House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) on Friday said President Trump’s lawyers gave shifting explanations to federal ethics officials about Trump’s reimbursement of a payment Michael Cohen made to an adult-film actress before the 2016 election, calling on the White House to turn over documents related to the transaction.
In a letter to White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Cummings said documents his committee obtained from the federal Office of Government Ethics show that lawyers for Trump offered “evolving stories” about the president’s payments to Cohen, his longtime personal attorney. OGE officials appeared skeptical of their explanations, Cummings wrote.
The White House and the Office of Government Ethics did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Cohen, who pleaded guilty last year to campaign-finance violations and lying to Congress, has admitted he paid $130,000 to actress Stormy Daniels in October 2016. Daniels says she had a sexual encounter with Trump years earlier and Cohen has said the payment was to buy her silence.
Later, Cohen asked Trump’s company for reimbursement — and the Trump Organization paid him a total of $420,000, according to court papers.
Cohen said in court that he had made the payments “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.”
Trump initially said last year that he did not know about Cohen’s payment to Daniels.
But his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani revealed in a television interview that Trump had reimbursed Cohen. The president then acknowledged that he paid Cohen through a monthly retainer to stop what Trump called “false and extortionist accusations.”
In a footnote on his personal financial disclosure filed last May, Trump reported a reimbursement of up to $250,000 to Cohen. He said he was disclosing it “in the interest of transparency,” stressing that it was not required to be reported as a debt.
At the time, Giuliani told The Washington Post that he had publicly discussed Trump’s payments to Cohen because he knew the information would come out in the president’s financial disclosure. “I wanted it out there so it wasn’t a big surprise,” he said.
In fact, a timeline released by Cummings Friday indicates that Giuliani’s revelation prompted ethics officials days later to press the president’s attorneys about Trump’s payments to Cohen.
The president’s lawyers — who had repeatedly told ethics officials in the preceding months that Trump did not owe money to Cohen — then told OGE that the payments were legal fees that were not required to be reported.
Giuliani did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Stefan Passantino, a former deputy White House counsel who now works as an outside lawyer for the Trump Organization, declined to comment. Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, also declined to comment.
In letters to the White House and the Trump Organization, Cummings urged them to cooperate with the committee’s investigation and turn over documents it has requested.
He noted that the White House indicated it is “prepared to consider” allowing committee staff to review some material in person.
Cummings said that was not good enough. “Your offer does not obviate the need for the White House to fully comply with the committee’s request,” he wrote.