WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump acknowledged Thursday he repaid his personal lawyer for hush money given to porn actress Stormy Daniels after claiming previously he didn't know about the payments. But the money, paid just before the 2016 election to stifle her claims of an affair, "had nothing to do with the campaign," the president tweeted.
President Trump said his attorney Michael Cohen received a monthly retainer, which he used to pay the actress to sign an agreement not to talk about her allegations and thus "stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair."
President Trump's tweets outlining the arrangement came after Rudy Giuliani, one of his new attorneys, said Wednesday that President Trump reimbursed Cohen for $130,000 paid to Daniels. During an appearance on Fox News Channel's "Hannity," Giuliani said the money to repay Cohen had been "funneled ... through the law firm and the president repaid it."
Asked if President Trump knew about the arrangement, Giuliani said: "He didn't know about the specifics of it, as far as I know. But he did know about the general arrangement, that Michael would take care of things like this, like I take care of things like this for my clients. I don't burden them with every single thing that comes along. These are busy people."
Speaking on "Fox and Friends" Thursday, Giuliani said President Trump didn't know all the details until "maybe 10 days ago." While stressing that President Trump denies the relationship, he said Cohen may have seen $130,000 as "cheap."
"They said it wasn't true," Giuliani said. "However, imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton. Cohen didn't even ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job."
The comments contradicted statements made by President Trump several weeks ago, when he said he didn't know about the payment to Daniels. Giuliani later suggested to The Wall Street Journal that while President Trump had repaid the $130,000, Cohen had settled the payment to Daniels without President Trump's knowledge at the time.
Giuliani's revelation appeared to take many in the West Wing by surprise. In briefings and media appearances, White House aides have sought to avoid staking out a clear position on the matter, directing reporters to President Trump's own comments. And the way Giuliani announced details — on live television and imprecisely —raised fresh worries about the president's uneven legal team. But it was no accident.
"Of course" this is a strategy, said former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who led President Trump's presidential transition before being fired.
"You know, there's an old saying in the law, 'Hang a lantern on your problems.'" Christie said on ABC. "So he comes in, he knows that there's been different stories being told about this payment and how it was made. So the fact is that Rudy has to go out there now and clean it up. That's what lawyers get hired to do."
Law firms advance expenses for clients as a matter of course, so there's nothing inherently improper about a lawyer covering a particular payment and then being reimbursed for it. In this case, though, the client who apparently reimbursed the expense was running for president and the money was paid just days before the election. That raises questions about whether Cohen's law practice was functioning as a vendor for the campaign and the expense was therefore an unreported campaign expenditure. If so, that could be legally problematic.
Asked aboard Air Force One last month whether he knew about the payment, President Trump said flatly: "No." President Trump also said he didn't know why Cohen had made the payment or where he got the money.
In a phone interview with "Fox and Friends" last week, however, President Trump appeared to muddy the waters, saying that Cohen represented him in the "crazy Stormy Daniels deal."
The White House referred questions to the president's personal legal team.
Giuliani, a former New York City mayor and ex-U.S. attorney who joined President Trump's legal team last month, said the president had repaid Cohen over several months, indicating the payments continued through at least the presidential transition, if not into his presidency. He also said the payment "is going to turn out to be perfectly legal" because "that money was not campaign money."
No debt to Cohen is listed on President Trump's personal financial disclosure form, which was certified on June 16, 2017.
Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, called Giuliani's comments "a stunning revelation."
"Mr. Trump evidently has participated in a felony, and there must be serious consequences for his conduct and his lies and deception to the American people," he said.
Giuliani spoke initially to Fox host Sean Hannity, who has his own connection to the case. It was recently revealed in court that Hannity is one of Cohen's clients. Hannity has described his personal dealings with Cohen as centered on real estate advice.
Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, says she had a sexual encounter with President Trump in 2006, months after his third wife gave birth to his youngest child, and was paid to keep quiet as part of a nondisclosure agreement she is now seeking to invalidate. She has also filed a defamation suit against President Trump after he questioned a composite sketch she released of a man she says threatened her to stay quiet.
The White House has said President Trump denies having a relationship with Daniels.
Cohen had said previously: "Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly." He notably did not include the president personally.
Asked about Cohen's denial, Giuliani said he didn't know whether Cohen had made the payment without asking President Trump but that he had "no reason to dispute that."
Cohen himself is under increasing legal pressure. He is facing a criminal investigation in New York, and FBI agents raided his home and office several weeks ago seeking records about the nondisclosure agreement.
Giuliani's revelation seemed aimed at reducing the president's legal exposure. But outside experts said it raised a number of questions, including whether the money represented repayment of an undisclosed loan or could be seen as reimbursement for a campaign expenditure.
"If this is true then it looks like Cohen may have made an unreported loan to the campaign rather than a contribution," said Richard L. Hasen, an expert in election law at the University of California, Irvine.
He said that might be better for Cohen, but not for President Trump, because it undermines the argument that Cohen was acting independently.
"The greatest significance is that it implicates the president directly," he said.