President Trump on Thursday tacitly admitted, for the first time, that he directed Michael Cohen to facilitate hush-money payments to two women who had alleged affairs with Trump, Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels.
Whether Trump’s actions violated the law is an open question. His tweets were meant to argue that he didn’t specifically direct his former longtime personal attorney Cohen to do anything illegal, even if he did direct the payments.
But that valid legal question aside, it’s worth emphasizing just how horrendous of a coverup this whole episode has proved to be. Regardless of legal culpability, Trump and his team have spent the past 11 months engaging in a very public and irreconcilable effort to obscure all of this. And as the days pass, their statements look worse and worse.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane, from the beginning of this year.
Jan. 12, unnamed White House official: These are “old, recycled reports, which were published and strongly denied before the election.”
It’s worth noting that the early denials seemed to be more focused on the affair rather than the possibility of hush-money payments. This could refer to that, but it was at the least entirely misleading, given we have learned Trump knew about the payments.
Feb. 13, Cohen: “The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.”
Cohen himself has pleaded guilty and admitted these were not lawful payments. He has also said they were geared toward the campaign. Cohen here refers to Stephanie Clifford, Daniels’s legal name.
March 7, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders: “Look, the president has addressed these directly and made very well clear that none of these allegations are true.”
This denial is actually broader than the earlier ones, which again seemed to more narrowly deny the affair. Sanders said Trump has “made very well clear that none of these allegations are true” — a universe of allegations that would certainly include the idea that this was an effort to help his campaign and that Trump was aware of it. Both of those things have been proved true, but Sanders seemed to strongly deny them on Trump’s behalf.
April 5, Trump on whether he knew about the Daniels payment: “No.” Asked where Cohen got the money: “I don’t know.”
This might be the biggest false claim, and it came directly from Trump himself. In his tweets Thursday, he admits that not only did he know about the payment but that he directed it (just not in an illegal fashion). We also found out a month later, in May, that Trump had reimbursed Cohen for the Daniels money, so to say he didn’t know where the money came from was entirely misleading, at best.
May 2, Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani: “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.”
Giuliani may still argue today that Trump didn’t know the “specifics” of it at the time, but prosecutors say that Trump directed it — which both Cohen and the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., have corroborated. Giuliani suggested Cohen would simply take care of these things without filling Trump in, and that’s not what happened.
May 3, Trump says his reimbursement of Cohen had “nothing to do with the campaign.”
Both of these payments are federal crimes that Cohen has pleaded guilty to and been sentenced for. And both he and AMI have said their primary conceits were to protect Trump in the 2016 election. Trump saying the reimbursements had “nothing to do with the campaign” is completely at odds with what others involved have said under penalty of perjury.
Aug. 23, Trump on whether he knew about the payments: “Later on I knew. Later on.”
This, from a “Fox and Friends” interview, might be the second-worst denial Trump offered. This is very much in line with Giuliani’s suggestion that Cohen had a mandate but was otherwise out there freelancing. And Trump’s own tweets Thursday implicitly admit he was pulling the strings from very early on.