On Wednesday night, in the unlikeliest of places – the cozy conservative comfort of Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News – the web of stories constructed by President Donald Trump and those around him to explain a $130,000 hush payment to porn star Stormy Daniels came tumbling down.
It was in that setting that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is now a legal adviser to Trump, acknowledged that the President had repaid attorney/fixer Michael Cohen the $130,000 that Cohen had directed to Daniels via a shell company just 11 days before the election to ensure she remained silent about an alleged sexual liaison she and Trump had in the mid 2000s.
“The President repaid it,” said Giuliani. And, with those four words, Giuliani turned months and months of explanations and excuses about the Cohen payment on their head.
The stories pile one on top of the other so let’s break them out – starting with Trump.
1. President Trump
Here’s the exchange between Trump and reporters on Air Force One last month about this topic.
Reporter: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?”
Reporter: Then why did Michael Cohen make [the payment], if there was no truth to her allegations?
Trump: You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael’s my attorney, and you’ll have to ask Michael.”
Reporter: Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?
Trump: No I don’t know.
But he did know something!
Here’s Trump’s version of all of this, as conveyed by his tweets Thursday morning: He had Cohen on a monthly retainer to deal with issues that came up. Cohen used that money to pay off Daniels – entirely without Trump’s knowledge.
Here are Trump’s exact words (or a lawyer’s) on Twitter:
“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.”
In a subsequent Washington Post interview Giuliani said he didn’t know when the reimbursements began but said he thought it was “earlier than mid-last year.” He argued that what Cohen made the payment with in 2016 was his own money. Cohen had complained to friends he was not reimbursed, according to a Wall Street Journal report in March of 2018.
So, I suppose you could say Trump didn’t have direct knowledge of the $130,000 payment to Daniels because he and Cohen had a you-handle-this-and-don’t-get-me-involved relationship. (Such a relationship is “very common among celebrities and people of wealth,” according to Trump’s tweets.)
And, I can buy that Trump then wouldn’t know why Cohen made the payment to Daniels “if there was no truth to her allegations.”
But, there can be no doubt that when Trump said he didn’t know where Cohen got the money to make the payment, he was lying, at least in the context of these new tweets. He knew that Cohen was on a monthly retainer to handle matters like this. His personal funds were being used, according to Giuliani, to reimburse Cohen for this and possibly other matters. It’s impossible – short of willingly suspending your rational brain function – to conclude Trump had no idea where the money came from. He knew it came from him!
2. Michael Cohen
There’s a whole lot of problems with Cohen’s story about where the money came from in light of last night’s revelations by Giuliani.
When it was first was reported that Cohen had set up a shell company – Essential Consultants – in Delaware to keep the Daniels payment quiet, he released a statement saying this:
“In a private transaction in 2016, I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms. Stephanie Clifford,” Michael Cohen said in a statement. “Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly.”
Then, in March, Cohen said he had taken a home equity line of credit out in order to make the payment to Daniels. He reiterated that he had never been instructed to make the payment by anyone in Trumpworld and had not been reimbursed for it.
That’s of course not true.
While you could make the case that Cohen was using his “own” money to pay off Daniels, we now know he was on retainer given to him by Trump to deal with situations like these. It’s the equivalent of someone giving me a big envelope of money to carry to someone else. Sure, the money is sort of “mine” when I possess it but it’s not really meant for me – and it never was. I’m a conduit – not the final recipient.
Here’s how Giuliani put it in the Post interview: “Was (President Trump) aware that Michael incurred expenses to help him? Yes. Did he have an arrangement so that Michael knew he’d be reimbursed for it? Yes. Was the President really wise to take it out of personal funds rather than from campaign funds? Thank God he did [or else] he’d get a campaign finance violation they’d try to drum up into a felony or something. The president is personally protected.”
And the idea that Cohen was not reimbursed by “the Trump organization or the Trump campaign” also hugely strains credulity – and that’s being nice. Donald Trump is a member of the Trump organization. He is also a member of the Trump campaign. Whether or not Trump made these payments from his personal accounts may be a legal loophole but it doesn’t change the fact that no reasonable person would separate Donald Trump from either his organization or his campaign.
3. Sarah Sanders
On March 7, the White House press secretary was asked about Trump’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of the payment to Daniels from Cohen. Here’s how she responded:
“Yeah, I’ve had conversations with the President about this…There was no knowledge of any payments from the president and he’s denied all of these allegations.”
Obviously that’s not right. There was quite clearly “knowledge” of the payment by the president since he was giving Cohen money for this type of purpose and then reimbursed him.
I think Sanders is the least culpable of the trio for her role in all of this deception because she was simply repeating what the president of the United States told her when she asked him about the Cohen payment. That’s her job. Her job isn’t to analyze whether or not – and why – Trump is/was telling the truth.
What’s most amazing about all of this is that Giuliani was apparently acting on the orders of Trump in making this bombshell revelation.
“You wont see daylight between me and the president,” Giuliani told CNN’s Dana Bash Thursday.”The strategy is to get everything wrapped up and done with this so that it doesn’t take on a life of its own.”
Um, too late.