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How Trump's Comments On Arranged Payments To Women Have Changed Over Time


President Trump is responding to the prison sentence of his former personal attorney by saying he never directed Michael Cohen to break the law.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Let me tell you. I never directed him to do anything wrong. Whatever he did, he did on his own. He's a lawyer.

SHAPIRO: That was Trump on Fox News today, contradicting sworn testimony from Cohen that Trump directed him to make hush money payments late in the presidential campaign. And in court documents, the parent company of National Enquirer said, yesterday, it made a $150,000 payment to suppress a woman's story about an affair with Trump in order to prevent her from influencing the election. President Trump's response to these payments has changed a lot over time. And to walk us through the timeline of those reactions, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now.

Hi, Tam.


SHAPIRO: OK. So today the line was, I never directed him to do anything wrong. Take us back to the beginning. How did President Trump initially explain these payments?

KEITH: So in January, The Wall Street Journal reported that Michael Cohen had made a payment to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels of $130,000 in exchange for her silence about this alleged sexual encounter that she says happened a decade ago. And it took a little while, but Trump was finally asked about it on Air Force One in April.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?

KEITH: It's a little hard to hear. But he's asked whether he knew about the payment to Daniels, and Trump said no.

SHAPIRO: OK. So that's an unequivocal statement - no, he did not know about it - back in April. Then what happened?

KEITH: It's gotten a lot more equivocal. A few days later, the FBI raided Cohen's residences and office. Trump complained that it was a violation of attorney-client privilege. Prosecutors argued Cohen wasn't really functioning as an attorney anyway. Then, in early May, President Trump sent out a series of legalistic tweets explaining that Cohen had simply entered into a private contract with Daniels and that he was reimbursed through a monthly retainer and that no campaign money was used. Prosecutors later alleged that the retainer with the Trump Organization was an after-the-fact arrangement to cover up an illegal campaign contribution made by Cohen, paying off Daniels at Trump's behest.

SHAPIRO: That gets us to August, when Cohen pleaded guilty to, among other things, two felony campaign finance violations.

KEITH: Yeah. And right after that, President Trump was on Fox again, interviewed by Ainsley Earhardt of the program "Fox & Friends."


AINSLEY EARHARDT: Did you know about the payments?

TRUMP: 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 a big thing. That's a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn't come out of the campaign. They came from me. And I tweeted about it.

KEITH: Now, campaign finance experts say that if he had just made the payment himself and reported it as a campaign expense, these legal questions wouldn't exist. But that was Trump essentially saying he learned about the payments later. That contradicts what Cohen said in court and what prosecutors now say they have evidence to back up, which is that Cohen acted in coordination and at the direction of Trump.

SHAPIRO: Which still contradicts what Trump is saying today.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, it's a little bit challenging to parse exactly what he's saying. But it seems like he is no longer denying that he knew about the payments to Daniels as well as that other transaction that's a little bit more complicated involving the National Enquirer and Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal. He's not even explicitly denying at this point that he told Cohen to make these transactions happen.


TRUMP: A lawyer who represents a client is supposed to do the right thing. That's why you pay them a lot of money, etc., etc. He is a lawyer. He represents a client. I never directed him to do anything incorrect or wrong, and he understands that.

KEITH: Never directed him to do anything incorrect or wrong - not saying he never directed him to do anything. What he's now arguing is that the payments weren't illegal. Trump told Fox, quote, "Michael Cohen pled guilty to something that's not even a crime."


TRUMP: No. 1, they say it's not a campaign...


TRUMP: ...Finance violation. No. 2 - or it's not even under campaign finance. No. 2, if it was, it's not even a violation. No. 3, it's a civil matter.

KEITH: So here's the thing. You don't go to prison for a civil thing. And Michael Cohen is going to prison for three years at least in part because of these payments, because he pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance law.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tamara Keith at the White House. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.