As yet another bizarre week comes to a close for the president, no one seems to know the reality of what happened between Donald Trump, Stormy Daniels, and Michael Cohen. The only thing that is proven beyond a reasonable doubt is that the White House is lying about it.
This particular drama began Wednesday evening, when Rudy Giuliani, a new addition to the president’s legal team, went on Sean Hannity’s TV show and said that Trump had personally repaid Cohen, his lawyer and sometimes-fixer, for the $130,000 Cohen paid to Daniels as hush money about her alleged affair with Trump some years earlier.
“I’m giving you a fact now that you don’t know,” Giuliani said. “It’s not campaign money. No campaign-finance violation.”
This had the potential to be clever and elegant or else legally suicidal. As my colleague Conor Friedersdorf wrote Thursday morning, there have been many explanations for the money paid to Daniels, but Giuliani’s had the potential to make them all somewhat true. Cohen said he paid Daniels out of pocket, and neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign had reimbursed him, but he didn’t rule out the president personally repaying him.
Meanwhile, the White House said in March it didn’t know of the payment, and in April Trump himself said he didn’t know about the payment. Giuliani had a clever explanation for this, too: Trump really hadn’t known about the payment, and had only learned of it in the last two weeks, as Giuliani told The Washington Post the same night.
This still left some implausible holes. Giuliani claimed that Trump had paid Cohen as part of a normal retainer agreement, yet Cohen said he had to take funds out of a home-equity line of credit to pay Daniels. How many lawyers take out loans while waiting for their normal pay to clear? There was a deeper problem, too: Giuliani’s aim had clearly been to show that Trump hadn’t violated campaign-finance law with the payment, though as Rick Hasen explained in Slate, it’s not clear his explanation actually did that.
But Giuliani destroyed any impression that he had a cleverly elegant solution the following morning on Fox and Friends. Giuliani said first that the payment had nothing to do with the campaign, an essential part of his argument that no campaign-finance laws could have been broken.
“This was for personal reasons,” Giuliani said. “It wasn’t for the campaign. It was to save their marr—not their marriage so much, but their reputation.”
But moments later, he blew his own argument apart, acknowledging the concern that the Daniels story could have emerged and hurt Trump in the home stretch of the campaign.
“Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton,” he said.
Had Giuliani gone rogue? On a properly functioning defense team, perhaps, but the president has nothing of the sort. Giuliani told the Post that he had both discussed his plans to disclose the reimbursement with Trump, and that he had spoken with Trump after his Hannity interview, and that Trump was “very pleased.” Moreover, Trump tweeted a statement (written in legal language, with formal titles, that seemed written by someone other than Trump, though still including a typo) that confirmed what Giuliani had said.
Then Friday morning, Trump reversed course. “Rudy is a great guy but he just started, but he just started a day ago. He’s learning the subject matter and he’s going to be issuing a statement too,” the president said as he prepared to leave for a trip to the NRA convention in Dallas. “He started yesterday, he’ll get his facts straight.”
In other words, Trump was saying the account he had both discussed with Giuliani ahead of time and endorsed in his tweets Thursday was not true. Trump’s claim that Giuliani just had his first day was also not true. The White House announced his addition on April 19, and Giuliani has described conversations with Trump about the case stretching back two weeks.
Later on Friday, Giuliani issued the promised statement. He said that “there was no campaign violation” because “the payment was made to resolve a personal and false allegation in order to protect the President’s family” that “would have been done in any event, whether he was a candidate or not.” Giuliani also said that his claims about when Trump learned about the payment were his own understanding, not the president’s.
Giuliani’s “Trust me, I was lying” defense is surprisingly common among the president’s associates, but there is no particular reason to believe the new statement, which is described in the standard Orwellian Washington euphemism as a “clarification,” when it actually adds further confusion. The defense is particularly incredible (in the literal and figurative senses) here because Trump had discussed the strategy with Giuliani ahead of time. New York Times reporting indicated, in fact, that Trump’s other attorneys, who had been left out of the loop, were horrified: “The president’s other lawyers ultimately determined that Mr. Giuliani had consulted with Mr. Trump, people close to them said, but were left speechless about why he decided to make the disclosure in such a high-profile way and without any strategy to handle the fallout.”
We still don’t know whether Trump really reimbursed Cohen, when he did so, and when he learned what he was reimbursing Cohen for. All we know is that the president’s lawyers and associates have misled the public in the last three days, and some of them knowingly. Trump is in the latter camp, since he conferred with Giuliani and confirmed his account, then said it wasn’t straight. Giuliani’s statements are also at odds with each other, so he was not telling the truth in at least one case. During Thursday’s press briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders all but threw her hands up and admitted she didn’t know the truth, repeating some variation on the idea that she is “giving the best information I have” six times. Don’t blame me, I’m as in the dark as the rest of you.
That leaves aside the broader question of honesty, which is that Trump’s denials of the affair with Daniels in the first place are difficult to credit. Daniels has offered a generally consistent story of her interactions with Trump to multiple people in different forums stretching back years, with corroborating facts. Trump has offered no detailed rebuttal, and his attorney paid Daniels $130,000 not to speak about it. It may be impossible to know for sure what happened between the two of them, but it’s not hard to see which account is more credible.
Giuliani’s wild ride is reminiscent of the short, sordid tenure of Anthony Scaramucci. The language is not quite so salty and the blow-ups not as Bay-sian, though the repercussions for the Trump presidency are probably deeper, in both legal and political terms. Both Giuliani and Scaramucci are New York City fixtures who came to Washington with a swagger, a pugilistic pose, and a lot of experience sparring on television with little or no consequence. Before he joined the president’s legal team, Giuliani making strange and likely false comments on cable wasn’t headline news; it was Wednesday. Both Giuliani and Scaramucci have learned that one’s statements get far more scrutiny, and are much harder to clean up, when you’re making them on behalf of the president of the United States.
They aren’t the only New Yorkers to be taken aback by being held to account for their words in the Trump administration. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who cited his Big Appletude for not caring about astronomical phenomena—“being a New Yorker, I don’t have any interest in watching the eclipse”—had, of course, watched the eclipse, as photographic evidence proved. Larry Kudlow, who tried to patch over a dispute between the White House and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as a product of mere confusion, found Haley brushing him back, saying, “I don’t get confused.”
As indiscreet Manhattan expats go, however, Kudlow and Mnuchin can’t hold a candle to Giuliani and Scaramucci. (Rudy and the Mooch would probably be happy to agree.) The stakes are particularly high for Giuliani, who has spent nearly two decades of his waning years frittering away the goodwill he won as “America’s Mayor” during 9/11 on fumbling presidential bids, praise for despots, and conspiracy theories.
The Trump administration’s duplicity has a tendency to make past controversies seem quaint by comparison. In this case, you don’t have to reach back to the Obama, Bush, or Clinton years to see this in action: The week has felt long enough that one might forget it began with a firestorm over whether a comedian was too harsh in assailing the White House for its lies. Giuliani and Trump have since made that critique hard to defend.