New Revelations Suggest a President Losing Control of His Narrative
Posted May 3, 2018 10:27 p.m. EDT
Updated May 3, 2018 10:30 p.m. EDT
As of last week, the American public had been told that President Donald Trump’s doctor had certified he would be “the healthiest individual ever elected.” That the president was happy with his legal team and would not hire a new lawyer. That he did not know about the $130,000 payment to a former pornographic film actress who claimed to have had an affair with him.
As of this week, it turns out that the statement about his health was not actually from the doctor but had been dictated by Trump himself. That the president has split with the leaders of his legal team and hired the same new lawyer he had denied recruiting. And that Trump himself financed the $130,000 payment intended to buy the silence of the actress known as Stormy Daniels.
Even in the current political environment that some derisively call the post-truth world, the past few days have offered a head-spinning series of revelations that conflicted with the version of events Trump and his associates had previously provided. Whether called lies or misstatements, Trump’s history of falsehoods has been extensively documented, but the string of factual distortions that came to light this week could come back to haunt him.
The shifting statements also illustrated starkly why some of the president’s lawyers have urged him not to submit to an interview by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether Trump’s campaign cooperated with Russia during the 2016 presidential election and whether the president obstructed justice to thwart that investigation. Those lawyers have said Mueller is setting a perjury trap for Trump. What they do not say publicly is that they worry the president would be unable to avoid contradicting himself.
Trump has for years presented selective and creative accounts of his life and businesses — “truthful hyperbole,” as he put it in his first book — and at times this habit has gotten him in trouble. Even after being elected president, he paid $25 million to settle lawsuits accusing him of fraud for hoodwinking students who signed up for his now-defunct, for-profit Trump University. As a matter of politics, the latest contradictions may not matter much, at least not yet. The public to some extent has grown accustomed to the factual deviations or written them off as unimportant. Just this week, Trump surpassed 3,000 false or misleading claims since taking office, according to a running tally by The Washington Post — an average of 6.5 per day.
A poll released this week by NBC News and SurveyMonkey found that 61 percent of Americans had concluded that the president tells the truth only some of the time or less. But even among the Republicans who question Trump’s honesty, most still support him, according to the survey.
And to be sure, not every misleading statement is equally meaningful. In March, The New York Times reported that Trump was in discussions to hire Emmet T. Flood, a veteran Washington lawyer.
Trump reacted angrily. “The Failing New York Times purposely wrote a false story stating that I am unhappy with my legal team on the Russia case and am going to add another lawyer to help out,” he wrote on Twitter. “Wrong. I am VERY happy with my lawyers, John Dowd, Ty Cobb and Jay Sekulow.” Dowd resigned 11 days later. Cobb announced his resignation this week. He will be replaced by Flood.
Under the unforgiving glare of federal prosecutors, however, misrepresentations carry far greater jeopardy. In nearly a year on the case, Mueller has shown that he is more than willing to charge associates of Trump with lying to investigators; independent lawyers have said it would be reckless for the president’s lawyers to allow him to be interviewed. Even supporters who maintain that Trump is essentially a truth teller acknowledge that he can be loose with details.
For Trump, it is about creating a narrative that suits his desired image, and dictating the terms of his own life — in media coverage, in his business, in politics, even in his medical care. But he now risks losing his grip on the storyline he has long sought to control, in part because of his own treatment of associates like his doctor and the lawyer who paid the porn star.
This week’s revelation about the true origin of the doctor’s statement may not have surprised many. When Dr. Harold N. Bornstein released a letter in December 2015 saying that Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” few believed it was authentic. It contained the exact language about “strength and stamina” that the candidate often used to describe himself.
Bornstein confirmed this week that Trump had dictated the letter, a disclosure that stemmed from his own split with the president. After he told The Times last year that Trump used hair-loss medicine, the president was angry and embarrassed, according to aides. Trump, who often calculates the risks of angering people who know intimate details about him, did not express his frustration publicly. But he sent aides to seize his medical records from Bornstein, who felt burned enough by the incident to break his silence.
Likewise, Trump has to worry about whether his brusque treatment of his longtime lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, might come back to hurt him. Cohen, facing an investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, originally said he made the $130,000 payment to the porn actress, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, from a home equity line of credit and that he was not reimbursed by the Trump Organization or campaign.
Trump, asked by reporters on Air Force One last month whether he knew about the payment to Clifford, said “no.” He likewise said he did not know where the money came from.
But in an interview on Fox News on Wednesday night, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor now serving as a lawyer for the president, said Trump had reimbursed Cohen for the money.
In a follow-up interview Thursday morning, Giuliani said Trump did not actually learn the specifics until recently. “He didn’t know the details of this until we knew the details of this, which was a couple weeks ago,” Giuliani said. “Maybe not even a couple — maybe 10 days ago.” Giuliani seemed less concerned with explaining Trump’s previous denial than with emphasizing that it was the candidate’s personal money and therefore could not be a violation of campaign finance law. He said the payment to Clifford as part of a nondisclosure agreement was made in October 2016 only to protect Trump’s family from a false allegation, not to influence the election less than two weeks later.
While others might think paying $130,000 to someone who was making a false allegation was hard to fathom, for a wealthy man like Trump it was not quite “pocket change, but it’s pretty close to it,” Giuliani said.
“When Cohen heard $130,000, he said: ‘My God, this is cheap — they come cheap. Let me get the thing signed up and signed off,’” Giuliani added.
The disclosure prompted a message of vindication from Clifford’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti. “We predicted months ago that it would be proven that the American people had been lied to as to the $130k payment and what Mr. Trump knew, when he knew it and what he did in connection with it,” he wrote on Twitter. “Every American, regardless of their politics, should be outraged by what we have now learned. Mr. Trump stood on AF1 and blatantly lied.”
In his Wednesday night interview, Giuliani also offered a different reason for Trump’s decision to fire James B. Comey as FBI director last year. When Trump first announced the dismissal, he explained it by saying that Comey was “not able to effectively lead the bureau” and cited memos criticizing his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. The next day, Trump told Lester Holt on NBC News that he would have fired Comey regardless of the memos and that he had the Russia investigation on his mind.
On Fox News, Giuliani attributed the decision to Comey’s refusal to publicly exonerate Trump in the Russia investigation. “He fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation,” Giuliani said. Since then, Mueller’s office has told the White House that Trump is a subject, though not a target, of the investigation. Giuliani told The Times that he had consulted with Trump before and after making the revelation about the $130,000 payment Wednesday night, and the president posted a series of messages on Twitter on Thursday morning that read as if drafted by a lawyer to elaborate.
But some still wondered whether it was an unscripted comment, especially given that it came up almost casually at the end of a long interview with Sean Hannity, the Fox News host. Giuliani and Trump have a long and deep relationship. The former mayor has the president’s ear — and understands how to communicate with him — in a way that few others do.
Still, Giuliani is a former big city mayor accustomed to being an executive and his ability to simply carry out orders without adding his own flair has always been in question.
Either way, the past few days have shown that Trump’s narrative is now at least in part in the hands of others — his lawyers, his friends, his doctor, his accuser’s lawyer, even his investigators. And for a man who prefers to craft his own storyline, that is not a comfortable situation.