Political News

Trump Repaid Cohen for Stormy Daniels Hush Money, Giuliani Says

Posted May 3, 2018 2:20 a.m. EDT
Updated May 3, 2018 2:24 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump reimbursed Michael D. Cohen, his longtime personal lawyer, for a $130,000 payment that Cohen has said he made to keep a pornographic film actress from going public before the 2016 election with her story about an affair with Trump, according to Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s lawyers.

That statement, which Giuliani made Wednesday night on Fox News, contradicted the president, who has said he had no knowledge about any payment to the actress, Stephanie Clifford, to keep quiet before the election.

Asked specifically last month by reporters aboard Air Force One whether he knew about the payment, Trump said, “No,” and referred questions to Cohen. He was then asked, “Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?”

“No,” Trump responded. “I don’t know.”

In an interview with The New York Times shortly after his Fox News appearance, Giuliani, the former New York mayor and longtime Trump confidant who recently joined the president’s legal team, said that he had documentation showing that Trump had personally reimbursed the money. Giuliani indicated that the goal was to conclusively demonstrate that there was no campaign finance violation involved.

“That removes the campaign finance violation, and we have all the documentary proof for it,” he said. Giuliani added that when the initial payment was made, Cohen did it “on his own authority.”

“Some time after the campaign is over, they set up a reimbursement, $35,000 a month, out of his personal family account,” Giuliani said. He added that, overall, Cohen was paid $460,000 or $470,000 from Trump through those payments, which also included money for “incidental expenses” that he had incurred on Trump’s behalf.

Giuliani said that he had spoken with the president before and after his interview on Fox News and that Trump and other lawyers on the team were aware of what he would say.

The president has repeatedly denied that he had an affair with Clifford, who has described having intimate contact with Trump before he became president.

Giuliani’s comments are also in direct contrast to what Cohen has been saying for months — that he used his own money to pay Clifford, whose stage name is Stormy Daniels. Cohen is under investigation by the FBI, which raided his home and office last month and seized documents that included information about the payment to Clifford.

“They funneled through a law firm, and the president repaid it,” Giuliani told Sean Hannity, the Fox News host. After Hannity asked for clarification, Giuliani insisted: “That was money that was paid by his lawyer. The president reimbursed that over the period of several months.”

The source of the $130,000 payment is at the center of several legal disputes involving Trump, Cohen and Clifford. That includes whether the payment to Clifford was in effect a contribution to Trump’s campaign aimed at preventing a negative article from surfacing just before Election Day.

Giuliani said that Cohen had “settled several problems for” Trump, and that the payments related to them. Another person familiar with the payments confirmed that that was the mechanism used to repay Cohen.

Giuliani said that he was “not clear that” Trump was aware of the payment to Clifford at the time it was made, and he said that his understanding was that the president did not learn about the payment to her until recently.

“I don’t think he did” know “until now,” Giuliani said.

The comments on Fox sent a jolt through Washington and New York, including the legal teams working on behalf of the president, Cohen and Clifford, who has sued Cohen in an attempt to be released from the nondisclosure agreement that accompanied the $130,000 payment in October 2016.

Michael Avenatti, Clifford’s lawyer, said Wednesday night on Twitter that Giuliani’s comments amounted to an admission that the president had lied to the American people about whether he was aware of the hush payment.

“Mr. Trump stood on AF1 and blatantly lied,” Avenatti wrote. “This followed the lies told by others close to him, including Mr. Cohen. This should never be acceptable in our America. We will not rest until justice is served.”

In an interview, Avenatti said a key issue going forward would be how Trump accounted for any such payments and whether they were hidden in a way that could violate anti-money laundering statutes.

Giuliani’s statement to Hannity was the latest of several contradictory narratives from Trump’s representatives about the deal to pay Clifford for her silence during the campaign, each of which have had potential implications for violating campaign finance disclosure laws.

Cohen had previously provided a detailed account of how he had paid Clifford $130,000 out of his own pocket, drawing down on a home loan to do so. That opened Cohen and the Trump campaign to charges that he violated the law by exceeding the amount that an individual can donate to a presidential campaign.

If Trump reimbursed Cohen for the payment, that could help Cohen and the campaign avoid prosecution for violating campaign contribution limits because a candidate is allowed to contribute an unlimited amount to his own campaign. According to a person close to the president, Trump reimbursed Cohen for the payment, a determination made in recent weeks by the president’s lawyers after examining banking records. The lawyers determined that campaign funds had not been used for the payment, the person said.

The lawyers also concluded that the funds did not come from a third party or the Trump Organization, the person said. While the disclosure may be embarrassing for the president, his lawyers believe the payment did not violate campaign finance laws, the person said.

Another person familiar with the matter said the money was reimbursed in a series of payments, not in a lump sum.

But such payments from the candidate — even if made through a lawyer — would have to be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission as an in-kind contribution to the campaign and as an expenditure by the campaign, if it was for the purpose of influencing the election.

Trump’s campaign did not disclose the reimbursement to Cohen on its commission reports.

The crucial question in determining whether the reimbursement violated campaign finance laws might be whether the payment was specifically intended to help Trump’s campaign.

Paul S. Ryan, an official at the government watchdog group Common Cause, argued that “all the facts indicate that the payment was to influence the election.”

Ryan asserted that Giuliani’s admission could allow prosecutors to make the case that Trump “knowingly caused his campaign committee to file an incomplete disclosure report with the FEC.”

“Until tonight, it would have been tough to prove that because Donald Trump had denied knowing about the payment,” Ryan said. “But his reimbursement amounts to knowledge.”

While most violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act’s disclosure provisions are misdemeanors, a knowing and willful violation could be a felony.

But Giuliani’s comments could cloud Avenatti’s legal argument that his client should be formally released from the hush agreement she signed. When Trump told reporters he knew nothing about the deal, he helped Clifford’s case that the hush agreement was not binding if Trump did not know about it and did not sign it.

Although far from bringing clarity to the question, Giuliani obscured it further — now two lawyers for the president are providing two very different versions of events.