People think Trump is saying one of 3 things on the bombshell Michael Cohen tape, and the answer could have significant ramifications for what's next

Drew Angerer/Getty Images; Sean Gallup/Getty Images; Jenny Cheng/Business InsiderMichael Cohen and Donald Trump.
  • People now hear at least three different things at a pivotal point in the secret recording of a conversation between President Donald Trump and his former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen.
  • They were discussing buying the rights to the story of a former Playboy model who says she had an affair with Trump years ago.
  • What Trump actually said could have significant ramifications for what happens next.
  • Some people can hear only “pay with cash,” though there is muddled audio right before that.
  • Trump’s legal team says the president said, “Don’t pay with cash.”
  • An audio-forensics expert says Trump said, “I’ll pay with cash.”

What President Donald Trump said at a pivotal point in a conversation with his former longtime lawyer Michael Cohen has become the center of a fierce dispute that could have significant ramifications for what happens next.

A secret audio recording, which Cohen is said to have made in September 2016 without the president’s knowledge, features a conversation between the two men in which they discuss buying the rights to the story of a former Playboy model who says she had an affair with Trump years ago.

The existence of the tape was first revealed Friday. It was seized by the FBI in its April raids of Cohen’s home, office, and hotel room as part of a criminal investigation focusing on him. Trump’s attorneys waived privilege claims over the tape and 11 others seized from Cohen.

On Tuesday night, Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, provided the tape to CNN.

The National Enquirer purchased the rights to Karen McDougal’s story for $US150,000 in August 2016 but never published it. That practice is known as “catch and kill,” and it effectively silenced McDougal’s allegations.

On the tape, Cohen and Trump can be heard discussing a plan to purchase the rights to McDougal’s story from the outlet’s publisher, American Media Inc., whose head, David Pecker, is a longtime friend of Trump’s.

Though the tape makes clear Trump was aware of the subject before the 2016 presidential election, his campaign denied any knowledge of the topic. While Trump’s legal team acknowledged that the conversation was about McDougal, it said nothing illegal took place and no payment was made.

A debate between Davis and Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani centres on what Trump said in the recording about the method of a potential payment:

  • After Cohen can be heard saying he spoke with a top Trump Organisation executive about setting up a company and the financing for such a payment, Trump responds, “What financing?”
  • The only three clearly audible words he says after that are “pay with cash.” Some hear only this on the tape.
  • There’s muddled audio before Trump says “pay with cash.” Some hear Trump saying “don’t pay with cash.” At least one expert hears him saying “I’ll pay with cash.”

After Trump made the comment in question, Cohen replied, “No, no, no.” The tape then cuts off with a voice that sounds like Trump’s saying “check.”

‘The president is not an idiot’

Giuliani told Fox News after the tape aired on CNN that the word Trump said before “pay with cash” was “don’t,” signalling that Trump did not want the potential payment to be kept under wraps. Giuliani pointed to the word “check” as proof that Trump wanted such a payment to be done that way.

Donald TrumpKevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty ImagesTrump.

Giuliani said there was “no way the president is going to be talking about setting up a corporation then using cash, unless you’re a complete idiot.”

“And again, the president is not an idiot,” he said.

Alan Futerfas, an attorney representing the Trump Organisation,told The Washington Post on Tuesday that “cash” in the conversation was referring to making a one-time payment rather than financing a transaction over time.

“Anyone who knows anything about the company or how the president does business knows there is no green cash,” Futerfas told CNN. “Everything is documented. Every penny is documented.”

On Wednesday, CNN commissioned an audio-forensics expert to review the tape. The expert, Ed Primeau, said he had not read a transcript of the recording beforehand and did not watch any news reports about the tape. He said he does not regularly follow the news so he can stay unbiased.

Primeau concluded that Trump responded with “I’ll pay with cash,” not “don’t pay with cash.” Primeau used tools to enhance the audio, isolate specific words, and examine sound waves on a screen, CNN said.

Primeau added that the tape is clearly cut off after “check.”

In a text message exchange with Business Insider, Giuliani responded to CNN’s analyst and said the Trump legal team “analysed” the tape “several times and our transcript is accurate as to Cohen-Trump conversation.”

Wanting to pay for the potential expense in cash – making it impossible to trace – could suggest Trump wanted to conceal evidence of a possible campaign-finance violation. If he wanted to pay with a check, however, Trump’s intentions would be viewed differently.

Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor, told The Post that if such a payment were “wilfully” not disclosed, it would be a crime. Even if a payment was not made, there “could still be a conspiracy” to commit such a crime, she said.

The conversation could become important in relation to another payment: the $US130,000 Cohen paid to the porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 presidential election to keep her quiet about allegations of a 2006 affair with Trump.

McQuade told The Post that the tape “could be used as evidence of intent in the larger context of other evidence.”

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