WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, in a Thursday morning TV interview, sought to distance himself from his former attorney of more than a decade, casting Michael Cohen as a “part time” employee whom he “didn’t see as much.”
In an interview with "Fox and Friends," Trump also derided Attorney General Jeff Sessions, saying he "never took control" of the Justice Department — prompting Sessions to issue a rare response saying the department, which is overseeing the special counsel probe into Russian election interference, "will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."
Trump’s characterization during the interview of Cohen as a seldom-seen figure at Trump Tower was a departure from his former embrace of the attorney who described himself as Trump’s “fixer” and who launched an online effort in 2011 to build support for a possible Trump presidential run.
The interview was filmed at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, a day after Cohen pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court to campaign finance violations stemming from the 2016 campaign. Cohen in court said Trump had directed him to make hush-money payments to two women with the express purpose of “influencing the election.”
“They make it sound like I didn’t live without him,” Trump told Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt. “I understood Michael Cohen very well ... it turned out he wasn’t a very good lawyer, frankly. But he was somebody that was probably with me for about 10 years and I would see him sometimes.”
Cohen, who was raised on Long Island in Lawrence, was tapped by Trump to serve as his general counsel in 2006 and rose through the Trump Organization's ranks to be named an executive vice president. The lawyer was a fixture on the 2016 campaign trail, often appearing on cable TV to champion Trump’s candidacy. He also established a “national diversity coalition” aimed at building support for Trump among minorities, and had an office alongside Trump at Trump Tower.
Trump said the eight federal charges filed against Cohen, which include five counts of tax evasion related to his personal business dealings, had “nothing to do with me.”
The president said he did not learn of Cohen’s payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal in the days before the 2016 election until “later on,” contradicting a September 2016 audiotape captured by Cohen and leaked to CNN last month in which Trump and Cohen can be heard discussing a $150,000 payment to McDougal. In May, Trump acknowledged to reporters that he reimbursed Cohen $130,000 for payments made to Daniels, while denying he had an affair.
Trump argued the payments did not violate federal campaign finance laws because the money “didn’t come out of the campaign, they came from me.” But some legal experts have challenged Trump’s assessment, saying the payments were a campaign-related expense because they were an attempt to conceal allegations that could have influenced the outcome of the election, and should have been reported on Trump’s federal campaign finance filings.
The president in the Fox interview continued to praise his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who on Tuesday was found guilty by a federal grand jury in Virginia on eight federal bank and tax fraud charges, but Trump stopped short of saying whether he would pardon him.
Asked if he believed Democrats would impeach him if they gain control of Congress after the midterm elections, Trump said: “I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who’s done a great job.”
“If I ever got impeached, I think the markets would crash,” Trump said.
Trump twice would not answer whether he planned on firing Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after the midterm elections. Instead he repeated his past criticisms of Sessions, saying the former senator turned Trump campaign supporter should have never recused himself from the Russia investigation.
Sessions in a statement said: “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted the president would replace Sessions after the midterm elections.
“The president’s entitled to having an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that is qualified for the job and I think there will come a time sooner rather than later where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice. Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn’t have the confidence of the president,” Graham told reporters on Thursday.
With Tom Brune