In subsequent interviews on Thursday the general claim remained consistent — that the retainer Cohen received was the method of the repayment — but the details seemed to waver a bit. When it started, how it started, how much was repaid and so on.
To BuzzFeed, Giuliani said that Trump had told Cohen “we’ll cover your expenses,” then setting up a $35,000-per-month payment that began early last year and lasted the duration of 2017. Over 10 months, though, that totals $350,000, far more than the Daniels payment. Giuliani told our Robert Costa the overage was used to cover the Daniels payment, taxes and “a few other situations that might have been considered campaign expenses.”
By Friday, though, everything seemed a lot shakier.
First, NBC interviewed Giuliani, and he made a remarkable claim: Trump did not know the repayment was a repayment until someone pointed it out to him.
“I don’t think the president realized he paid [Cohen] back for that specific thing until [his legal team] made him aware of the paperwork,” Giuliani said. Once the president was told the retainer was used to repay Cohen, he replied, “Oh, my goodness, I guess that’s what it was for,” according to Giuliani.
That is … a weird comment. It might explain why Cohen himself reportedly said Giuliani “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” in regard to the repayment of the money.
It is also odd because on Thursday morning Trump tweeted a string of very un-Trump tweets about the situation.
“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,” the tweets read. “These agreements are very common among celebrities and people of wealth. … Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no [role] in this transaction.”
The implication from that is the agreement began before the election, since Trump claimed Cohen settled with Daniels “from” the monthly retainer. That statement also does not claim Trump repaid Cohen specifically, just that (as Giuliani claimed) the repayment came from the retainer.
A few hours after the NBC report on Friday, Trump spoke to reporters, somewhat vaguely undercutting Giuliani.
“He just started a day ago,” Trump said of Giuliani. He continued: “Rudy knows [the special counsel’s investigation is] a witch hunt. He started yesterday; he’ll get his facts straight.”
Asked when Trump found out what the retainer was being spent on, Trump replied that “virtually everything said has been said incorrectly.”
Also a weird comment.
It is possible we are looking at this backward. We are assuming Giuliani is describing a retainer setup that proves no campaign funds were spent on Daniels, absolving Trump of campaign-finance violations (which is its own complicated situation). What if Giuliani started from the position of wanting to prove there was no campaign-finance violation and then seized on the retainer as a way to demonstrate Cohen had been repaid?
There are hints that this is the case. The comment from Trump about “I guess that’s what it was for” or even Giuliani’s comment on “Hannity” that “I said, that’s how he’s repaying it.”
On Thursday, I spoke with Peter Margulies, professor at Roger Williams School of Law. He outlined all of the ways in which Giuliani’s central claim — that a retainer was used to repay Cohen — did not make much sense in the context of standard practice. I asked him a version of the above point: That it sounded as though Giuliani was trying to present a case that Trump paid for Daniels himself leveraging an argument that relied on this weird claim about the retainer.
Margulies replied he thought this was correct.
The implication, then, is Giuliani’s central assertion is misleading. If Giuliani simply decided to attribute the retainer to a repayment for the Daniels agreement, it forces us to consider a lot of questions about how much Cohen got, whether he was aware of the setup and what else he was being compensated for. (Giuliani’s comment to Costa about settling other campaign expenses is its own campaign-finance issue, because it means the campaign took undeclared loans from Cohen.) It also complicates the issue of whether Cohen was repaid.
Look at it this way. Let’s say you borrow $1,000 from a friend and then later hire him to mow your lawn for $50 a week. If someone asks you if you repaid what you’d borrowed and you claim that, yes, it was covered over the course of a year of lawn-mowing, your friend might understandably be skeptical of that claim if he did not know in advance this was your repayment strategy. The question that arises, of course, is how often he mowed your lawn — how much work he did to earn that money. In the Cohen case, it is not clear.
Did Trump repay Cohen? All we can say at this point is Trump gave Cohen money before and after the Daniels settlement was reached. Of the three men involved, only Giuliani has claimed Trump intentionally repaid Cohen — and both Trump and Cohen have implied in the last 24 hours he is not getting his facts straight.