Until Wednesday night, Donald Trump and people in his orbit insisted that the president had known nothing about the $130,000 hush money payment to the pornographic film star Stormy Daniels made by his lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, days before the 2016 election. Last month on Air Force One, a reporter asked Trump about it directly: “Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?” His response was a categorical no.
This denial was always implausible, and now we have new evidence that Trump was lying. On Wednesday evening, Rudy Giuliani, whose appointment to Trump’s legal team was announced two weeks ago, appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and casually admitted that Trump had repaid Cohen for the money he gave to Daniels “over a period of several months.”
This was a bombshell. And in the 12 hours that followed, both Trump and Giuliani made a series of statements so seemingly self-sabotaging and undisciplined that observers began searching for some sort of hidden strategy or logic. Were they trying to get out ahead of a coming revelation? To set off a metaphorical smoke bomb that would distract from some other scandalous development? Or were they really as blundering and incompetent as they appeared?
I suspect the answer is a combination of the three. But their motivations are less important than the information they’ve provided us. Whether they realize it or not, experts say they appear to have admitted that Trump and Cohen broke the law. The question is whether the impunity that Trump has enjoyed so far will hold or whether this farce of a presidency will, at long last, begin to crumble under the weight of its own sleaze.
Sadly, it’s unlikely that Trump will pay much of a political price for deceiving the country about his sex life and attendant payoffs. Even before Giuliani’s revelations, USA Today reported, based on interviews with a 25-person focus group of Trump voters, that many of the president’s supporters already assumed he was lying about Daniels, and didn’t care. Speaking on CNN on Thursday, Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, said there should be hearings on the Daniels payout, but he’s about to retire. Most of the Republican Party knows who Trump is and has submitted to him anyway.
But as a legal matter, Trump seems to be in more trouble than he was 24 hours ago. Norman Eisen, chairman of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, was almost giddy when I spoke to him Thursday morning.
“We’re seeing the unraveling of a corrupt regime by the force and power of the law, and the people who are the handmaidens of the law,” he said.
As Eisen points out, Giuliani in his Hannity appearance was trying to argue that Cohen had not violated campaign finance law by spending $130,000 of his own money on behalf of Trump’s presidential bid. But he did it in a staggeringly clumsy way that implicated Trump himself.
“What Giuliani did that was so stunning was, in stumbling away from the campaign finance violation, he bumbled into potentially criminal federal nondisclosure by his client,” Eisen said.
That’s because, Eisen said, if Trump either repaid Cohen or was in the process of repaying him, he would have been legally obligated to include that information on his federal financial disclosure forms. Additionally, he said, Trump could be implicated in a criminal cover-up of Cohen’s campaign contribution. Candidates are allowed to spend unlimited personal funds on their own political campaigns, but that’s not what appears to have happened in this case.
“What happened here is that somebody else made a $130,000 contribution and Trump later repaid it and covered it up,” Eisen said. “That is not permitted.”
Cohen has insisted that there was no campaign finance issue with Daniels’ payoff because it was made for personal rather than political reasons.
“What I did defensively for my personal client, and my friend, is what attorneys do for their high-profile clients,” he told Vanity Fair in March.
But Giuliani, bafflingly, destroyed that rationalization. First, he spoke to The Washington Post after his Hannity appearance, where he said that the Daniels payment, as well as “a few other situations,” could have been “considered campaign expenses.” Then, on “Fox and Friends” on Thursday morning, he said, about the need to silence Daniels, “Imagine if that came out on Oct. 15, 2016, in the middle of the, you know, last debate with Hillary Clinton.”
Perhaps Giuliani knew that information demonstrating a link between the Daniels payment and the Trump campaign was about to surface. That means there are two possibilities for Giuliani’s bizarre media jag. Either he was acting purposefully, because even worse news for his client is on the way, or he was acting haphazardly, because he’s a has-been who has joined a White House in chaos. Neither possibility bodes well for Trump, who now faces the absurd but fitting possibility of being brought down not through exposure of his collusion with Russia but by the fallout from a single sordid sexual encounter.
Like Eisen, Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, seemed delighted when I spoke to him.
“There’s no question that our cases, plural, just got exponentially better,” he said.
On Monday, Daniels filed a defamation suit against Trump in response to a tweet in which he called her story of being threatened on his behalf a “total con job.” In a series of tweets Thursday morning, written in a lawyerly voice unlike his own, the president went further in disparaging Daniels, calling her claims of an affair “false and extortionist.”
“They say that every case is a fight for credibility,” Avenatti said. “There’s little question, in light of what we’ve seen over the last 18 hours, that their credibility on these issues has been destroyed.”
Trump’s voters might not care, but hopefully judges and juries will.