President Donald Trump denied Thursday that he had directed his former personal attorney Michael Cohen to break the law during the 2016 campaign by buying the silence of women who claimed they once had affairs with the future president.
In morning tweets, Trump, however, did not dispute that he had directed Cohen to make the payments, as Cohen and federal prosecutors have alleged - actions that could imperil Trump.
The president claimed that Cohen bore responsibility for any criminal violations of campaign finance law but also asserted that Cohen "probably was not guilty" of even civil violations related to the payments to former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal and adult-film star Stormy Daniels - a view at odds with that of many lawyers.
"Those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did," Trump alleged.
Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday for what U.S. District Judge William Pauley called a "veritable smorgasbord of criminal conduct" - crimes that included tax violations and lying to a bank as well as those related to the hush-money payments.
Trump's tweets Thursday were his first public comments about Cohen since his sentencing. On Wednesday afternoon, the president ignored questions shouted by reporters about his onetime loyalist.
Trump largely echoed his tweets in a television interview broadcast Thursday afternoon.
"I never directed him to do anything wrong," Trump told Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner, speaking about Cohen. "Whatever he did he did on his own. ... I never directed him to do anything incorrect or wrong."
"I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law," Trump said Thursday. "He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called 'advice of counsel,' and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid."
Trump sought to minimise his relationship with Cohen, saying he did "more public relations than law" and was generally responsible for "low-level work." He said that in retrospect hiring Cohen was a mistake.
During an earlier interview on Fox News on Thursday, Lanny Davis, an adviser to Cohen, said Trump's credibility is questionable. Davis pointed to an assertion Trump made in April to reporters aboard Air Force One that he knew nothing about a $130,000 payment to Daniels to silence her about their alleged decade-old dalliance.
The White House has since changed its story. In a television interview in May, Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani said Trump had repaid Cohen for the money he gave to Daniels. The next day, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was pressed by reporters on why she had previously denied that Trump had any knowledge of the payment. Sanders said she had "given the best information I had at the time."
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors also announced a cooperation deal with the National Enquirer's parent company, in which it acknowledged paying McDougal to "suppress the woman's story" and "prevent it from influencing the election."
Prosecutors announced that they would not prosecute the company, American Media Inc. (AMI), for its role in a scheme to tilt the presidential race in favor of Trump. In the agreement, AMI said it would cooperate with prosecutors and admitted it paid McDougal $150,000 before the 2016 election to silence her allegations of an affair with Trump.
During the Fox interview, Trump emphasised that he had not reimbursed AMI for that hush money.
"I don't think, and I have to go check, I don't think they even paid any money to that tabloid, OK," he said. "I don't think we made a payment to that tabloid."
The deal signalled the unravelling of the deep relationship Trump and AMI chief executive David Pecker had forged over decades. It also made clear that Pecker, whose tabloid strongly supported Trump's candidacy, has turned on the president.
In a tweet later Thursday morning, Trump weighed in on the fate of another associate, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who is scheduled to be sentenced next week for lying to investigators.
"They gave General Flynn a great deal because they were embarrassed by the way he was treated," Trump wrote, referring to prosecutors on the team of special counsel Robert Muller, who is probing Russian election interference. "They want to scare everybody into making up stories that are not true by catching them in the smallest of misstatements. Sad!"
A federal judge on Wednesday ordered both Flynn and the special counsel to turn over additional investigative records describing his January 2017 interview with FBI agents - a conversation in which Flynn later admitted he lied.
Last week, Mueller told the court he was seeking no prison time for Flynn, describing him as a critical cooperating witness in the special counsel probe and other ongoing investigations.