Trump changes story on Stormy Daniels hush money, denies affair
President Donald Trump changed his story regarding $130,000 in hush money paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign, saying Thursday he reimbursed lawyer Michael Cohen and denying the arrangement was improper.
"Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA," Trump said in a Twitter posting.
That type of arrangement is "very common among celebrities and people of wealth," he said in a subsequent message. "In this case it is in full force and effect and will be used in Arbitration for damages" against Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. The agreement "was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair," Trump continued.
The president's tweets confirmed statements made by his new lead attorney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, R, in a Fox News interview Wednesday night that contradicted Trump's previous denials of knowledge of the payments. Giuliani also asserted that payments were not made by Trump's presidential campaign and therefore didn't violate campaign finance laws.
"Funneled it through the law firm, and then the president repaid it,'' Giuliani said during an interview with Fox's Sean Hannity. On Thursday, Giuliani made the rounds of other Fox programs, telling "Fox & Friends" hosts that Trump "didn't know the details of this until we did."
"Imagine if that came out on Oct 15, 2016, in the middle of the, you know, last debate with Hillary Clinton," Giuliani said. "Cohen didn't even ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job."
Cohen, Trump's personal attorney, is in the midst of a legal firestorm over the payment to Daniels, which was made in exchange for Daniels' silence about an alleged affair with Trump. Giuliani provided the most definitive link yet between the president and Daniels, a $130,000 payment that the White House -- and Cohen -- have tried to distance from Trump.
Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, said Thursday on MSNBC that if the payment to his client was structured as a retainer for work that didn't occur, it may still violate laws. He said Trump's tweets appeared to have been written by a lawyer who is a "moron."
"Our case just got exponentially better in the last 24 hours," Avenatti said. "These folks make the Watergate burglars seem competent."
Giuliani's comments about the payment -- which he brought up unprompted -- capped a tumultuous day for Trump's legal team. Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer handling the investigation into possible collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia, is being replaced by Emmet Flood, a veteran Washington attorney who was part of the team representing former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings.
Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney, later told the New York Times that Cohen had made the payment to Daniels "on his own authority."
On Thursday, Giuliani called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to "step in" and end Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe. He said the raid on Cohen's office and home and publication by the New York Times of a list of possible questions Mueller's team wants to ask Trump -- a list said to be compiled by Trump's legal team -- lessened the chances that Trump would voluntarily agree to be interviewed for the probe.
"They're going to have to convince us," Giuliani said of the chances of the interview and his concerns over objectivity. "It's not as good as was when I first came in."
The change of approach toward Mueller's investigation drew more attention to the lack of message discipline that has plagued Trump's legal team and the White House.
Cohen and Trump have said the payment was made without Trump's knowledge and Cohen has insisted he used his own money to pay Daniels in the weeks before the 2016 election. That has stirred accusations that Cohen's payment to the porn actress amounted to an illegal campaign contribution.
Giuliani's statement indicates that Trump was aware of the payment and reimbursed Cohen for it. It is unclear when or how the reimbursement took place. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"When I heard Cohen's retainer of $35,000, when he was doing no work for the president, I said 'That's how he's repaying, with a little profit and a little margin for paying taxes for Michael,''' Giuliani said.
Asked last month whether he knew about the payment to Daniels, Trump said, "No.''
Asked if he knew where Cohen got the money for the payment, the president said he didn't.
"No, I don't know,'' Trump told reporters.
Cohen has said he paid Daniels out of his own pocket and wasn't reimbursed by the Trump Organization, the president's company, or by the Trump campaign. He hasn't said whether Trump personally reimbursed him.
Asked several times about the payment in recent months, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders has repeatedly declined to comment, saying that Trump had addressed the issue "extensively."
"The president has addressed these directly and made very well clear that none of these allegations are true," Sanders said in March when asked if Trump had approved of the payment.
On Wednesday, Giuliani said Trump was aware of the payment arrangement and that it did not constitute a campaign finance violation.
"He didn't know about the specifics of it, as far as I know,'' he said. "But he did know about the general arrangement, that Michael would take care of things like this.''
"That money was not campaign money, sorry," Giuliani added.
Cohen, a former Trump Organization executive, has been Trump's personal lawyer and has claimed to be a loyal "fixer" for his longtime boss.
Since the payment became known, Daniels has filed a lawsuit saying that the non-disclosure agreement wasn't valid because Trump never signed it. Cohen won a temporary halt of that lawsuit while he faces a criminal investigation.
Cohen said he would assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in the lawsuit after the FBI raided and searched his residence, office and hotel room in New York last month.
Federal investigators are looking into Cohen's business dealings, including the $130,000 payment.