Updated at 2:18 a.m. ET
President Trump acknowledged on Thursday that his longtime attorney Michael Cohen had “represented” him in what he called the “crazy” deal in which Cohen paid $130,000 to buy the silence of a porn actress just before the 2016 election.
Trump’s comments in an interview with Fox & Friends were the first time he has conceded his connection to Cohen’s deal with Stormy Daniels, who says she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, after Trump’s marriage and the birth of his youngest son.
Previously, Trump denied any relationship with Daniels and told reporters he wasn’t aware that Cohen paid Daniels.
For his part, Cohen has acknowledged paying Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford. Daniels says that Cohen was acting on behalf of Trump to keep her quiet to avoid a scandal and that he had her sign an agreement not to talk about her relationship with Trump.
Daniels is suing to escape that contract; Cohen says he will invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself and will not testify as part of that lawsuit.
Trump’s interview complicates legal matters for Cohen, who is dealing with a criminal investigation into his business practices in federal court in New York City. Cohen and lawyers for Trump asked a judge to restrict how much evidence prosecutors can review from an earlier FBI raid of Cohen’s home and office, citing the importance of attorney-client privilege.
But Trump on Thursday downplayed his relationship with Cohen, saying the attorney barely represented him. Cohen, Trump said, is mostly a businessman and federal investigators are looking at that aspect of his life, not his legal work that might be connected to Trump.
Cohen has worked for Trump for years and served as not only a counselor but also as a gatekeeper for outsiders and, in Cohen’s words, a “pit bull” when necessary.
The special master
The president’s comments on Thursday undercut Cohen’s case about privileged communications in the evidence seized by the FBI. That was the reason Cohen’s legal team gave for asking a federal judge to appoint a “special master” to review the material — rather than permitting a Justice Department “filter team” to go through it.
Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York wrote to federal Judge Kimba Wood on Thursday that they were prepared to withdraw their objection to a “special master.”
One reason, they wrote, was that it has become clear how few legal clients Cohen has. Prosecutors cited the comments by Trump on TV on Thursday and earlier statements by another putative client, Fox News host Sean Hannity, minimizing their relationships with Cohen.
That must mean there isn’t much protected material, as the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote, and Wood can authorize the lawyers involved to work efficiently.
“These statements by two of Cohen’s three identified clients suggest that the seized materials are unlikely to contain voluminous privileged documents, further supporting the importance of efficiency here,” they wrote to the judge.
Ultimately, Wood said on Thursday she had decided to appoint attorney Barbara Jones, a former judge in the Southern District, to serve as a special master in the Cohen case.
Wood said in court that Jones would would be available to meet with attorneys next week and that Wood planned to check in on her progress every week.
Jones was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1995 by President Clinton. She served on the bench there for 16 years before retiring and joining the lawfirm Bracewell.
In 2014, Jones acted as the arbitrator in the NFL’s dispute with former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, overturning the league’s indefinite suspension of Rice.
Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, told NPR he thought Jones is a “great pick for special master.”
“She was an outstanding judge, and it’s not hard to see why Judge Wood decided to pick her for this very important position,” said Sandick, who prosecuted several cases over which Jones presided. “She’s known in the legal community in New York as someone who cares about getting it right, above all.”
NPR correspondent Ryan Lucas contributed to this report