Donald Trump acknowledged that he reimbursed his lawyer for a $130,000 payment to an adult film star to ensure her silence over an alleged affair, contradicting his early statements that he knew nothing of the hush money.
The president originally told reporters in April that he had been unaware of the payment by attorney Michael Cohen to Stephanie Clifford, whose stage name is Stormy Daniels, shortly before the 2016 election.
However, Mr Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning that Mr Cohen had entered into a non-disclosure agreement with Ms Clifford to “stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair”. Such agreements, the president added, are “very common among celebrities and people of wealth”.
The president wrote that the money used had been reimbursed and that it had “nothing to do with the [presidential] campaign”.
The disclosure represents a dramatic shift in the president’s strategy for dealing with the controversy and echoes the words of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who recently joined Mr Trump’s legal team. Mr Giuliani told US media on Wednesday night that Mr Trump repaid the alleged hush money Mr Cohen used to pay Ms Clifford and insisted no laws had been broken.
The payment has sparked complaints to the Federal Election Commission alleging it was an undeclared in-kind campaign contribution. It is at the heart of several legal risks facing the president, with Ms Clifford suing him to lift the non-disclosure agreement she agreed with Mr Cohen in 2016 in return for the money.
The porn star alleged she had an affair with Mr Trump in 2006. Mr Cohen denied the claim and said the $130,000 payment had nothing to do with the election, adding that he made the payment from his personal funds. Speaking on Air Force One in April, Mr Trump answered “no” when asked whether he had known of the $130,000 payment.
In his tweets on Thursday, however, Mr Trump said Mr Cohen received a monthly retainer that did not come from the campaign and that the attorney entered into the contract with Ms Clifford “through reimbursement”.
“Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll [sic] in this transaction,” Mr Trump added.
Mr Giuliani, speaking to Fox News on Wednesday, said: “They funnelled through a law firm and the president repaid it . . . That was money that was paid by his lawyer, the president reimbursed that over the period of several months.” The former New York mayor said the payment was “going to turn out to be perfectly legal” because “that money was not campaign money”.
The risk for the president, however, is that the money could be construed as an undisclosed payment intended to protect the campaign from political damage, violating campaign finance law.
Andrew Hermann, a lawyer at Miller & Chevalier who specialises in campaign finance law, said that the problem arose if Mr Cohen’s actions were determined not to be an attempt to settle a personal matter for Mr Trump, but rather to serve a political purpose.
The payment was made in the run-up to the election and during the furore surrounding lewd comments Mr Trump had made about women on an Access Hollywood tape. Mr Cohen’s payment could therefore be construed to be an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign aimed at preventing further controversy.
As such, the payment could be subject to reporting requirements as an effective loan by Mr Cohen to the campaign, as could the reimbursement by Mr Trump, Mr Hermann said.
On a second appearance on Fox TV on Thursday Mr Giuliani failed to dispel the notion that the payment helped the campaign. “Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton,” he said. “Cohen made it go away. He did his job.”
Paul S Ryan, vice-president for policy and litigation at Common Cause, which has filed a complaint saying the payment may have violated campaign finance laws, said in a statement that Mr Giuliani had put the president in “legal peril”. Stephen Spaulding, the group’s chief of strategy and external affairs, said: “[Mr Trump] made this payment to Stormy Daniels we think for the purpose of influencing the outcome of the election by keeping damaging information out of the news cycle.”
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has separately filed a complaint with the Department of Justice and Office of Government Ethics over the payment, claiming it should have been included in the president’s financial disclosure form if he owed the money to Mr Cohen.
Norman Eisen, the chair of that organisation’s board and a former ethics chief for Barack Obama, said Mr Giuliani’s words left the president “caught between a rock and a hard place”. He added: “Giuliani made it perfectly clear that Trump was carrying a debt, a liability to Cohen, which was repaid. Trump has an obligation to disclose all liabilities.”
“Every American, regardless of their politics, should be outraged by what we have now learned. Mr Trump stood on AF1 and blatantly lied,” tweeted Ms Clifford’s lawyer Michael Avenatti following Mr Giuliani’s statements on Wednesday. “We will not rest until justice is served.”
Mr Cohen himself is facing a criminal investigation by the US attorney’s office in the southern district of New York. The lawsuit could prove to be problematic for the president if a judge allows Ms Clifford’s challenge to go ahead in open court, according to legal experts.
Follow @barneyjopson on Twitter
Get alerts on Donald Trump when a new story is published