Washington (AFP) – An angry Donald Trump dismissed a growing storm over a hush money payment to an adult movie star as “crap” Friday, as it threatened to become a second front in the president’s deepening legal troubles.
Trump promised to clarify what he called a “very simple” story after his newly recruited lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, revealed the president had reimbursed his personal attorney for the payment to Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.
The secret $130,000 payment was made on the eve the hotly contested 2016 US presidential election to silence Daniel’s claims of a decade-old affair with Trump.
Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, implied the payment was made just weeks before the election to prevent Daniels from hurting Trump’s chances to win — which if true could potentially have been a criminal violation of election laws.
Trump though suggested Giuliani misspoke, while rejecting questions about changing his own positions after saying last month that he didn’t know about the payment.
“Virtually everything said has been said incorrectly and it’s been said wrong or it’s been covered wrong by the press,” Trump told reporters before leaving the capital for a trip to Texas.
“Rudy’s great, but Rudy had just started and he wasn’t totally familiar with everything,” Trump told reporters. “He started yesterday. He’ll get his facts straight.”
With experts saying Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, had jeopardized Trump’s legal position, he later sought to walk back his comments.
“My references to timing were not describing my understanding of the president’s knowledge, but instead, my understanding of these measures,” he said in a statement.
– Payment linked to election –
Giuliani was recruited to Trump’s legal team two weeks ago to deal with special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s push to interview the president in the investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia in the election, and obstruction allegations against Trump.
But in his first moves, he has taken what was a sideshow to the Mueller probe, the Daniels case, and placed it right in front of the White House.
The $130,000 payment to Daniels was made in October 2016 by New York lawyer Michael Cohen, for years a “fixer” at Trump’s real estate group, who said he used his private funds to seal a non-disclosure agreement with Daniels over the alleged affair.
Trump has denied the affair and last month denied any knowledge of the hush payment.
In interviews with Fox News on Wednesday and Thursday, however, Giuliani himself confirmed the payment and Cohen’s reimbursement. He stressed that Cohen was repaid out of Trump’s personal family accounts, and not by the election campaign.
Trump himself echoed that in tweets on Thursday.
“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,” Trump said.
“The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair,” he said.
Asked Thursday if he was now reversing his earlier denial of knowing about the Daniels payment, Trump replied: “We’re not changing any stories.”
“All I’m telling you is that this country is right now running so smooth, and to be bringing up that kind of crap, and to be bringing up witch hunts all the time, that’s all you want to talk about.”
– Campaign law violation –
Nevertheless, experts said Giuliani had deepened the president’s legal troubles when he tied the payment to the election, which could make it a violation of federal campaign finance laws, no matter where the money came from.
“Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton,” Giuliani said on Fox. “Cohen didn’t even ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job.”
Giuliani “put President Trump in legal peril for ‘knowing and willful’ violations of campaign finance law related to hush money payments,” said Paul Ryan, vice president of Common Cause, which filed formal complaints in January calling for the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission to investigate the payment.
Later Friday Giuliani backed off his statement after Trump’s criticism.
“There is no campaign violation. The payment was made to resolve a personal and false allegation in order to protect the president’s family. It would have been done in any event, whether he was a candidate or not.”