By CATHERINE LUCEY and JONATHAN LEMIRE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump insisted Friday that “we’re not changing any stories” about the 2016 hush payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels, even as he further muddied the explanations by suggesting the new face of his legal team needed to “get his facts straight.”
Trump said that Rudy Giuliani, who upended the previous White House defense this week by saying the president knew about his personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s payment to Daniels, was “a great guy but he just started a day ago” and said the former mayor of New York City was still “learning the subject matter.”
Hours later, Giuliani issued a statement in which he tried to back away from his previous suggestion that the $130,000 payment was made because Trump was in the stretch run of the 2016 campaign.
“The payment was made to resolve a personal and false allegation in order to protect the President’s family,” Giuliani said. “It would have been done in any event, whether he was a candidate or not.”
That was a marked change from Giuliani’s earlier comments about the timing of the payment, made on Oct. 27, 2016, less than two weeks before the election.
Of Daniels’ allegations of an affair with Trump, Giuliani said Thursday: “Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton. Cohen didn’t ask. He made it go away.”
Giuliani insisted Trump didn’t know the specifics of Cohen’s arrangement with Daniels until recently, telling “Fox & Friends” on Thursday that the president didn’t know all the details until “maybe 10 days ago.” Giuliani told The New York Times that Trump had repaid Cohen $35,000 a month “out of his personal family account” after the campaign was over. He said Cohen received $460,000 or $470,000 in all for expenses related to Trump.
In his statement Friday, the former mayor added that his previous “references to timing were not describing my understanding of the president’s knowledge, but instead, my understanding of these matters” but did not elaborate. His statement came just a day Giuliani said “You won’t see daylight between me and the president.”
While Giuliani also repeated his belief that the payment did not constitute a campaign finance violation, legal experts have said the new information raised a number of questions, including whether the money represented repayment of an undisclosed loan or could be seen as reimbursement for a campaign expenditure. Either could be legally problematic.
Trump himself called news stories about Daniels “crap” and said the White House would offer an accounting of the payments. But he offered no details.
The president added that “virtually everything” reported about the payments — which are the subject of swirling legal action and frenzied cable newsbreaks — was wrong. But he declined to elaborate.
Giuliani’s surprise revelation of the president’s payment earlier this week clashed with Trump’s past statements, created new legal headaches and stunned many in the West Wing. White House aides were blindsided when Giuliani said Wednesday night that the president had repaid Cohen for $130,000 that was given to Daniels to keep her quiet before the 2016 election about her allegations of an affair with Trump.
But no debt to Cohen was listed on Trump’s personal financial disclosure form, which was certified on June 16, 2017. Asked if Trump had filed a fraudulent form, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “I don’t know.”
Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, is seeking to be released from a non-disclosure deal she signed in the days before the 2016 election to keep her from talking about a 2006 sexual encounter she said she had with Trump. She has also filed defamation suits against Cohen and Trump.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One several weeks ago, Trump said he did not know about the payment or where the money came from. In a phone interview with “Fox and Friends” last week, however, he appeared to muddy the waters, saying that Cohen represented him in the “crazy Stormy Daniels deal.”
Sanders said Thursday that Trump “eventually learned” about the payment, but she did not offer details.
For all the controversy Giuliani stirred up, some Trump supporters said it was wise to get the payment acknowledgement out in the open.
Said former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: “You know, there’s an old saying in the law, ‘Hang a lantern on your problems.’ … So the fact is that Rudy has to go out there now and clean it up. That’s what lawyers get hired to do.”
Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, who engaged in his own press tour Thursday, slammed both Trump and Giuliani.
“The admissions by Mr. Giuliani as to Mr. Trump’s conduct and the acts of Mr. Cohen are directly contrary to the lies previously told to the American people,” he said. “There will ultimately be severe consequences.”
Trump is facing mounting legal threats from the Cohen-Daniels situation and the special counsel’s investigation of Russian meddling in the election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
Cohen is facing a criminal investigation in New York, and FBI agents raided his home and office several weeks ago seeking records about the Daniels nondisclosure agreement. Giuliani has warned Trump that he fears Cohen, the president’s longtime personal attorney, will “flip,” bending in the face of a potential prison sentence, and he has urged Trump to cut off communications with him, according to a person close to Giuliani.
The president’s self-proclaimed legal fixer has been surprised and concerned by Trump’s recent stance toward him, according to a Cohen confidant. Cohen was dismayed to hear Trump marginalize his role during an interview last week with “Fox & Friends” and interpreted a recent negative National Enquirer cover story as a warning shot from a publication that has long been cozy with Trump, said the person who was not authorized to talk about private conversations and spoke only on condition of anonymity. Cohen also had not indicated to friends that Trump’s legal team was going to contradict his original claim that he was not reimbursed for the payment to Daniels.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Zeke Miller and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.