WASHINGTON ― If you turned on cable news Wednesday, you couldn’t miss the tape of Donald Trump discussing a hush money payment to one of his mistresses. Unless, of course, you were a House Republican ― then you definitely could have missed it.
Of the two dozen House Republicans HuffPost interviewed Wednesday, only three members acknowledged they had listened to the tape of Trump and his lawyer, Michael Cohen, discussing setting up an LLC to disperse hush money ― and even then, one said he didn’t have enough context to make any judgments about the conversation, and another Republican said he couldn’t comment until the tape’s authenticity had been verified, likening it to the “Yanny v. Laurel” meme.
“I’d like to see the forensic analysis to make sure that it’s ― you know, is it Lanny or is it Yanny? Or whatever that internet thing that went around the other day,” Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said. Conaway refused to answer additional questions about the tape, saying that until the tape is verified, those questions would be “hypothetical.”
Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who said he had not heard “all” of the tape, also said he couldn’t comment on the tape until it was authenticated. When HuffPost quipped that, as Trump said Tuesday, you can’t believe “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading,” Ross pushed back that he didn’t say that.
But that was the essential argument from House Republicans on Wednesday ― that you can’t believe your own ears or eyes ― as they attempted to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that then-candidate Trump wasn’t caught on tape discussing establishing an LLC to pay hush money to one of his mistresses through an arrangement with a sympathetic media organization.
The big question from House Republicans ― at least those who engaged with us beyond saying they couldn’t comment because they hadn’t heard the tape ― was, What laws had Trump broken?
That part is somewhat unclear, but there is a fair argument that this hush money was at least an unreported campaign expenditure ― and part of a larger questionable relationship with the National Enquirer. There’s also the part about, you know, the president and his staff repeatedly lying, him having yet another affair, and potentially conspiring to conceal the money by paying in cash.
But, for House Republicans, the big legal question seemed to be Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen surreptitiously taping the president.
“It would give me significant pause if an attorney can tape record a conversation that’s within the attorney-client privilege, and turn around and dump that into the media ― that’s very troubling,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said, mentioning that he hadn’t actually heard the tape and does “not really” have a plan to listen to it.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a former judge, also expressed concern about Cohen recording Trump. “It’s interesting when an attorney tapes his own client. That’s a new one for me,” Gohmert said.
By far, the most common reaction from Republicans was that they had not heard the tape, and therefore couldn’t comment.
- Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.): “I actually have stuff I do, you know, for a living. Working hard.”
- Roger Marshall (R-Kan.): “I’ve not seen anything from last night. I’m sorry.”
- Rob Bishop (R-Utah): “I have not seen it, I have not heard it, I have not read about it.”
- Buddy Carter (R-Ga.): “I haven’t had a chance to listen to it.”
- Kay Granger (R-Texas): “I’ve been in a markup all day.”
- Randy Weber (R-Texas): “Until I listen to it, I can’t answer questions.”
- Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.): “I caught a story this morning, but it was a sound bite.”
- Rodney Davis (R-Ill.): “This is an amazing time in journalism and in politics right now where, as a member of Congress, you’re asked about tweets, you’re asked about tapes ― obviously haven’t heard.”
- Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.): “Eventually I’ll take a look at the transcript, probably as opposed to listening to it.”
- Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.): “I thought you were talking about [Rep.] Steve Cohen, you’re talking about the guy ― I don’t know anything about it and I don’t have any comment on it.”
- Daniel Webster (R-Fla.): “Maybe I’ll have some time after tomorrow.”
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) only had one-word answers ― “no” and “yes” ― when we asked if he had heard the tape and planned to listen to it. Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) directed us to get in touch with her office. And Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tenn.) faked a phone call to avoid questions, telling HuffPost to catch him later as he put a phone that was clearly visible up to his ear and impersonated one side of a conversation.
Only one Republican expressed real concerns about the tape: Mark Sanford (R-S.C.).
“I think it’s disturbing,” Sanford told HuffPost. “I think it’s disturbing for the way that there’s now four different versions of what the president said with regard to this whole issue.”
Sanford mentioned that Trump first denied any awareness of an arrangement to pay former Playboy model Karen McDougal for the rights to her story about her and Trump’s 10-month affair; then changed his story about who was paying McDougal; and now was apparently aware of the arrangement as Trump Organization staffers created an LLC for the sole purpose of paying American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, to kill the story for him.
“What he’s doing is much bigger than this particular issue or the tape itself,” Sanford said. “What he’s doing is institutionalizing the idea that it’s OK to lie from the Oval Office, or in getting to the Oval Office, systematically and repeatedly.”
Sanford also said that Trump’s suggestion to pay cash was a suggestion to hide the payment. “That’s what mobsters do,” Sanford said. “That’s what drug lords do, it’s not what normal businesses do, because they want to have a paper trail of their activities.”
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) acknowledged that he had heard the tape, but said, “We don’t know enough just from the tape.” However, he added that he did think it was worth additional investigation.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said she hadn’t heard the tape, though she had read an article, and said the issues raised in the tape were issues under the purview of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which she continues to support.
But again, the general reaction from the House Republicans was one of affected ignorance and deflection.
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said the Cohen tape “was all a bunch of noise.” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) wondered what part of the arrangement was illegal. “I’ve never seen anybody put down blackmail as a legitimate campaign expenditure,” Massie said. And though Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said he disapproved of anyone having affairs, he said it was “interesting” that reporters never ask Democrats about former President Bill Clinton’s infidelity.
When HuffPost argued that Clinton hadn’t been in office for almost two decades, Labrador countered that “Hillary Clinton is in our faces every day.” When HuffPost raised the point that Trump is president, Labrador said that was because of “Bill Clinton’s horrendous life and her lies.”
Labrador argued that the media’s reluctance to go after Clinton showed our bias.
“You were supposed to ask about the lies that her family and herself did, you were supposed to ask about whether she actually went after these women who made accusations, and you were supposed to ask Democrats about that ― and you never did,” he said.
Igor Bobic contributed to this report.