President Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen acknowledged on Thursday that he schemed to rig online polls that sought to make Trump seem like a more plausible presidential candidate.
The story was first reported by The Wall Street Journal. In a tweet following the report, Cohen said he sought to help Trump's political aspirations, having been directed by the candidate.
"What I did was at the direction of and for the sole benefit of [Trump]," he wrote. "I truly regret my blind loyalty to a man who doesn't deserve it."
Cohen's goal appears to have been to pay computer specialist John Gauger to use software that would help Trump do well in at least two online surveys in order to make it appear that Trump had more support than he actually had.
Trump, who had flirted with presidential runs before but never made much headway, may have wanted to make it seem as though voters found the idea of his candidacy compelling, notwithstanding his lack of government experience.
As the Journal's correspondents wrote, the results were mixed:
"In January 2014, Mr. Cohen asked Mr. Gauger to help Mr. Trump score well in a CNBC online poll to identify the country's top business leaders by writing a computer script to repeatedly vote for him. Mr. Gauger was unable to get Mr. Trump into the top 100 candidates. In February 2015, as Mr. Trump prepared to enter the presidential race, Mr. Cohen asked him to do the same for a Drudge Report poll of potential Republican candidates, Mr. Gauger said. Mr. Trump ranked fifth, with about 24,000 votes, or 5% of the total."
The Drudge Report, one of the most important drivers of online reader traffic, featured the Journal story on Thursday morning with a banner headline: "Did Trump bribe Drudge poll?"
A pattern of political schemes
Cohen's admission was the latest example of questionable activity ahead of Election Day in 2016 that was aimed at helping Trump's presidential ambitions.
Cohen also has pleaded guilty to federal charges connected to a scheme in which he arranged payments to two women to buy their silence about sexual relationships they said they'd had with Trump.
Another party in the scheme, American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer, has acknowledged in court documents that it played a role with the aim of helping Trump's campaign.
Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison for his campaign crimes and others; AMI concluded a deal with prosecutors that protected it from prosecution in exchange for its cooperation and some changes to its practices.
Trump, however, argues that Cohen's actions don't amount to lawbreaking — that he pleaded guilty to crimes that aren't actually crimes. Federal law enforcement officials have formed a conspiracy to go after him, Trump says, and embarrass him when they can.
On the record
Separately on Thursday, Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told the Journal that what the story revealed is that Cohen is a thief: Cohen promised to pay $50,000 to the man he asked to help Trump's results in the online polls, but actually only gave him between $12,000 and $13,000 — and, the newspaper reported, one boxing glove.
Cohen evidently pocketed the balance of the $50,000 he sought from Trump: "If one thing has been established, it's that Michael Cohen is completely untrustworthy," Giuliani told the Journal.
Trump and Giuliani argue that Cohen's admissions about the falsehoods he has told mean that no one should believe anything he says. One federal crime to which Cohen pleaded guilty was lying to Congress about Trump's business negotiations with powerful Russians over a potential Trump Tower real estate project in Moscow.
Cohen told members of Congress the talks ended in January 2016 when actually they continued through to June of that year — after Trump had emerged as the GOP's front-runner and not long before he became its nominee.
Trump later acknowledged the negotiations and said there had been nothing untoward about them, but the revelation did undercut Trump's earlier denials that he had nothing to do with Russia at the time of the presidential campaign.
Cohen has said that his past actions were wrong and insists he is now telling the truth to the public and to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.
"I was weak for not having the strength to refuse [Trump's] demands," Cohen said at his sentencing. "Owning this mistake will free me to be once more the person I am."
Members of Congress are expected to ask Cohen about his work on behalf of Trump when he appears on Feb. 7 before the House oversight committee, although there may be some guardrails in place that stop Cohen from discussing information he has given to Mueller.