Donald Trump and his then-attorney Michael Cohen pressured CNBC in 2014 to place the real-estate tycoon higher in its list of the country’s top business leaders after Mr. Cohen failed to manipulate the rankings in Mr. Trump’s favor, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Cohen called CNBC and threatened that Mr. Trump would sue over his poor standing in the ranking, arguing that the news channel was “ignoring the will of the people,” the people familiar with the matter said. CNBC didn’t respond to the threat, and Mr. Trump didn’t sue. Mr. Cohen didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Trump also called network executives to complain, the people familiar with the matter said, in addition to griping publicly on Twitter about it.
Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, said, “The president stands by his tweets.”
Mr. Cohen was sentenced last month to three years in prison, after pleading guilty to campaign-finance violations, tax evasion, lying to Congress and other charges. None of the charges were connected to his work to try to rig the online ranking.
Mr. Trump didn’t crack the top 100 in the CNBC rankings, which were decided by a panel of experts appointed by the business channel to curate the list. As part of the process, CNBC held an online poll meant to guide the expert panel as it pared a list of 200 contenders down to 25.
Mr. Trump had canvassed for votes on Twitter while Mr. Cohen, then his special counsel at the Trump Organization, enlisted a small technology company to use computer code to cheat the polls by repeatedly voting for Mr. Trump.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Mr. Cohen asked RedFinch Solutions LLC owner John Gauger to better Mr. Trump’s odds in the CNBC poll, as well as a 2015 Drudge Report poll that asked who should be the Republican presidential nominee. Both efforts failed.
Mr. Cohen said in a tweet Thursday that he attempted to have the polls rigged at Mr. Trump’s direction, a claim Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, described as “bullshit.” At the time, Mr. Cohen never told Mr. Gauger that Mr. Trump had ordered the surveys manipulated but indicated that “the boss” was aware of the efforts once they were already under way, a person familiar with the conversation said.
Mr. Cohen, reached Friday, asked for more time to comment but didn’t respond to requests over the following two days.
Mr. Trump showed an interest on social media in the CNBC poll when the voting was open in early 2014. When CNBC announced the 200 contenders that month, Mr. Trump twice encouraged his Twitter followers to vote.
“Honored to be named as one of business’s ‘Top Leaders, Icons and Rebels’ by @CNBC,” Mr. Trump wrote in a Jan. 24, 2014, tweet. “Vote Trump!” Five days later, he again solicited votes: “Thanks to everyone for your support on @CNBC’s ‘Top Leaders, Icons and Rebels.’ Thanks for voting Trump!”
When he failed to make the cut, Mr. Trump lashed out at CNBC in two tweets. “Stupid poll should be canceled—no credibility.” Mr. Trump said in one of the March 10, 2014, tweets.
In announcing the contest, CNBC said those selected were business leaders who were responsible for “ushering in meaningful change” and whose impact was felt most in the past 25 years.
Mr. Trump didn’t make the top-100 cut on the CNBC poll because the judges viewed his business acumen and impact falling far short of top business leaders, with some noting that his companies had filed for bankruptcy protection more than once, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Trump also encouraged oil executive T. Boone Pickens to complain, according to a spokesman for Mr. Pickens. The spokesman said both the oil executive and Mr. Trump ranked in the top 100 on the online poll but “were removed when CNBC changed the guidelines.”
Representatives for CNBC and the Trump Organization declined to comment.
Mr. Gauger, who also is chief information officer for Liberty University, asked for $50,000 for his work on the polls, he told the Journal.
At Mr. Cohen’s request to Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., the university used its Twitter account to promote Mr. Trump in the CNBC rankings when the list of 200 contenders was announced, incorrectly stating that he’d been named among the top 25, according to a person familiar with the university’s decision.
Mr. Falwell is an avid supporter of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Gauger told the Journal that Mr. Cohen never paid him what he said he was owed for the work on the polls. Instead, during a visit by Mr. Gauger to Mr. Cohen’s office, Mr. Cohen gave him a Walmart bag containing between $12,000 and $13,000 in cash and a boxing glove, telling him it had been worn by a Brazilian mixed-martial arts fighter, Mr. Gauger said.
Though Mr. Gauger said he never got the balance of the payment, Mr. Cohen in early 2017 still asked for—and received—a $50,000 reimbursement from Mr. Trump and his company for the work by RedFinch, according to a government document and a person familiar with the reimbursement.
Mr. Cohen, who is scheduled to testify before Congress next month, previously told the Journal that he never paid Mr. Gauger in cash. “All monies paid to Mr. Gauger were by check,” he said Thursday.
—Rob Barry and Rebecca Ballhaus contributed to this article.