Thanks to Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former New York mayor and current member of the president’s legal team, Trump has been exposed flat out about the $130,000 in hush money that his attorney Michael Cohen paid to adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford (a.k.a. Stormy Daniels) to cover up an affair that the president denies having with her.
In a remarkable exchange with Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel on Wednesday night, Giuliani almost casually dropped the bombshell that, of course, the president reimbursed the money Cohen paid to Daniels.
The circumstances of the transaction — Giuliani said it was a retainer to Cohen that ultimately went to Daniels — provide the president the ability to claim lack of knowledge. On Thursday morning, Trump blasted out three tweets in defense of himself, describing how common such arrangements are “among celebrities and people of wealth.” Are they common among presidents of the United States?
Cohen had claimed that the money came from his personal finances. “The funds were taken from my home equity line and transferred internally to my . . . account in the same bank,” he said in a statement in March.
Trump had claimed that he knew nothing about any of it during an exchange with reporters on Air Force One in April. Asked whether he knew where the money had come from, he said, “No, I don’t know.” Asked whether he had ever set up a fund from which Cohen could draw money, Trump didn’t respond.
On Wednesday night, Giuliani said there are many instances in which lawyers do things for clients without letting them know, “like I take care of things like this with my clients.” That, apparently, is how things work with celebrities and people of wealth. Time to move on.
What isn’t entirely clear is whether Giuliani’s version, which obviously contradicts the president’s, is the full story. No one who might know what happened took issue Thursday with the claim that Trump repaid Cohen. But without some documentation, the full circumstances of the transaction can’t be known to outsiders. It would not be surprising to find that some details are still missing.
Trump isn’t the first president to tell lies. Bill Clinton lied about his relationship with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky when he wagged his finger and said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
Other presidents have lied about events and policies. So this president has some company. But from serial exaggerations to disregard for the facts (his claim that millions of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton in 2016) to obvious falsehoods, deliberate or unconscious, Trump has a pattern and practice that is often breathtaking in its audacity.
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker reported this week that during Trump’s presidency, the number of “false or misleading claims” has now reached 3,000, an average of 6.5 per day.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders decided not to try to decipher or explain or acknowledge the contradictions between the president’s and Cohen’s earlier statements and what Giuliani said Wednesday night and Thursday morning. Citing “ongoing litigation,” she said, “I don’t have anything else to say.” At her afternoon briefing, she declined to engage fully when questioned, claiming Trump learned only later of the payment. “We give the very best information we have at the time,” she said.
The Stormy Daniels episode wasn’t the only instance in which Giuliani provided a new account of events. He also offered a new explanation for the president’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. It was the third attempt to describe a dismissal that ultimately led to the ongoing Russia investigation being turned over to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Recall the sequence of events a year ago when Comey was suddenly fired while on a trip to California. The initial account from the White House was that Trump fired Comey after receiving a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein criticizing Comey for his handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
It was, of course, Rosenstein who selected Mueller to oversee the inquiry, and it is Rosenstein who is now the target of the president and House conservatives, who want him removed.
That cover story crediting the Rosenstein memo for the firing lasted until the president sat down with NBC’s Lester Holt. He told Holt, “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ”
Giuliani provided yet another version to Fox News, saying Comey was dismissed because he “would not, among other things, say that he [Trump] wasn’t a target” of the Russia investigation. Trump, by his own admission, was irritated that Comey would not publicly clear him. Perhaps Giuliani’s explanation is partly consistent with Trump’s comment to Holt — it was in one form or another “the Russia thing” that cost Comey his job.
Mueller’s team and Trump’s new legal team appear headed for a major collision over the terms of a possible interview with the president, one that could lead to the Supreme Court for adjudication. Trump allies fear what could happen if the president is required to answer questions verbally, given his tortured relationship with the truth, which is why many have said he should not agree to do so.
There are also potential legal ramifications involving the payment to Daniels, now that the facts of the transaction are becoming clearer. Campaign finance and other lawyers will sort through the possibilities.
All of this will play out in the coming weeks or months. In the meantime, the question of the public’s tolerance for the president’s behavior remains in the forefront. After nearly three years in the political arena, Trump has shown his ability to withstand controversies of many kinds. That may continue to be the case. But that doesn’t make the uncomfortable questions about truth and the president any less important.