Washington - The White House spent weeks declining to answer a basic question: Was President Donald Trump involved in the $130,000 hush-money payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels?
Well, we finally have a denial. But experts say it may open up a whole new can of worms and further undermine the nondisclosure agreement for Daniels to keep quiet about an alleged affair.
David Schwartz is a lawyer and spokesperson for Trump's longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who has said he "facilitated" the Daniels payment. Schwartz appeared on CNN Wednesday night and seemed to categorically deny that Trump was involved - or at least that he had knowledge of the payment on the front end. Here's the exchange:
BURNETT: OK. It seems like a simple question and you are Cohen's spokesperson in this. So, can you say unequivocally that the president was never in any way aware of the $130,000 of the agreement itself?
SCHWARTZ: The president was not aware of the agreement. At least Michael Cohen never told him about the agreement. I can tell you that. And you asked a whole bunch of questions, so let me cover that.
SCHWARTZ: So, you asked about 12 days before -
BURNETT: Not aware of the agreement. How about the money?
SCHWARTZ: He was not aware of any of it.
SCHWARTZ: He was not aware.
SCHWARTZ: He wasn't told about it. Michael Cohen left the option open. That's why he left that signature line [blank] -
BURNETT: Dennis Dennison.
SCHWARTZ: The option open to go to him. He chose not to. He chose to bind the LLC - [Essential Consultants] LLC, and Stormy Daniels into the contract.
That seems to be pretty unequivocal. If I were to attempt to poke a hole in it, I'd say it doesn't quite foreclose the possibility that Trump eventually paid for the arrangement, even if he wasn't aware of it. Schwartz goes on to describe Cohen's role as more than Trump's lawyer and friend, but as a "fixer" - which suggests he was deputized to handle things like this without Trump being involved. If Trump trusted Cohen implicitly, maybe he authorized him to cut these deals and bill Trump later - no questions asked - so Trump could retain plausible deniability. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Cohen at one point groused to others that Trump hadn't reimbursed him for the payment. If that's true and what Schwartz is saying is true, that would seem to be what happened here.
But whether that's true or whether this is a blanket denial, why wait all this time to deny Trump was involved? Cohen's initial statement on all of this ruled out possible involvement from the Trump Organization and the 2016 campaign, but it conspicuously didn't address Trump personally. And the White House has repeatedly brushed aside this question.
Part of the reason could be that it might undermine the nondisclosure agreement Daniels signed. Schwartz argued on CNN that that agreement would still be valid because Trump was merely a third-party beneficiary, but some experts are dubious.
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti said there "was no deal without [Trump's] knowledge or consent."
"The contact binds 'DD' (Trump) in many ways and grants enforcement remedies solely to Trump," Mariotti said. He added: "The rest of the contact talks about DD as if he is the other party to the contracts. Cohen could argue that when the contact lists various rights and responsibilities for 'DD,' it really means the LLC, but I doubt a judge would buy that. The contract appears to bind DD and grant him rights."
David Super, a law professor at Georgetown University, said Schwartz's admission was "amazing."
"If true, that opens up Cohen and anyone else involved in soliciting the agreement to fraud charges because the agreement certainly purports to make commitments, beyond the money, that only Trump could make," Super said. "They could, I suppose, claim that they had broad authority to commit him without specific approval, but the agreement does not suggest that at all."
Perhaps the White House simply wanted to keep quiet and hope that this whole thing would go away. That seemed to be its overarching strategy, even as it seems to have utterly failed now. And maybe Cohen and Schwartz have decided the NDA is now a lost cause and have decided to just let it die and try to save Trump.
It's worth emphasizing here, though, that the White House still hasn't weighed in. The person who is denying Trump was involved is a lawyer for a party to an agreement who says Trump isn't involved in that agreement. Schwartz has no responsibility to or accountability to the White House here. And even he seems to suggest it's possible Trump might have learned of the agreement without Cohen telling him. "The president was not aware of the agreement," he said, before clarifying: "At least Michael Cohen never told him about the agreement."
Which means it's still worth getting the White House's word on this. Don't hold your breath.
The Washington Post