Give him this: President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani managed to silence Michael Avenatti — and then force his client to admit in a startling series of tweets Thursday morning that he had in fact repaid Michael Cohen $130,000 in hush money to keep Stormy Daniels quiet in the days leading up to the 2016 election.
The saga unfolded on TV on Wednesday night. The loquacious attorney for Stormy Daniels pronounced himself “speechless” after Giuliani appeared to have outed Trump for lying about knowledge of the $130,000 payment to Avenatti’s client and confirmed that Trump’s firing of former FBI director James B. Comey was based on frustration over Comey’s refusal to exonerate him in the Russia investigation. Even worse, Giuliani said that Trump paid the hush money back over a number of months, “funneling” it through a law firm.
Giuliani, the former New York mayor and a recent addition to President Trump’s legal team, said Wednesday night that Trump made a series of payments reimbursing his attorney, Michael Cohen, for a $130,000 settlement with an adult-film actress — despite Trump’s assertion last month that he was unaware of the payment.
“The president repaid it,’’ Giuliani told Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity.
Trump “didn’t know about the specifics of it, as far as I know. But he did know the general arrangement, that Michael would take care of things like this, like I take care of things like this with my clients,” Giuliani said. “I don’t burden them with every single thing that comes along. These are busy people.’’
Later, Giuliani said in an interview with The Washington Post that when Cohen paid the settlement to actress Stormy Daniels, he knew he would eventually get paid back by Trump, as he was for other expenses.
If true, the payment for arguably a campaign-related expense (silencing a porn star days before the election) could constitute an illegal loan to the campaign by Michael Cohen and an unreported expenditure by Trump. The good-government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed complaints with the Justice Department and the Office of Government Ethics regarding the payment. Common Cause has filed a similar complaint with the Federal Election Commission. Moreover, the revelation directly contradicts the president and the White House press secretary’s insistence that Trump had no knowledge of the deal and did not repay Cohen. It’s not illegal to look the American people in the eye and lie, but it is further evidence that the president has only a passing regard for the truth.
Trump then confirmed by tweet that he had reimbursed Cohen for the payment, asserting that no campaign funds were used. That might not absolve him of liability, however, according to campaign finance officials. An unreported campaign loan by Cohen followed by an unreported disbursement by Trump almost certainly runs afoul of campaign-finance laws. And then there is the matter of baldfaced lying to the public that he had no knowledge of it and had not reimbursed Cohen.
Arguably even worse for Trump, Giuliani’s statement that Trump fired Comey over refusing to exonerate him contradicts both the phony cover story in the memo put out to the public (claiming that morale at the FBI was poor and that Comey mishandled the Hillary Clinton email matter) and Trump’s own confession to NBC News’s Lester Holt that he had Russia in mind when he fired Comey. The obstruction-of-justice case that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III may be constructing could rest in part on the president’s “corrupt intent” to stop or deflect the investigation away from himself.
Given Trump’s tweets, it is likely that Trump and Giuliani believe the raid of Cohen’s office, home and hotel room turned up evidence of the repayment. They therefore decided to get out “ahead” of the disastrous news, even if it revealed the president had lied about knowledge of the payment.
The episode highlights why Trump is in such trouble and might have decided on a strategy of bluster and stalling to avoid talking to Mueller. First, Trump has rotten legal help that has not explained to him or has not impressed upon him the nature of the charges he might face. He essentially confessed to a campaign violation, if legal experts are correct. Second, Republicans once more look utterly craven in their continued defense of Trump, whose lies are piling up faster than we can track them. The latest revelation makes their obsequious refusal to protect the special counsel — on the grounds that Trump promised not to fire him — look feckless. Finally, Trump and his lawyers have extreme difficulty keeping their stories straight; that’s a killer when the issue for Trump could turn on obstruction and, if he is forced to talk to Mueller, the risk of lying either under oath before the grand jury or to the FBI in an interview setting. Maybe Emmet Flood should rethink his association with this crowd.