May 3, 2018: This story has been updated.
New assertions, accusations and counter-accusations involving President Donald Trump’s alleged hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels are aswirl today thanks to tweets by the president and remarks by his lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
What are the facts?
In October 2016, shortly before the presidential election, Trump’s private lawyer, Michael Cohen, used a newly established limited liability company to quietly pay an adult film star $130,000. In exchange, the woman, Daniels — real name Stephanie Clifford — agreed not to discuss an alleged sexual relationship with Trump, who denies having an affair with Daniels.
The payments and the agreement were first reported by The Wall Street Journal. Daniels sued in March to get out of the agreement, arguing it is not valid because Trump did not sign it. She has also sued the president for defamation.
Trump initially denied knowledge of the payment to Daniels and the source of the money used to pay Daniels, referring questions to Cohen. Government watchdogs argued the payments to Daniels were meant to influence the 2016 presidential election and, therefore, should have been publicly disclosed.
The president and his representatives have offered sometimes contradictory narratives about the payments, what the president knew and when and the circumstances surrounding them.
Most recently, in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Wednesday, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s lawyers, said the president personally repaid Cohen for the payment to Daniels. Giuliani also said: “Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the, you know, last debate with Hillary Clinton … Cohen didn’t even ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job.”
Why do government watchdogs allege these payments violated campaign finance laws?
Watchdogs say the payment was meant to influence the 2016 presidential election, and Trump’s campaign committee violated the law by failing to report the expenditure as a campaign expense.
In addition, since Cohen initially said he paid Daniels out of his personal funds, a complaint from nonpartisan government reform organization Common Cause said the money should have been reported as an in-kind contribution to the campaign, in which case it would have been illegally large. (Individuals may give a political candidate no more than $2,700 per election.)
Giuliani on Wednesday said Trump reimbursed Cohen.
“The repayments took place over a period of time, probably in 2017, probably all paid back by the end of 2017,” Giuliani told The Washington Post. “That and probably a few other situations that might have been considered campaign expenses.”
Trump can legally contribute unlimited amounts to his own campaign, but the money must be disclosed on campaign finance reports.
Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy and external affairs for Common Cause and a lawyer who once worked at the FEC, said Giuliani’s comments constitute “a bald-faced admission.”
“This was a potential knowing and willful violation of campaign finance laws,” he said, pointing especially to Giuliani’s comment about the news of the Trump-Daniels situation potentially breaking days before the presidential election on Nov. 8, 2016.
Why does Trump maintain he’s not violated campaign finance laws?
In three tweets Thursday morning, Trump contended that the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels was a “private contract between two parties” and “very common among celebrities and people of wealth.” He argued that Cohen, who facilitated the transaction with Daniels, “received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign.” Trump later underscored that “money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll [sic] in this transaction.”
It may also be difficult for government investigators to prove whether Trump’s payment to Daniels constituted a campaign contribution in any way, said Brad Smith, a former FEC chairman and president of pro-campaign deregulation organization Institute for Free Speech.
“Many, many things that influence campaigns — and may be intended to influence campaigns — are not campaign expenditures,” Smith said. “Activities of the Clinton Foundation, for example. Think tank reports on policy proposals. A candidate choosing to contribute personally to charities. A candidate might want a new suit to look good for a debate.”
He added: “The consequences of expanding the idea of ‘campaign contribution’ to anything that might indirectly help with the public perception of a candidate are, I think, not pretty.”