Updated at 3:29 p.m. ET
President Trump admitted Thursday to reimbursing his lawyer for a $130,000 payment made on the eve of the 2016 election to porn actress Stormy Daniels as part of a settlement about her alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Trump.
Trump, however, denied any sexual encounter and claims the payment was in no way connected with the campaign — despite the timing.
That admission directly contradicts what the president told reporters less than a month ago. Trump denied knowledge of the payments, telling reporters on Air Force One, “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. You’ll have to ask Michael.”
Asked if he knew where the money came from to pay Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, the president said: “No. I don’t.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Thursday “this was information the president didn’t know at the time but eventually learned … we give the very best information we have at the time.”
Sanders’ account suggested Trump didn’t learn until recently that monthly payments he had been making to Cohen in 2016 or 2017 were a reimbursement for the Daniels payment and to cover other matters that Cohen handled for him.
That was according to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is now representing Trump as one of his attorneys and has been making a round of media appearances. Giuliani revealed the reimbursement Wednesday night on Fox News and then told the Washington Post on Thursday that Trump’s payments to Cohen began earlier than “mid-year” 2017.
Cohen has asserted that Trump had no knowledge of the payment, which was made through a shell corporation. And Sanders restated on Thursday that Trump continues to deny the underlying allegation — that he had a sexual relationship with Daniels.
But the admission could land Trump in potentially varying degrees of legal trouble, from a felony campaign-finance violation to filing a knowingly false financial disclosure, something that carries up to a $50,000 fine and a year in prison or more.
Giuliani argued there were no campaign-finance violations, because this was a personal matter carried out to protect the family — not to influence the campaign.
“Just trust me, they’re going to find no violations here,” Giuliani said Wednesday night on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox.
Then Giuliani said this: “Imagine if that came out on Oct. 15 in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton,” Giuliani said on Fox. “Cohen didn’t even ask. He made it go away. He did his job.”
That’s important, because if the payoff money was for the purpose of influencing the campaign, then under the law it would still have to be reported.
Hannity also has been revealed as a client of Cohen’s.
Cohen’s payment to Daniels has drawn complaints to the Federal Election Commission that it was an undisclosed contribution to Trump’s campaign. The amount far exceeds the maximum donation one person could make.
Watchdog groups argue that if Cohen’s payment was, in fact, for the purpose of influencing the 2016 campaign, that could open up Trump to a possible felony for “knowingly and willfully” causing his campaign to file an incomplete or false report.
In a string of tweets, Walter Shaub, the former ethics chief of the Office of Government Ethics, points out that “in trying to talk his way out of a campaign finance violation, Trump has admitted to filing a false financial disclosure in 2017.”
On Wednesday night, Giuliani said Trump “didn’t know the specifics of it [the payment to Daniels], but he did know the general arrangement. That was money that was paid by his lawyer, the way I would do, out of his law firm funds, or whatever funds, doesn’t matter. The president reimbursed that over a period of several months.”
Cohen said he used a home equity loan in order to pay off Daniels. Cohen has said neither Trump’s business nor the Trump campaign reimbursed after paying her.
Daniels says that Cohen was acting on behalf of Trump to keep her quiet to avoid a scandal and that he had her sign an agreement not to talk about her relationship with Trump. She has sued to escape that agreement.
Cohen says he will invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself and will not testify as part of that lawsuit because he is the subject of an ongoing federal criminal investigation.
Cohen was recently the target of multiple search warrants by federal investigators in New York.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story reported that Trump attorney Michael Cohen said in past that he had not been reimbursed for paying porn actress Stormy Daniels. But in his comments to The New York Times, Cohen said specifically that neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign had reimbursed him. As has emerged, the payments came from Trump himself.
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