Donald Trump has admitted that $130,000 of hush money was paid to the pornographic film actor Stormy Daniels to stop her going public about an alleged affair with him, despite the president previously denying knowledge of a deal.
The revelation threatened to engulf Trump in one of the most tawdry and legally damaging scandals of his presidency, and on Thursday provoked astonished reactions from ethics experts.
Daniels’ lawyer called the revelation “stunning” and said: “This is not about sex … this is about a cover-up.”
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, claims that she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006 – months after his wife, Melania, gave birth – and was paid to stay silent as part of a non-disclosure agreement she is now seeking to invalidate.
Trump had told reporters on Air Force One last month that he did not know about the $130,000 payment to Daniels – made by his lawyer Michael Cohen days before the 2016 presidential election – or the source of the money.
But after a new member of his White House legal team, Rudy Giuliani, said on live television on Wednesday that Trump had indeed reimbursed Cohen for the payment, the president reversed his position in an extraordinary sequence of tweets – just hours before leading a national day of prayer at the White House.
At 6.46am on Thursday, Trump wrote on Twitter, in uncharacteristically legal-minded language, that Cohen received a monthly retainer. “Not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement,” a non-disclosure agreement with Daniels. He claimed: “These agreements are … very common among celebrities and people of wealth.”
Trump described the allegations of an affair as “false and extortionist”, adding: “Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll [sic] in this transaction.”
But watchdog groups and experts argued that despite his contention that no money from his campaign was used to pay off Daniels, Trump still broke campaign finance laws by failing to declare the secret payment to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). No debt to Cohen is listed on Trump’s personal financial disclosure form, which was certified on 16 June 2017.
Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, tweeted: “AMAZING! In trying to talk his way out of a campaign finance violation, Trump has inadvertently admitted to filing a false financial disclosure in 2017. He personally certified that his disclosure was ‘complete and correct’.”
Shaub added: “This seems like as strong a circumstantial case for a violation as one is going to see. It is absolutely stunning that we’ve reached the point where the president of the United States appears to have lied to the US Office of Government Ethics about a payoff to a porn star.”
Norm Eisen, the chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, which has already filed a criminal complaint, added on Twitter: “This dope & evidently his lawyers do not – despite everything – understand how campaign finance law works. Whole point is that money came from outside the campaign & benefitted it. That is the illegal ‘roll’ under review. No one saying it was campaign money.”
There can be criminal or civil penalties for violating campaign finance laws, although it is as yet unclear what fresh angle of investigation, if any, could be prompted by the latest developments.
Trump’s tweets outlining the arrangement came after the bombshell interview by Giuliani, who joined his legal team last month. The former mayor of New York, ex-US attorney and failed presidential candidate was presumably seeking to reduce the president’s legal exposure – a plan that may have backfired.
Giuliani told Fox host Sean Hannity: “They funneled 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.”
Asked if Trump knew about the arrangement, Giuliani said: “He didn’t know about the specifics of it, as far as I know. But he did know about the general arrangement, that Michael would take care of things like this, like I take care of things like this for my clients. I don’t burden them with every single thing that comes along. These are busy people.”
He said Trump had repaid Cohen over several months, suggesting that the payments continued through at least the presidential transition, if not into his presidency. He argued the payment “is going to turn out to be perfectly legal” because “that money was not campaign money”.
Speaking on Fox & Friends on the same network on Thursday, Giuliani said Trump did not know all the details until “maybe 10 days ago”. He added: “They said it wasn’t true. However, imagine if that came out on October 15 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton. Cohen didn’t even ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job. I think when Cohen heard $130,000, he said, ‘My God, this is cheap.’”
Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, described Trump’s tweets as “a stunning revelation”. He wrote on Twitter: “Mr Trump stood on AF1 and blatantly lied. This followed the lies told by others close to him, including Mr Cohen.”
Avenatti told MSNBC’s Morning Joe show that the president had opened himself up to another possible lawsuit for defamation. “Our case just got exponentially better,” Avenatti said. “This is not about sex … this is about a cover-up.”
He added: “I think there’s no question that he’s defaming my client. These guys are making it up as they go along. They are in full panic mode. They do not know what to do.”
Cohen himself is under increasing legal pressure. He is facing a criminal investigation in New York, and FBI agents raided his home and office several weeks ago seeking records about the non-disclosure agreement.
There has been speculation that the special counsel investigating alleged collusion with Russia might seek to “flip” Cohen to get him to testify against his boss. The Axios website commented: “Cohen is the Rosetta Stone of Trumpland, with intimate knowledge of Trump’s life before the campaign.”
Daniels has also filed a defamation suit against Trump after he questioned a composite sketch she released of a man she says threatened her to keep quiet.
Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Thursday: “Mayor Giuliani, as well as the president, have spoken at length about this this morning, and last night. Because of litigation, I’m not going to comment any further. I don’t have anything else to say.”