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story.lead_photo.caption In this April 26, 2018 file photo, Michael Cohen leaves federal court in New York.

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen secretly recorded a conversation with Trump two months before the presidential election in which they discussed payments to a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Trump, according to lawyers and others familiar with the recording.

The FBI seized the recording this year during a raid on Cohen's office. The Justice Department is investigating Cohen's involvement in paying women to tamp down embarrassing news stories about Trump before the 2016 election. Prosecutors want to know whether that violated federal campaign finance laws, and any conversation with Trump about those payments would be of keen interest to them.

The recording's existence appears to undercut the Trump campaign's denial of any knowledge of payments to the model. And it further draws Trump into questions about tactics he and his associates used to keep aspects of his personal and business life a secret. It also highlights the potential legal and political danger that Cohen represents to Trump. Once the keeper of many of Trump's secrets, Cohen is now seen as increasingly willing to consider cooperating with prosecutors.

The former model, Karen McDougal, says she began a nearly yearlong affair with Trump in 2006, shortly after Trump's wife, Melania, gave birth to their son Barron. McDougal sold her story for $150,000 to The National Enquirer, which was supportive of Trump, during the final months of the presidential campaign, but the tabloid sat on the story, which kept it from becoming public. The practice, known as "catch and kill," effectively silenced McDougal for the remainder of the campaign.

In the September 2016 conversation, Cohen and Trump were discussing a plan by Cohen to attempt to purchase the rights to McDougal's story from the Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc., for roughly $150,000, according to one person familiar with the recording.

Trump can be heard urging Cohen to make sure he properly documents the agreement to buy the rights and urges him to use a check -- rather than cash -- to keep a record of the transaction, the person said.

The Enquirer's payment to McDougal gave the tabloid the exclusive rights to any story she might ever wish to tell about having an affair with a married man.

She later publicly alleged that the Enquirer had tricked her into accepting the deal and had threatened to ruin her if she broke it. After she sued the tabloid in March seeking to invalidate the contract, the Enquirer agreed to allow her to tell her story.

Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, confirmed in a telephone conversation Friday that Trump had discussed payments to McDougal with Cohen in person as heard on the recording. He said it was less than two minutes long, that Trump did not know he was being recorded and that the president had done nothing wrong.

Giuliani said there was no indication on the tape that Trump knew before the conversation about the payment from American Media to McDougal.

"Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of it in advance," Giuliani said.

Giuliani initially indicated that the men discussed a payment from Trump to McDougal -- separate from the Enquirer's payment -- to buy her story. Later, he said Trump and Cohen had actually discussed buying the rights to McDougal's story from the Enquirer, a move that would have effectively reimbursed the newspaper for its payments to her.

That payment was never made, Giuliani said. He also confirmed that Trump had told Cohen that if he were to make a payment related to McDougal, to write a check rather than send cash.

Neither of Giuliani's descriptions of the conversations explains why, when The Wall Street Journal revealed the existence of the American Media payment days before the election, Trump's campaign spokesman, Hope Hicks, said, "We have no knowledge of any of this." She said McDougal's claim of an affair was "totally untrue."

Cohen's lawyers discovered the recording as part of their review of the seized materials and shared it with Trump's lawyers, according to three people briefed on the matter.

Cohen rejected repeated requests for comment.

One of Cohen's lawyers, Lanny Davis, said "any attempt at spin cannot change what is on the tape."

"When the recording is heard, it will not hurt Mr. Cohen," Davis said in a statement.

On Twitter, McDougal's lawyer Carol Heller wrote that she was "learning of this in real time just like everyone else." Peter Stris, a lawyer who negotiated McDougal's settlement with American Media, tweeted, "When realDonaldTrump said we were lying, do you think he meant we WEREN'T?"

David Pecker, the chairman of American Media, is a friend of Trump's, and McDougal has accused Cohen of secretly taking part in the deal -- an allegation that is now part of the FBI investigation.

"It can't be more than a minute and a half," Giuliani said, referring to the length of the conversation. "Twice someone walks in -- someone brings soda in for them. It's not some secret conversation."

He added: "Neither one seems to be concerned anyone would hear it. It went off on irrelevant subjects that have nothing to do with this. It's a very professional conversation between a client and a lawyer, and the client saying, 'Do it right.'"

Because the tape showed Trump learning about the American Media payment, it actually helps Trump, Giuliani argued. "In the big scheme of things, it's powerful exculpatory evidence," he said. A person close to Cohen disputed that claim but would not elaborate.

The recording is potential evidence in the campaign finance investigation, but became tied up in a legal fight over what materials are protected by attorney-client privilege and thus off-limits to prosecutors. It is not clear whether a federal judge has ruled on whether prosecutors can listen to the recording.

The development will likely revive questions about what other recordings of Trump's conversations might exist. As a businessman, Trump occasionally recorded his own phone calls, a former Trump Organization executive said last year, although Trump once denied doing so.

A self-described fixer for Trump for more than a decade, Cohen said last year that he would "take a bullet" for Trump. But he told an interviewer earlier this month that he now puts "family and country first" and won't let anyone paint him as "a villain of this story." On Twitter, he scrubbed mentions and photos of Trump from a profile that previously identified him as "Personal attorney to President Donald J. Trump."

He wouldn't say in the recent interview whether he would cooperate with prosecutors. If he decided to do so, it could be risky for the president, given the pair's close relationship over the years.

Hours before The New York Times revealed the recorded conversation, Cohen on Friday met in New York with the Rev. Al Sharpton, a frequent critic of Trump.

Cohen and Sharpton said in tweets that they have known each other for 20 years. Cohen contacted the civil-rights activist in recent weeks, longtime Sharpton spokesman Rachel Noerdlinger said.

She said the two revisited conversations they'd had over the years when Cohen was Sharpton's conduit to Trump during clashes over race issues and over Trump's questioning of the authenticity of former President Barack Obama's birth certificate.

Cohen tweeted there's "no one better to talk to!" than Sharpton, who used his own Twitter account to advise readers: "Stay tuned."

Information for this article was contributed by Matt Apuzzo, Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt of The New York Times; by Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind S. Helderman of The Washington Post; and by Eric Tucker, Jennifer Peltz and Jake Pearson of The Associated Press.

Karen McDougal
Photo by AP file photo
In this May 5, 2018, file photo, Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for President Donald Trump, speaks at the Iran Freedom Convention for Human Rights and democracy in Washington.

A Section on 07/21/2018

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