking campaign finance rules. In court in April, Cohen tried to prevent investigators from even accessing his documents and recordings, arguing that they were protected by client-attorney privilege. It was ruled that a Special Master, an independent third party, should screen the seized materials to remove protected documents from the investigation, but Cohen has evidently decided he doesn’t care so much about client-attorney privilege anymore.

Cohen served as Trump’s fixer and deals guy for over a decade, and he has extensive business ties with convicted fraudsters and Russian mobsters through his involvement in real estate, the taxi industry and personal injury insurance claims. An investigation into Cohen could shine light on the murkier aspects of the Trump Organization’s business practices in the US and abroad, as well as potentially illegal practices within the Trump campaign. That would certainly be sad for Trump, but not for the rest of us.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.