Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's longtime personal attorney, claimed to have helped prevent the release of personal photographs embarrassing to Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. shortly before the influential evangelical leader endorsed Trump's insurgent presidential bid in 2016.
Cohen made the assertion, which was first reported by Reuters, in a phone call in March with actor Tom Arnold. Arnold provided The Washington Post with a recording of the call Tuesday night.
"There's a bunch of photographs - you know, personal photographs - that somehow, the guy ended up getting," Cohen said on the call. The person who had the photos, who is not identified on the call, was demanding money from the Falwells, and Cohen threatened to report the person to legal authorities, according to Reuters.
Reuters reported that the alleged episode took place months before Falwell's surprise endorsement of Trump. Arnold told The Post that Cohen told him it occurred during the presidential race.
A statement released by an attorney for the Falwells called the account "not accurate."
"While the Falwells have a long-standing friendship with Michael Cohen, they never engaged or paid Cohen to represent them in any legal or other professional capacity, and Cohen did not ever resolve any legal matter on their behalf," the statement said.
The attorney, who declined to be named, said in a follow-up text message that "there are no compromising or embarrassing photos of Falwell, period!"
Lanny Davis, a spokesman for Cohen, declined to comment. Cohen began serving a three-year prison sentence on Monday for tax evasion and campaign-finance violations.
Arnold, a staunch critic of the president's, said he became friends with Cohen last summer, adding that the longtime Trump confidant sees him as an ally.
Arnold said Cohen did not know that he was recording their March conversation at the time, but Arnold said that he subsequently told Cohen that he had recorded it. He said he indicated to Cohen that he would release details about the Falwell portion of their conversation after Cohen went to prison.
"He knows I'm going to help him," Arnold said, adding: "I said, 'As soon as you go in: Jerry Falwell Jr.' "
Last month, Arnold shared with the Wall Street Journal his March 25 phone call with Cohen, who began his three-year prison term on Monday after pleading guilty to tax, bank and campaign-finance crimes. In the phone call, Cohen denied responsibility for some of his crimes.
The longtime Trump fixer said he kept a copy of one of the Falwell photos on his phone, Cohen told Arnold on their March 25 call.
It is unclear what the photos allegedly depicted. Cohen described the images as "photos between husband, wife, and the whole bit."
"I actually have one of the photos," he said on the recording. "It's terrible."
Falwell's early support of Trump was seen as crucial, giving the candidate a key stage in front of evangelicals, an important group of voters for Trump.
He delivered a glowing welcome to Trump during a campaign visit by Trump to Liberty University in 2016 and formally endorsed him. His continued support for Trump after the "Access Hollywood" video was released was seen as critical to the Trump campaign, although some graduates returned their diplomas over Falwell's support.
"Jesus said 'Judge not, lest ye be judged,' " Falwell wrote in an essay for The Washington Post in 2016. "Let's stop trying to choose the political leaders who we believe are the most godly because, in reality, only God knows people's hearts. You and I don't, and we are all sinners."
As recently as this week, Falwell made headlines for his lavish praise of Trump. The president shared a tweet over the weekend in which Falwell declared, "Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup."
According to the Reuters report, the Falwells asked Cohen for help with the photographs around the time Cohen was working with Liberty University to promote Trump's candidacy in 2015.
Cohen flew to Florida, met with a lawyer for the person with the photos and informed him that his client was breaking the law, Reuters reported. Arnold said that Cohen described the Florida trip to him.
Ultimately, the lawyer told Cohen that all of the photos were destroyed, Reuters reported.
"I was going to pay him and I was going to get the negatives and do an agreement where they turn over all technology that has the photographs or anything like that, any copies," Cohen told Arnold on the call. "And it never happened. The guy just either deleted them on his own or what have you."
Along with religious leaders such as evangelist Franklin Graham and Florida megachurch pastor Paula White, Falwell is seen as one of Trump's most prominent religious supporters.
He is the son of the late televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., a megachurch pastor who helped to organize religious conservatives especially in the 1970s and '80s. Falwell has taken the school his father started in 1971 in Lynchburg, Virginia, and expanded it into one of the largest Christian universities in the world, with more than 100,000 students. Last year, the university released a film suggesting Trump had fulfilled a divine prophecy.
One of the largest universities in the country, Liberty is seen as an innovator in online education and has become a prominent platform for politicians to visit. Trump gave a commencement address there in 2017, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., spoke there in 2015.
Falwell is expected to welcome Vice President Mike Pence to deliver the university's commencement address on Saturday.
The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.