Political News

Trump Says Payment to Stormy Daniels Did Not Violate Campaign Laws

Posted May 3, 2018 4:01 p.m. EDT
Updated May 3, 2018 4:09 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday directly contradicted his earlier statements that he knew of no payment to Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film actress who says she had an affair with him.

Trump said he paid a monthly retainer to his former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, and suggested that the payment by Cohen to the actress could not be considered a campaign contribution.

The president’s comments reiterated an explosive announcement late Wednesday by one of his recently hired attorneys, Rudy Giuliani, who said on Fox News that the president reimbursed Cohen for the payment to actress Stephanie Clifford, who performs as Stormy Daniels. Though Giuliani described his interview as part of a strategy, the disclosure caught several Trump advisers by surprise, sending some scrambling Thursday morning to determine how to confront the situation.

In three Twitter posts Thursday morning, the president repeated some of what Giuliani said a day earlier, specifically that Trump repaid a $130,000 payment Cohen made to Clifford just days before the presidential election in 2016.

Giuliani and Trump said this removed the question of whether it was a campaign finance violation. Trump also continued to deny the affair.

“Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA,” Trump wrote. “These agreements are very common among celebrities and people of wealth. In this case it is in full force and effect and will be used in Arbitration for damages against Ms. Clifford (Daniels). The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair, despite already having signed a detailed letter admitting that there was no affair. Prior to its violation by Ms. Clifford and her attorney, this was a private agreement. Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction.”

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Thursday that she could not comment on the president’s legal strategy. In comments on “Fox & Friends,” she referred viewers to Giuliani’s remarks and the president’s tweets.

The changing accounts about the president, the payment and the pornography actress came as a surprise to the attorneys of Clifford and Cohen and are forcing some of Trump’s advisers to prepare for a new round of questions from the public.

As of a few hours before Giuliani went on television, his revelations were not part of a wider strategy, beyond whatever conversations Giuliani and Trump had, two people close to the president’s team said. Some of Trump’s allies were frustrated that they, once again, had no advance warning of the new narrative, making it more difficult to discuss it adequately as surrogates on television.

The president’s tweets Thursday had far more formal and legalistic language than his typical morning messages to the world, which often include words in all capital letters and are punctuated with exclamation points. It was not immediately clear whether the tweets were composed by Trump or if they were written by one of his attorneys or advisers, which happens on occasion.

On Thursday morning, Giuliani said Cohen was just doing his job when he made the payment.

“Imagine if that came out on October 15th, 2016, in the middle of the, you know, last debate with Hillary Clinton,” Giuliani told Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.” “Cohen didn’t even ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job.”

Cohen had worked for Trump for a decade and has said he would “take a bullet” for him. Trump, however, treated Cohen poorly over the years, people familiar with their relationship have said.

Clifford is suing Cohen to try to be released from the nondisclosure agreement. And Cohen is under federal investigation for bank fraud, raising concerns in the president’s inner circle that Trump’s longtime personal lawyer will cooperate with the government. Federal agents raided Cohen’s office and home last month and seized documents that included information about payments to Clifford.

Cohen recently invoked his constitutional right to take the Fifth Amendment in the ongoing Stormy Daniels case.

A government accountability group, Common Cause, which has filed complaints to the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission about the $130,000 payment, said Giuliani’s remarks strengthened their case and put the president “in legal peril for ‘knowing and willful’ violations of campaign finance law related to hush money payments.”

Paul Seamus Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at Common Cause, said the latest explanation of the payment — that Trump reimbursed Cohen — does not eliminate the possibility that the payment violated campaign finance laws.

“A lot of contradictions coming out of Team Trump this morning,” Ryan said in an interview with The New York Times.

“This payment was to influence the election,” he added. And he said new details about the payment and repayment could raise additional legal problems because it might violate campaign finance laws about straw donors that prohibit making a donation in the name of another person.

Trump has made changes recently to his legal team, as the special counsel, Robert Mueller, increases pressure on the president to answer questions about possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Mueller is also investigating whether the president sought to derail the inquiry with certain decisions he made during his first few months in office.