For months, President Trump’s spokesmen, his lawyer and his lawyer’s lawyer denied that Trump knew about payments during his 2016 campaign to buy the silence of women who alleged sexual encounters with him. The president himself claimed the same.
But after mounting evidence and fresh courthouse revelations of wrongdoing this week exposed those denials as falsehoods, Trump is shifting his tune.
The president no longer disputes that he instructed his then-personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to make the payments to former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal and adult-film star Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels.
Instead, Trump sought to evade that question Thursday by saying he never told Cohen to break the law — making a narrow assertion that was itself an admission that his and his team’s earlier denials were false.
“I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law,” Trump wrote in Twitter statements that were at times hard to comprehend. “He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called ‘advice of counsel,’ and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid.”
In these and other statements Thursday, Trump tried to place blame entirely on his lawyer for felonies that his advisers and allies are increasingly concerned could imperil the president. The statements come as Trump feels besieged by multiplying investigations in New York and Washington and uncertain about what may be around the corner, according to several of his associates.
The evolving strategy on the hush-money allegations is textbook Trump: Tell one version of events until it falls apart, then tell a new version, and so on — until the danger passes.
“What’s happened so far is not good, and it could get worse,” said a former senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly.
In reference to the Cohen case, this person added: “Are they crimes? Yes. Is that a bad look if the president is directly tied to it and could under normal circumstances be criminally prosecuted? Yes. And no, that’s not a good thing.”
Cohen was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for what U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III called a “veritable smorgasbord of criminal conduct” — crimes that included tax violations and lying to a bank as well as those related to the hush-money payments.
Cohen told Pauley that his weakness was “a blind loyalty to Donald Trump” and a failure to refuse the then-candidate’s demands. “Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass,” Cohen said in court.
The developments have shaken people in Trump’s orbit. White House staffers say they feel uneasy and nervous about what might come next, while Trump is publicly revealing a sense of betrayal that his longtime lawyer implicated him in crimes.
Trump is worried about the intensifying state of not only the hush-money investigation by the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, but also of the Russia probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, according to people with knowledge of the president’s private discussions. The Wall Street Journal also reported Thursday that federal prosecutors in Manhattan have opened another investigative front by probing whether Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee misspent some of the record $107 million it raised from donations.
“He’s never been in a position where he can’t shuck and jive and work his way out of things,” said one Republican who works closely with the White House. “Well, it’s all coming home to roost.”
Trump resisted commenting Wednesday on Cohen’s prison sentence, ignoring questions shouted by reporters about whether his former fixer had worked to cover up Trump’s “dirty deeds.”
But on Thursday morning, before arriving at work in the Oval Office, Trump weighed in on Twitter for the first time. He claimed that he did “nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws.” Then he asserted that Cohen “probably was not guilty” of even civil violations related to the payments to McDougal and Daniels — a view at odds with the view of many lawyers.
Lastly, Trump argued that Cohen agreed to charges “in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did — including the fact that his family was temporarily let off the hook.”
Trump largely echoed those tweets in a television interview recorded later Thursday. Sitting down with Fox News Channel anchor Harris Faulkner in the West Wing of the White House, Trump said of his interactions with Cohen: “I never directed him to do anything wrong.
“Whatever he did, he did on his own,” Trump continued. “He’s a lawyer. A lawyer who represents a client is supposed to do the right thing. That’s why you pay them a lot of money, et cetera, et cetera.”
Trump also sought to minimize his relationship with Cohen, saying Cohen did “more public relations than law,” was generally responsible for “low-level work” and was merely “okay on television.” In retrospect, the president told Faulkner, hiring Cohen was a mistake.
The latest developments have exposed the depth of Trump’s efforts to deceive the public about the illegal hush-money payments, and some of his friends and advisers said privately that they fear those efforts could imperil the president.
While there is a consensus view inside the White House that a sitting president will not be indicted, the former senior administration official described a deep uncertainty about other ways that Trump could be held liable. And there is growing anxiety among Trump’s allies, including in Congress, that he could be vulnerable to the various investigations and, eventually, Democratic-led impeachment proceedings.
Joyce White Vance, who was a U.S. attorney in the Obama administration, explained that Trump may be accustomed to a business environment in which people posture and deceive for competitive advantage. She contrasted that atmosphere with the legal world, in which prosecutors must operate at a high ethical standard, because if they lie or cheat, they endanger their ability to continue practicing law.
Vance said the federal prosecutors who implicated Trump in the illegal payments are likely to have relied on more evidence than just Cohen’s testimony. She noted that other witnesses have been cooperating with the investigation — including, for instance, Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s former longtime chief financial officer.
“Trump should be concerned,” Vance said. “It’s not just the government saying it. It’s not just a single witness saying it. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, who are known for their rigor in making these assessments, have decided there’s evidence from a number of reliable sources and that they can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Trump’s credibility has been damaged by his and his team’s ever-evolving statements about the hush-money payments.
Shortly before the 2016 election, when the Wall Street Journal first reported that the National Enquirer had agreed to pay $150,000 to McDougal as part of a “catch and kill” operation to silence her claims about having had an affair with Trump, the presidential candidate’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, said, “We have no knowledge of any of this.”
In January 2018, Cohen told the Journal that its reporting about a $130,000 payment to Daniels were “outlandish allegations” and part of a “false narrative” about Trump.
Then in March, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and her principal deputy, Raj Shah, both stated publicly that the president denied knowledge of any payments and denied all of the allegations. David Schwartz, an attorney for Cohen, also denied that Trump knew about the payment.
On April 5, Trump flatly denied to reporters aboard Air Force One that he knew about the payment to Daniels. Asked why Cohen would therefore make the payment to the porn star, Trump said, “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen.”
Each of those statements has since been proved false.
Trump’s story also kept changing. In a television interview in May, the president’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said Trump had repaid Cohen for the money he gave to Daniels.
The next day, Sanders was pressed by reporters on why she had previously denied that Trump had any knowledge of the payment. She said she had “given the best information I had at the time.”