Trump faces fresh questions over Stormy Daniels hush payments
Financial disclosure form reveals the president repaid his attorney for unspecified 'expenses'
US President Donald Trump is facing fresh questions over whether he lied about money paid to a pornographic actress after a footnote in a financial disclosure form revealed he reimbursed his personal fixer and attorney as much as $250,000 for unspecified “expenses”.
Critics seized on the details to say the president misled federal officials by omitting the payment from a previous form and of lying to reporters when he said last month he knew nothing about $130,000 paid to Stormy Daniels, who claimed she had an affair with Mr Trump before he was president.
The White House said there was no obligation to disclose the payment to the lawyer, Michael Cohen.
But the Office of Government Ethics disagreed. On Wednesday it sent a highly unusual letter to the Department of Justice saying “the payment made by Mr Cohen is required to be reported as a liability”.
It comes as Ms Daniels’ lawyer claimed he was speaking to two more women who said they struck non-disclosure agreements with Mr Trump’s lawyers, deepening the sense of crisis hanging over an administration rocked by financial, legal and personal scandals.
Thursday was the one-year anniversary of Robert Mueller’s appointment as Special Counsel charged with examining possible collusion between Russia and Donald Trump's 2016 campaign.
Mr Trump marked the date in characteristic fashion.
“Congratulations America, we are now into the second year of the greatest Witch Hunt in American History...and there is still No Collusion and No Obstruction,” he wrote on Twitter. “The only Collusion was that done by Democrats who were unable to win an Election despite the spending of far more money!”
While the Russia investigation proceeds with stately inevitability in the form of subpoenas, a grand jury and tense court hearings, Mr Trump and his family have also had to endure a more personal scandal in the form of Ms Daniels and her non-disclosure agreement.
The actress and her lawyer have emerged as talk show staples, offering not just titillating details of Mr Trump’s behaviour in bed but a paper trail of alleged financial irregularities.
Legal experts immediately said the president may have violated federal ethics laws if he knowingly and wilfully omitted details of the payment made to his lawyer Mr Cohen from his 2017 financial disclosure.
David Apol, acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, wrote to Rod Rosenstein, Deputy Attorney General, to pass on the forms.
“I am providing both reports to you because you may find the disclosure relevant to any inquiry you may be pursuing," he wrote.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, lodged a criminal complaint saying the letter was unprecedented.
Noah Bookbinder, the group’s executive director, said: “We cannot effectively judge his motivations and his influences without him providing truthful financial information as required by law.”
Failure to properly disclose information can result in civil penalties of up to $50,000 and even lead to a criminal prosecution.
But as headlines blared the latest details, seasoned Washington hands wondered whether it would have much impact on voters.
Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst, said: “Every day there is some other controversy, some other question, some earth shattering news and it doesn’t do much politically. The lines are drawn.
“The Trump people – no matter what the news – they can explain it and justify it. And the anti-Trump people get all upset and think it changes everything.”
Even so, the questions mark the latest twist in the confusion about how Mr Trump and his team dealt with an adult movie star and her claims of a tryst in a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2006.
Mr Trump’s lawyers have always said he denies the allegation.
At first the White House suggested Mr Cohen had used his own money to make a payment guaranteeing Ms Daniels’ silence without the president’s knowledge – distancing the then presidential campaign from the matter.
But that left an awkward legal question: Did Mr Cohen’s money, which he admitted paying, constitute a campaign contribution? Is so, it was in danger of breaching electoral law.
There was no problem if the money was Mr Trump’s. Candidates are allowed to spend as much money as they want.
That all changed earlier this month. Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who joined the Trump legal team, said the president had actually paid back Mr Cohen after the campaign was over.
The answers may now lie in a tiny footnote on page 45 of the president’s 92-disclosure. Mr Trump said he reimbursed Mr Cohen for “expenses” ranging from $101,001 to $250,000.
For his part, Mr Guiliani insisted the payment did not amount to a “liability” but a reimbursement for expenses, he said.
“I don’t believe it had to be disclosed at all,” he told Fox News.
That still raises the question of whether Mr Trump knew why the money was paid to Mr Cohen.
Mr Giuliani maintains that the payments came from funds set aside for the lawyer’s operating costs and their purpose – such as the settlement with Ms Daniels – would not not necessarily have been known to the president.
He also claimed Mr Mueller had admitted he could not indict a sitting president and demanded an end to the special counsel’s investigation.
“It’s been a year. He’s gotten 1.4 million documents, he's interviewed 28 witnesses,” he said. “And he has nothing, which is why he wants to bring the president into an interview.”
The investigation has charged 19 people — including four Trump campaign advisers — and three Russian companies.
They include Michael Flynn, who served briefly as National Security Adviser, and Mr Trump’s deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates, who have both pleaded guilty and are now co-operating with the probe.
The cases have not yet resolved the central question of whether the Trump team colluded with Moscow. However, they have revealed a slew of previously unrevealed links as well as the Kremlin’s determination to see Hillary Clinton lose the election.
And there is no sign of any of the scandals easing any time yet.
On Thursday morning, Michael Avenatti said he had been approached by a number of women claiming to have had affairs with Mr Trump before he entered office and had received payments for their silence.
“They are not fully vetted but there are at least two that are on solid ground,” he told MSNBC’s Morning Joe programme.
Updated: May 17, 2018 11:32 PM