Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to arrange hush-money payments with two women because then-candidate Trump “was very concerned about how this would affect the election” if their allegations of affairs became public, the president’s former personal attorney said in an exclusive interview with ABC News.
Cohen’s comments are his first since being sentenced earlier this week to three years in federal prison for financial crimes, lying to Congress and two campaign finance violations in connection with the deals with the women, Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, who claim past affairs with Trump.
“I knew what I was doing was wrong,” Cohen told ABC News’ Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos. “I stood up before the world [Wednesday] and I accepted the responsibility for my actions.”
When asked if the president also knew it was wrong to make the payments, Cohen replied, “Of course,” adding that the purpose was to “help [Trump] and his campaign.”
Cohen said he is “angry at himself” for his role in the deals, but that he did it out of “blind loyalty” to Trump.
“I gave loyalty to someone who, truthfully, does not deserve loyalty,” he said.
Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have implicated, but not charged, the president in the deals reached in the closing weeks of the 2016 election. They allege that Cohen acted “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump, according to court filings. Prosecutors also reached a non-prosecution agreement with AMI, the publishers of the National Inquirer, in which the tabloid admitted to making a $150,000 payment to McDougal “in concert” with the Trump campaign.
The president has denied allegations of the affairs -- but has had shifting explanations about when he learned about the payments to the women. He has also contended that the deals were private and unrelated to the campaign and that if anything illegal occurred, it was Cohen’s responsibility.
Trump has lashed out at Cohen since his sentencing, contending in a Thursday tweet that his former close confidant only agreed to plead guilty “in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did.”
“It is absolutely not true,” Cohen said. “Under no circumstances do I want to embarrass the president. He knows the truth. I know the truth.”
Cohen was particularly distressed by another Trump tweet on Thursday, in which the president implied that prosecutors investigating Cohen had let his wife and father-in-law off the hook.
“Instead of him taking responsibility for his actions, what does he do?” Cohen said. “He attacks my family.”
And Cohen refuted the president’s contention that he never directed Cohen to do anything wrong.
“I don't think there is anybody that believes that,” Cohen told Stephanopoulos. “First of all, nothing at the Trump organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump. He directed me to make the payments, he directed me to become involved in these matters.
“He knows the truth. I know the truth. Others know the truth,” Cohen continued. “And here is the truth: People of the United States of America, people of the world, don't believe what he is saying. The man doesn't tell the truth. And it is sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.”
When confronted about his convictions for lying to Congress and for tax evasion and banking crimes, Cohen said he was “done with the lying. I am done being loyal to President Trump and my first loyalty belongs to my wife, my daughter, my son and this country.”
“Why should we believe you now?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Because the special counsel stated emphatically that the information that I gave to them is credible and helpful,” Cohen replied. “There’s a substantial amount of information that they possessed that corroborates the fact that I am telling the truth.”
Cohen -- who is due to report to prison on March 6 -- has professed his willingness to continue to answer questions for special counsel Robert Mueller and other federal and state investigators.
He declined in the interview to answer specific questions about the Mueller investigation “out of respect for process.”
“I don’t want to jeopardize any of their investigations,” he said.
But when asked if he thinks the president is telling the truth about the Russia probe, Cohen replied simply, “No.”
Cohen once said he would “take a bullet” for the president, but now he finds himself opposing the president and facing the prospect of becoming a witness against him.
“It’s never good to be on the wrong side of the president of the United States of America, but somehow or another this task has now fallen onto my shoulders and as I also stated ... I will spend the rest of my life in order to fix the mistake that I made.”
Cohen said as he observes Trump’s actions in the White House, he barely recognizes the man he served for more than a decade at the Trump organization.
“He’s a very different individual,” Cohen said. “I think the pressure of the job is much more than what he thought it was going to be. It’s not like the Trump organization where he would bark out orders and people would blindly follow what he wanted done. There’s a system here; he doesn’t understand the system and it’s sad because the country has never been more divisive and one of the hopes that I have out of the punishment that I’ve received as well as the cooperation that I have given I will be remembered in history as helping to bring this country back together.
“I will not be the villain of his story,” he said.
A lightly edited transcript of Cohen's interview with George Stephanopoulos, which aired today on "Good Morning America," follows here:
George Stephanopoulos: Michael, thank you for doing this.
Michael Cohen: George, good to see you.
Stephanopoulos: Emotional day in court yesterday, and I was struck by that line you had ... you said you felt like you had your freedom back.
Stephanopoulos: How does it feel today?
Cohen: Like I have my freedom back. Though I have to be honest. It has been very rough to be before the court with my family in attendance, my mother, my father, my wife, my children, my sisters, my brother, my niece, cousins, friends, it was ... ummm, it was a very rough day.
Stephanopoulos: And then you wake up today, and the president is tweeting from very early in the morning several different things ... what struck me most is his claim that you agreed to this plea deal for this reason he said, "Those charges were just agreed to him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence."
Cohen: I know which tweets you are talking about. First of all, it is absolutely not true. I did not do it to embarrass the president. He knows the truth. I know the truth, many people know the truth. Under no circumstances do I want to embarrass the president of the United States of America. The truth is, I told the truth. I took responsibility for my actions. And instead of him taking responsibility for his actions, what does he do? He attacks my family. And after yesterday, again being before the court and taking the responsibility and receiving a sentence of 36 months, the only thing he could do is to tweet about my family?
Stephanopoulos: He said in the tweets and repeated in an interview later on that basically he says -- his claim -- you are lying about him to protect your wife, to protect your father in-law.
Cohen: Inaccurate. He knows the truth, I know the truth, others know the truth, and here is the truth: The people of the United States of America, people of the world, don't believe what he is saying. The man doesn't tell the truth. And it is sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.
Stephanopoulos: You lied for him for a long time.
Cohen: More than 10 years.
Cohen: Out of loyalty. Out of loyalty to him. I followed a bad path and hence how we started this conversation. I have my freedom, and I will not be the villain -- as I told you once before -- I will not be the villain of his story.
Stephanopoulos: He is saying very clearly that he never directed you to do anything wrong. Is that true?
Cohen: I don't think there is anybody that believes that. First of all, nothing at the Trump organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump. He directed me, as I said in my allocution and I said as well in the plea, he directed me to make the payments, he directed me to become involved in these matters. Including the one with McDougal, which was really between him and David Pecker and then David Pecker's counsel. I just reviewed the documents ... in order to protect him. I gave loyalty to someone who truthfully does not deserve loyalty.
Stephanopoulos: He was trying to hide what you were doing, correct?
Stephanopoulos: And he knew it was wrong?
Cohen: Of course.
Stephanopoulos: And he was doing that to help his election?
Cohen: You have to remember at what point in time that this matter came about -- two weeks or so before the election. Post the Billy Bush ["Access Hollywood"] comments, so, yes, he was very concerned about how this would affect the election.
Stephanopoulos: To help his campaign?
Cohen: To help him and the campaign.
Stephanopoulos: You mention dirty deeds in your allocution yesterday. When you think about it, when you look back, did you know what you were doing?
Cohen: I am angry at myself because I knew what I was doing was wrong. I stood up before the world yesterday and I accepted the responsibility for my actions. The actions that I gave to a man, who, as I also said in my allocution, I was loyal to. I should not be the only one taking responsibility for his actions.
Stephanopoulos: So he's still lying?
Stephanopoulos: Do you know why you were loyal to him at the beginning?
Cohen: No. No, it was a blind loyalty. It was to a man I admired, but I do not know the answer to it. And I am angry at myself. My family is disappointed that they've taught me, my mother, father, right from wrong. And I didn't display good judgment.
Stephanopoulos: You called it blind loyalty -- the prosecutors seem to suggest it was, southern district prosecutors I should add, seem to suggest it was -- you were being driven by greed and ambition.
Cohen: That's inaccurate, but, again, I took responsibility for my actions, but I didn't make my money working for Donald Trump. I made a substantial amount of money years before working for Donald Trump. And anybody who knows me knows that to be the truth.
Stephanopoulos: So what do you say to people -- and you know there are a lot of people will be watching who are thinking, "But wait a second, he lied for so long why should we believe him now?" What's the answer to that?
Cohen: What do you mean, "lied"? Lied about what? At the Trump organization, it is a microcosm of even just a New York real estate market. What do we lie about? It's New York real estate, yes, it is the greatest product ever created, is that a lie?
Stephanopoulos: But you pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.
Stephanopoulos: So why should we believe you now?
Cohen: Because the special counsel stated emphatically that the information that I gave to them is credible and helpful. There is a substantial amount of information that they possessed that corroborates the fact that I am telling the truth.
Stephanopoulos: So you're done with the lying?
Cohen: I am done with the lying. I am done being loyal to President Trump, and my first loyalty belongs to my wife, my daughter, my son and this country.
Stephanopoulos: You worked for him a long time. I was around you many, many years ago where you seemed to be having fun.
Cohen: Correct -- there was a lot of fun going on at the Trump organization.
Stephanopoulos: ... working with Donald Trump ...
Cohen: I enjoyed working with my colleagues there as well.
Stephanopoulos: When did it change?
Cohen: You know, I can't give you a specific time that it went from point A to point B. It was just a change. I will tell you that the gentleman that is sitting now in the Oval Office, 1600 Pennsylvania avenue, is not the Donald trump that I remember from Trump Tower.
Stephanopoulos: ... how so?
Cohen: He's a very different individual.
Stephanopoulos: What's happened to him?
Cohen: I think the pressure of the job is much more than what he thought it was going to be. It's not like the Trump organization where he would bark out orders and people would blindly follow what he wanted done. There's a system here, he doesn't understand the system, and it's sad because the country has never been more divisive. And one of the hopes that I have out of the punishment that I've received, as well as the cooperation that I have given, I will be remembered in history as helping to bring this country back together.
Stephanopoulos: The special counsel did say that you are doing your best to tell the truth about everything related to the investigation, everything related to Russia. Do you think President Trump is telling the truth about that?
Stephanopoulos: That's a big statement.
Stephanopoulos: If he were sitting in this chair right now, what would you say to him?
Cohen: Lay off Twitter, run the country the way that we all thought that you would, be able to take the Democrats, Republicans, bring them together and bring the country together instead of dividing the country.
Stephanopoulos: Do you think he has ears to hear that?
Cohen: I don't know. I don't think so.
Stephanopoulos: Was yesterday the hardest day of your life, or is that going too far?
Cohen: It's an understatement.
Stephanopoulos: Yet you feel you've turned a corner.
Cohen: I know I have.
Stephanopoulos: And when you look back at the Michael Cohen who spent 10 years with Donald Trump, what would you say to him on that first day?
Cohen: "What were you thinking? You knew better. You know better."
Stephanopoulos: How does this end for Donald Trump?
Cohen: That sort of gets into the whole investigation right now between special counsel's office, the attorney general's office, you also have the Southern District of New York -- I don't want to jeopardize any of their investigations.
Stephanopoulos: Are you still cooperating?
Cohen: If they want me. I am here and I am willing to answer whatever additional questions that they may have for me.
Stephanopoulos: Right, so you're saying there's certain areas that you can't get into because you're still cooperating with them.
Cohen: Correct. And out of respect for process.
Stephanopoulos: Why do you think President Trump is lashing out against you in such a personal way? Daily, almost now, calling you weak. Calling you a liar. Is he afraid?
Cohen: Seems like it. That's what he does. That's what he does.
Stephanopoulos: Are you afraid of him?
Cohen: It's never good to be on the wrong side of the president of the United States of America. But somehow or another, this task has now fallen onto my shoulders, and, as I also stated, that I will spend the rest of my life in order to fix the mistake that I made.
Stephanopoulos: How are you going to do that?
Cohen: I don't know. One day at a time.