Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to arrange hush-money payments with two women because then-candidate Trump “was very concerned about how this would affect the election” if their allegations of affairs became public, the president’s former personal attorney said in an exclusive interview with ABC News.
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Cohen’s comments are his first since being sentenced earlier this week to three years in federal prison for financial crimes, lying to Congress and two campaign finance violations in connection with the deals with the women, Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, who claim past affairs with Trump.
“I knew what I was doing was wrong,” Cohen told ABC News’ Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos. “I stood up before the world [Wednesday] and I accepted the responsibility for my actions.”
When asked if the president also knew it was wrong to make the payments, Cohen replied, “Of course,” adding that the purpose was to “help [Trump] and his campaign.”
Cohen said he is “angry at himself” for his role in the deals, but that he did it out of “blind loyalty” to Trump.
“I gave loyalty to someone who, truthfully, does not deserve loyalty,” he said.
Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have implicated, but not charged, the president in the deals reached in the closing weeks of the 2016 election. They allege that Cohen acted “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump, according to court filings. Prosecutors also reached a non-prosecution agreement with AMI, the publishers of the National Inquirer, in which the tabloid admitted to making a $150,000 payment to McDougal “in concert” with the Trump campaign.
The president has denied allegations of the affairs -- but has had shifting explanations about when he learned about the payments to the women. He has also contended that the deals were private and unrelated to the campaign and that if anything illegal occurred, it was Cohen’s responsibility.
Trump has lashed out at Cohen since his sentencing, contending in a Thursday tweet that his former close confidant only agreed to plead guilty “in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did.”
“It is absolutely not true,” Cohen said. “Under no circumstances do I want to embarrass the president. He knows the truth. I know the truth.”
Cohen was particularly distressed by another Trump tweet on Thursday, in which the president implied that prosecutors investigating Cohen had let his wife and father-in-law off the hook.
“Instead of him taking responsibility for his actions, what does he do?” Cohen said. “He attacks my family.”
And Cohen refuted the president’s contention that he never directed Cohen to do anything wrong.
“I don't think there is anybody that believes that,” Cohen told Stephanopoulos. “First of all, nothing at the Trump organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump. He directed me to make the payments, he directed me to become involved in these matters.
“He knows the truth. I know the truth. Others know the truth,” Cohen continued. “And here is the truth: People of the United States of America, people of the world, don't believe what he is saying. The man doesn't tell the truth. And it is sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.”
When confronted about his convictions for lying to Congress and for tax evasion and banking crimes, Cohen said he was “done with the lying. I am done being loyal to President Trump and my first loyalty belongs to my wife, my daughter, my son and this country.”
“Why should we believe you now?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Because the special counsel stated emphatically that the information that I gave to them is credible and helpful,” Cohen replied. “There’s a substantial amount of information that they possessed that corroborates the fact that I am telling the truth.”
Cohen -- who is due to report to prison on March 6 -- has professed his willingness to continue to answer questions for special counsel Robert Mueller and other federal and state investigators.
He declined in the interview to answer specific questions about the Mueller investigation “out of respect for process.”
“I don’t want to jeopardize any of their investigations,” he said.
But when asked if he thinks the president is telling the truth about the Russia probe, Cohen replied simply, “No.”
Cohen once said he would “take a bullet” for the president, but now he finds himself opposing the president and facing the prospect of becoming a witness against him.
“It’s never good to be on the wrong side of the president of the United States of America, but somehow or another this task has now fallen onto my shoulders and as I also stated ... I will spend the rest of my life in order to fix the mistake that I made.”
Cohen said as he observes Trump’s actions in the White House, he barely recognizes the man he served for more than a decade at the Trump organization.
“He’s a very different individual,” Cohen said. “I think the pressure of the job is much more than what he thought it was going to be. It’s not like the Trump organization where he would bark out orders and people would blindly follow what he wanted done. There’s a system here; he doesn’t understand the system and it’s sad because the country has never been more divisive and one of the hopes that I have out of the punishment that I’ve received as well as the cooperation that I have given I will be remembered in history as helping to bring this country back together.
“I will not be the villain of his story,” he said.