You have to question the timing, not to mention the content, of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's revelation in the ongoing saga of the president of the United States and a porn star. On Wednesday, Giuliani, now a lawyer for President Donald Trump, chose Sean Hannity's eponymous TV show to announce that Trump had indeed paid off Stormy Daniels during the waning days of the 2016 election to keep her from revealing that she'd had sex with him in 2006. The money's route, through the office of Trump's longtime fixer and attorney, Michael Cohen, was circuitous and delayed, but according to Giuliani, the $130,000 Cohen paid Daniels (whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford) came out of Trump's bank accounts. Giuliani is trying to clean up a mess, but he's making an even bigger one in the process. Giuliani should know better. He's a respected former U.S. attorney.
According to Giuliani, Trump reimbursed Cohen for the $130,000 hush money by putting him on a $35,000-a-month retainer, apparently starting in February 2017. Giuliani explained it this way: "Everybody was nervous about this from the very beginning. I wasn't. I knew how much money Donald Trump put into that campaign. I said, '$130,000? You're going to do a couple of checks for $130,000.' When I heard Cohen's retainer of $35,000 — when he was doing no work for the president — I said, 'That's how he's repaying it — with a little profit and a little margin for paying taxes.'" It will be fascinating for prosecutors to discover how Cohen billed this "reimbursement," if he even bothered.
Giuliani appears to believe that this representation gets Cohen and Trump out of legal jeopardy for campaign finance violations. "It's not campaign money. No campaign finance violation," Giuliani told Hannity, who then helpfully inserted, "They funneled it through the law firm." Giuliani was fine with assenting to Hannity's description. "Funneled it through the law firm, and then the president repaid it," said Giuliani, apparently not considering that the term "funneled" raises exactly the problem he's trying to avoid. If a candidate for president pays off a porn actress to buy her silence two weeks from the election and feels it necessary to "funnel" the money, the obvious conclusion is that he thought the story would harm his chance of winning. Had he written Daniels a check at the time, Trump might have been able to declare it a personal contribution to his campaign, but he chose to have Cohen make the payment, which constituted a loan that should have been disclosed, as should the repayment have been.
So why now? Why has the president reversed his statement that he knew nothing about a hush payment to a porn star during the campaign? Why not just shut up — and instruct his lawyers to do the same, at least publicly?
Special counsel Robert Mueller may be about to issue a subpoena for President Trump's testimony in his investigation if the president refuses to testify voluntarily. A version of questions Mueller's team apparently wants to ask leaked out this week — not likely from the special counsel's office, which has a perfect record so far of not leaking, but from Trump's own team, which has been a sieve. If the questions accurately reflect the special counsel's interest, none seems related to payments to porn stars. They are all related, in one way or another, to whether the Trump campaign had any role in Russian meddling in the election. Michael Cohen's name appears in one question: "What interaction and communication did you have with Michael Cohen, Felix Sater, and others, including foreign nationals, regarding real estate developments in Russia during the period of the campaign?"
Donald Trump is a master of starting dumpster fires to distract from what's really going on. Could this be another attempt to do so? Is the real scandal not that Cohen paid off a porn actress on Trump's behalf but that Trump operatives were in Moscow pushing for a lucrative Trump hotel deal during the campaign? While we're being distracted by a $130,000 hush payment and presidential lies, I'm betting Mueller's team is focused on the bigger question of the selling of the American presidency. Follow the money, but don't be distracted by chump change.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.