Giuliani‘s payment leak could mean fallout for Trump

WASHINGTON • United States President Donald Trump‘s new legal team made a chaotic debut as Rudy Giuliani, who was tapped recently to be one of the President‘s lawyers, potentially exposed his client to legal and political danger by publicly revealing the existence of secret payments to Mr Trump‘s personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

After he moved into the White House, the President began paying Mr Cohen US$35,000 (S$46,000) a month, Mr Giuliani said, in part as reimbursement for a US$130,000 payment that Mr Cohen made to a pornographic film actress to keep her from going public about an affair she said she had with Mr Trump. The President confirmed he made payments to Mr Cohen in a series of Twitter posts on Thursday.

The explosive revelation, which Mr Giuliani said was intended to prove that Mr Trump and Mr Cohen violated no campaign finance laws, prompted frustration and disbelief among the President‘s other legal and political advisers, some of whom said they feared the gambit could backfire.

Mr Trump already faces a two-front battle with the Justice Department: one investigation in New York into Mr Cohen and the investigation in Washington led by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is focusing on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Legally, the failure to disclose the payments could be a violation of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which requires that federal officials, including Mr Trump, report any liabilities of more than US$10,000 during the preceding year. Mr Trump‘s last disclosure report, which he signed and filed in June, mentions no debt to Mr Cohen.

Politically, Mr Giuliani‘s remarks – made in television appearances and interviews – raised questions about the President‘s truthfulness and created a firestorm at the White House, where aides were caught off guard and furiously sought to deflect questions they could not answer.

“Everyone is wondering, what in the world is he doing?” said Mr George Arzt, a long-time New York Democratic consultant who has known Mr Giuliani for decades. “I would not have sent out Rudy to talk about the investigation. But Mr Trump likes chaos and Mr Trump just added to the chaos.”

By the end of the day, the President and his advisers had done little to clarify the confusion that Mr Giuliani had set in motion.

  • $46,000

    Amount that US President Donald Trump is said to have paid his personal lawyer Michael Cohen each month, according to Mr Rudy Giuliani, who was tapped recently to be one of the President‘s lawyers.

In the end, Mr Trump‘s other lawyers ultimately determined that Mr Giuliani had consulted with the President, 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.

Mr Giuliani recognised the situation was problematic, two people close to him said, because Mr Trump had previously said on Air Force One that he was unaware of the hush payments to Stephanie Clifford, the actress who performs as Stormy Daniels. However, Mr Trump and his aides see lying to or misleading the news media as far less troublesome than lying to investigators, they said.

But the decision to reveal has risks: Mr Giuliani appeared to admit that the payment to Ms Clifford just before Election Day in 2016 was made because of concerns about the coming vote. That could be used to argue that it was an illegal campaign contribution.

Mr Tony Carbonetti, a long-time friend and adviser to Mr Giuliani, warned that those lampooning Mr Giuliani are mistaken.

“If you‘ve been around Rudy, there‘s always a reason for it,” he said. “If you knew a narrative was coming out, wouldn‘t you want to tell the story on your terms? He wanted to get ahead of it.”

Mr Sam Nunberg, a former political adviser to Mr Trump, said the President‘s “typical knee-jerk reaction to everything is deny, deny, deny”, but that his lawyers have impressed upon him the importance of being truthful when he is the subject of a federal investigation.

“The President has to understand that what he did in the private sector, as a mogul, celebrity and entrepreneur, where you can simply deny things in the press, when you‘re under federal investigation the FBI and Justice Department takes everything that is said publicly literally,” Mr Nunberg said.

“So I think they‘re cleaning this mess up.”