WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump refused Thursday to say whether he knew before the 2016 election about his former lawyer’s US$130,000 payment to a porn star.
“I don’t want to get into it because it’s been covered so much,” Trump said Thursday in a White House interview with Bloomberg News. “I can say this: There’s no campaign violation whatsoever, and if you watch all of the good legal pundits you’ll see that.”
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, pleaded guilty to illegal campaign finance charges over hush money paid days before the election to Stephanie Clifford, a porn actress who performs under the name Stormy Daniels, who has said she had an affair with Trump.
US prosecutors told the judge the purpose of the payments was to affect the election by ensuring individuals didn’t disclose “alleged affairs with the candidate” in the days before the vote. Cohen said the payment was made “at the direction of” a candidate that his attorney later identified as Trump. The timing of Trump’s first discussions of the payments is important because it would make clear whether he was involved in efforts to bury controversial stories in the weeks before the election.
Trump, the White House and his lawyers have offered multiple accounts of when he first learned about the payments to Clifford and a separate effort to purchase the silence of former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also said she had an affair with Trump. The president’s answers have been imprecise and inconsistent, and at no time had he or his lawyers provided a full explanation of the president’s involvement.
Trump has denied the alleged affairs and any wrongdoing. In an interview that aired on Fox News earlier this month, Trump said he found out about the payments “later on,” but didn’t elaborate. Last month, an audio recording surfaced in which Trump and Cohen are heard describing how to set up a payment for the rights to McDougal’s story in 2016.
Cohen told Trump on the tape that he had discussed with Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organisation, financing to buy the rights to McDougal’s story from the publisher of the National Enquirer. The purchase didn’t take place.
Trump said on Thursday that Weisselberg didn’t betray him when he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in their investigation into Cohen.
“100% he didn’t,” Trump said when asked whether Weisselberg had turned on him or put him in legal jeopardy. “He’s a wonderful guy,” adding that the cooperation was related to “a very limited period of time.”
Weisselberg’s immunity is tied to his cooperation with the probe into Cohen, the Wall Street Journal reported. The Trump Organisation reimbursed Cohen the US$130,000 he paid to Clifford, according to court records.
Trump is defending his presidency on multiple legal fronts. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are spearheading the Cohen probe, which may delve deeper into Trump’s campaign and his business. He’s also contending with the continuing Russia probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who on Aug 21 won a conviction of Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Trump has stepped up his attacks on the Mueller probe in recent weeks, accusing the former FBI director of running a biased inquiry.
“I view it as an illegal investigation” because “great scholars” have said that “there never should have been a special counsel,” Trump said Thursday.
Mueller’s probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded in Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections appears likely to continue through the fall despite demands from Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani that it end before September to avoid affecting the November midterm elections. Mueller continues back-and-forth talks with Trump’s legal team over terms of a potential interview of the president, backed by the threat that he could subpoena Trump.
Asked whether he would comply with a subpoena from Mueller to answer questions, Trump said in the interview that “I’ll see what happens.”
The investigation into Cohen reached into Trump’s personal life and into his business, a topic the president has said should be off-limits. While Trump could intervene to fire or rein in Mueller, he has little control over the Manhattan inquiry by career Justice Department officials.
Trump also faces legal risks beyond his control from New York state prosecutors, who have taken preliminary steps to open a criminal investigation into Cohen, and possibly into the Trump Organisation.