Rudy Giuliani joined Donald Trump’s legal team with a mandate to quickly and aggressively stamp out the various investigations dogging his presidency.
Instead, he’s causing new migraines for the White House.
Giuliani appeared to stun Fox News host Sean Hannity on Wednesday night when by revealing that Trump reimbursed his personal lawyer Michael Cohen for a $130,000 payment Cohen had made to the porn actress Stormy Daniels for her silence about an alleged affair.
The statement — along with Giuliani’s comment that Trump “did know about the general arrangements” of the payment — appeared to contradict the president’s denial of any knowledge of the deal.
While the revelation seemed designed to tamp down questions about whether the pre-election payment could constitute a campaign finance violation, it raised serious questions about whether Trump publicly lied and if Giuliani complicated ongoing litigation between Daniels and the president.
By Thursday morning, damage control was underway.
Trump on Twitter tried to bring attention back to the argument that such a payment would not be a violation of campaign finance law.
“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 wrote. “These agreements are very common among celebrities and people of wealth.”
“In this case it is in full force and effect and will be used in Arbitration for damages against Ms. Clifford (Daniels). The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair despite already having signed a detailed letter admitting that there was no affair,” the president continued on Twitter. “Prior to its violation by Ms. Clifford and her attorney, this was a private agreement. Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll [sic] in this transaction.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who has been forced into clean-up mode on a regular basis, went on “Fox and Friends” to argue that the furor was misplaced.
“I think this is a distraction and a distraction to the American people, and I think it’s a real disservice to them about not hearing a lot of great things taking place in the administration,” Sanders said.
She declined, however, to elaborate on Giuliani’s statements.
“Mayor Giuliani is part of the president’s legal team. He has got visibility and insight into this issue. He has spoken about this at length both last night and this morning,” she said. “I would refer you back to his comments, particularly given the fact this is ongoing litigation. This is something we at the White House can’t comment on and I would refer you to his comments as well as the president’s tweets from earlier this morning.”
Giuliani, meanwhile, did another round of interviews – but may have caused even more trouble.
The core argument of Giuliani’s media appearances was that there was no campaign money involved in the payment to Daniels and therefore there would be no campaign violation.
But during a Thursday morning interview with “Fox & Friends,” Giuliani alluded to the idea that campaign considerations played into the October 2016 payment to Daniels.
“Imagine if that came out on October 15th, 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.”
The pre-election payment to Daniels has become a subject of a criminal investigation into Cohen, whose residences and office were raided by the FBI last month.
The details of the payment, and whether and when Trump knew about it, have important legal implications. A payment intended to protect his campaign from political damage could be a violation of campaign finance law. As a candidate, Trump was permitted to spend an unlimited amount of his own funds on his campaign, but such sums should have been reported to the Federal Election Commission.
Cohen has also insisted that he used his own money and was not reimbursed for the payment by the Trump campaign or the Trump Organization. Cohen has never publicly said whether Trump paid him back for the money shelled out to Daniels.
In his Fox interview on Wednesday night, Giuliani went on to say that Trump “didn’t know about the specifics about it, as far as I know. But he did know about the general arrangements.” The former prosecutor and mayor who recently joined Trump’s legal team indicated that Trump reimbursed Cohen through a series of payments of about $35,000, with some extra funds added to cover taxes and perhaps other services rendered. Reports indicated Cohen may have been paid as much as $460,000.
Trump's statement about Air Force One last month that he did not know about the payment is likely to be closely scrutinized by investigators, although neither the reporter asking the question nor Trump clarified just when he learned about the payment. Prosecutors sometimes cite false public statements as part of an attempt to obstruct justice by confusing investigators.
In a separate interview later Wednesday, Giuliani insisted his disclosure about Trump's reimbursement of Cohen was no gaffe and that it was discussed with Trump in advance.
"He was well-aware that at some point when I saw the opportunity, I was going to get this over with," Giuliani told the Washington Post, adding that he discussed the issue with the president "probably 4 or 5 days ago." The former U.S. attorney said he didn't think he was at risk of being fired over his comments.
"No! No! No! I'm not going to get fired," Giuliani told the Post. "But if I do, I do. It wouldn't be the first time it ever happened. But I don't think so, no."
Giuliani's comments suggested that federal prosecutors in New York who are investigating Cohen were likely already aware of the repayment from Trump, and that Trump's involvement was likely to become public at some point anyway.
Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, filed a lawsuit earlier this year against Trump and Cohen over a hush agreement that she argues is not binding because Trump never signed it. The president has denied having an affair with Daniels.
Daniels on Monday filed another lawsuit against Trump accusing him of defamation for an April 19 Twitter posting in which he suggested that she had fabricated story about being threatened in a Las Vegas parking lot in 2011 by a man who told her: “Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.”
“I am absolutely speechless at this revelation,” Michael Avenatti, Daniels’ lawyer, said in a phone interview late Wednesday on MSNBC. “I hope that your viewers and I hope that the American people upon hearing this and watching that clip, they should be outraged.”
Avenatti went on to say that Americans “deserve to be told the truth by your president and the people that stand at the podium at the White House … briefing press conference.”
In another interview with MSNBC on Thursday, Avenatti said Trump’s tweets from earlier in the morning were clearly written by a "moron" of a lawyer, and said there are grounds for a new defamation suit from Daniels.
“I think there's no question he's defaming my client,” Avenatti said.
Trump critics said Giuliani’s acknowledgment of the president’s role put the president in further legal jeopardy.
“Rudy Giuliani tonight put President Trump in legal peril for ‘knowing and willful’ violations of campaign finance law,” said Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center, a group which filed formal complaints about the episode with the FEC and the Justice Department. “Giuliani seemingly thought he was doing President Trump a favor — but instead made Trump’s legal problems much, much worse. ... Trump’s own lawyer has now handed the DOJ evidence that President Trump committed criminal violations of federal law.”
Giuliani also said, after being asked by Hannity to clarify, that the “money that was paid by his lawyer, the president reimbursed that over the period of several months.”
Hannity pressed Giuliani, saying that Cohen said he paid the money on his own without being asked.
“I don't know,” Giuliani replied. “I haven’t investigated that, no reason to dispute that, no reason to dispute his recollection.”
Revelations about Daniels and Trump’s involvement was not the only thing Giuliani revealed Wednesday evening to Hannity.
In the same wide-ranging interview, Giuliani also railed at length against the federal investigation into Russian election influence, which has focused in part on whether Trump himself might have colluded with the Kremlin or sought to obstruct justice after the investigation was launched.
“This is a completely tainted investigation,” Giuliani told Hannity.
He also delivered harsh attacks on former FBI Director James Comey, who he said he believed to be the “core” of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president. Trump fired Comey in May 2017, an act that many experts say could be interpreted as an effort to obstruct justice.
“I know James Comey. I know the president. Sorry, Jim, you’re a liar, a disgraceful liar,” Giuliani said. “Every FBI agent in America has their head down because of you.”
Giuliani also appeared to further the idea that the Russia probe played a central role in Trump’s decision to fire Comey.
“He fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation,” Giuliani told Hannity. “He’s entitled to that. Hillary Clinton got that and he couldn’t get that. So he fired him and he said, ‘I’m free of this guy.’”
Giuliani repeatedly said he intended to be “objective” toward his approach to Mueller’s request for an interview with Trump. He said that he probably wouldn’t under today’s circumstances, but that he hadn’t totally closed his mind to it. But he peppered his remarks with bruising attacks on the special counsel’s investigation.
“You can’t possibly not feel as a citizen of the world that [the president’s] negotiations with North Korea are much more significant than this totally garbage investigation,” he said, calling the process “an outrageous miscarriage of justice.”
Rebecca Morin, Quint Forgey and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.