WASHINGTON That unpleasant odor wafting from the direction of the White House is the sour smell of panic, as the president’s lies threaten to unravel – and the law closes in.
The new public face of President Donald Trump’s legal defense, Rudy Giuliani, looked and sounded like a man in need of an intervention Wednesday night as he went on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show – the friendliest possible terrain – and revealed that what Trump has tried to make the nation believe about a $130,000 hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels is a total crock.
You will recall that last month, when asked aboard Air Force One if he knew about the payment, Trump emphatically said no. He added, “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney.” Trump gave the impression of having no idea where Cohen got the money to pay Daniels.
Not true, Giuliani told a puzzled Hannity: “That money was not campaign money. Sorry, I’m giving you a fact now that you don’t know. It’s not campaign money. No campaign finance violation. ... [It was] funneled through the law firm and the president repaid it.”
Just a suggestion, but if Giuliani wants to convince special counsel Robert Mueller that there’s nothing here to see, he probably should avoid using words like “funneled.”
In the Hannity interview, Giuliani said of the $130,000 payment that Trump “didn’t know about the specifics of it, as far as I know. But he did know the general arrangement, that Michael would take care of things like this, like I take care of things like this with my clients. I don’t burden them with every single thing that comes along. These are busy people.’’
That makes me curious about Giuliani’s client list. But I digress.
Trump offered elaboration but not clarification Thursday morning on Twitter. The original story – I know nothing, go ask Michael – morphed into a three-tweet exercise in trying to thread a needle with a hunk of rope:
“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. 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. 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.”
So many words, so much squirming, so little truth.
One thing, and only one thing, is clear from this orchestrated attempt to change the narrative about Daniels. Trump is worried that the payment – which prevented a potential scandal just days before the 2016 election – might constitute an illegal campaign donation if Cohen used his own funds, as he has claimed, and was not reimbursed.
Some experts say there may have been a violation even if Trump’s carefully worded (for him) tweetstorm is true. But if Cohen’s “retainer” was really an attempt to hide the payment and structure the reimbursement so as not to rouse suspicion among banking regulators, Trump and Cohen may be in more legal jeopardy from the new story than from the old.
Nice work, Rudy.
This latest development on the Daniels front is just one of several signs that the investigation of Trump and the pushback against it have entered a new, more acrimonious phase.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe, vowed this week that “the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted” by Republican House members who threaten to impeach him for not shutting Mueller down. It was revealed that Mueller has warned that he can serve the president with a grand jury subpoena if Trump does not agree to a voluntary interview. And the loudest voice on the president’s legal team advocating a conciliatory approach, attorney Ty Cobb, announced Wednesday that he is “retiring.” His replacement, Emmet Flood of the powerhouse Williams & Connolly firm, represented Bill Clinton in his battle against impeachment.
There is no reason to believe Mueller’s investigation is anywhere near its end. But the ground rules have changed: From now on, it seems, biting and gouging are allowed.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.