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Michael Cohen says he tried to rig online polls 'at the direction' of Donald Trump

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer and longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, on Thursday said he tried to "rig" online polls — including one conducted by CNBC — "at the direction and for the sole benefit of" Trump.
  • "I truly regret my blind loyalty to a man who doesn't deserve it," Cohen said in a tweet copping to the electronic chicanery.
  • Cohen is set to begin a three-year prison term for a slew of crimes in March.
President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen leaves federal court in Manhattan, New York, U.S., May 30, 2018.
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer and longtime fixer Michael Cohen on Thursday said he tried to rig online polls — including one conducted by CNBC — "at the direction and for the sole benefit of" Trump when he was thinking about making a run for the White House.

"I truly regret my blind loyalty to a man who doesn't deserve it," Cohen said in a tweet copping to the electronic chicanery to have Trump's name rank higher in online polls than it otherwise would have.

Cohen's admission came shortly after The Wall Street Journal published a story detailing how he retained an information technology company to manipulate a 2014 CNBC online poll identifying the nation's top 100 business leaders to bolster Trump's chances of making that list.

That effort failed. And Trump himself fumed in 2014 on Twitter about his absence from CNBC's poll results.

A second similar effort related to rig a Drudge Report poll of potential Republican candidates worked, according to the Journal. Trump placed fifth in that poll, conducted in February 2015, before he announced his candidacy for the White House.

The Journal reported that a man named John Gauger, owner of RedFinch Solutions and chief information officer of Liberty University in Virginia, was given more than $12,000 by Cohen in 2015 for having helped rig online polls to boost Trump's ranking in them. The Journal's article cites Gauger as a source for its report.

CNBC in an article last August noted that Cohen in January 2017 reported a $50,000 expense to the Trump Organization for a payment Cohen made in 2016 to help Trump. The payment was for work that prosecutors said Cohen "solicited from a technology company during and in connection with the campaign."

Gauger was quoted by the Journal on Thursday as saying that he was never paid more than $13,000 by Cohen despite being owed more for his work. But Cohen still asked for and received "a $50,000 reimbursement from Mr. Trump and his company for the work by RedFinch," the Journal reported, citing government documents and a person familiar with the matter.

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Michael Cohen sentenced to three years in prison for campaign finance violations

"The reimbursement — made on the sole basis of a handwritten note from Mr. Cohen and paid largely out of Mr. Trump's personal account — demonstrates the level of trust the lawyer once had within the Trump Organization, whose officials arranged the repayment," the Journal reported.

The White House and a lawyer for the Trump Organization had no immediate comment when contacted by CNBC when asked about Cohen's tweet and the Journal story.

Trump's current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told NBC News that any poll rigging as alleged would have been done by Cohen on his own, and that Trump would have not known about it.

Trevor Potter, a campaign finance lawyer and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, told NBC News that Cohen's payments to RedFinch should have been accounted for and disclosed in campaign reports because Trump was "testing the waters" at the time for a presidential run. FEC records show no indication of such a disclosure.

"Once he became a candidate, this should have been reported as an in-kind contribution to the campaign, because it is required to report all testing expenditures and contributions on its initial FEC reports upon qualifying as a candidate," Potter said.

Cohen, 52, last year pleaded guilty to federal financial crimes, campaign finance violations and to lying to Congress. He was sentenced to three years in prison and is set to begin serving that term in March.

Long a Trump loyalist who once said he would take a "bullet" for the president, Cohen turned on Trump even before pleading guilty. He began cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller and other authorities in their probes of the president, his real estate company and other issues.

Cohen admitted as part of his criminal case to arranging for the payment of a total of $280,000 to two women — porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal — in 2016 to keep them quiet about their claims of having had affairs with Trump dating back a decade.

Cohen said he did so to bolster Trump's chances of winning the presidential election that year, and the payments were made at Trump's "direction."

That goal is the reason prosecutors said that the payments violated campaign finance laws, which require truthful disclosure of donations or expenditures for the purpose of an election.

The White House has denied Trump had sex with either woman. The president has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the payments.

Cohen also admitted to lying to Congress about the extent of Trump's involvement in an ultimately aborted effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, and to falsely claiming that the project was abandoned in early 2016, when it actually was dropped in mid-2016 — at the same time that Trump was on the verge of locking up the GOP presidential nomination.

The financial crimes related to income that Cohen did not declare to the IRS and to misleading banks about his financial situation when he applied for loans.

— Additional reporting by CNBC's Brian Schwartz and Kevin Breuninger.