Can Trump Weasel His Way Out of This Giuliani Mess?

The former mayor's comments raised a number of questions about possible campaign finance law violations

Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP/REX/Shutterstock, Chuck Burton/AP/REX/Shutterstock

If you weren’t aware that Rudy Giuliani joined Trump’s legal team late last month, you are now. After not even two weeks on the job, the Trump confidant and former New York City mayor spoke to Sean Hannity Wednesday night about several of the president's ongoing legal issues. It was an eventful few minutes, to say the least. Giuliani likened the FBI agents who raided Michael Cohen’s hotel and office to "stormtroopers," called James Comey a "disgraceful liar" and "perverted," and, most notably, claimed that Trump reimbursed Cohen for the controversial $130,000 payment made to Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election. Not only does this contradict Trump’s claim that he had no knowledge of the payment, it raises a number of questions about possible campaign finance law violations.

The bombshell set in motion a furious 12 hours of backtracking from Trump and company, highlighted by – what else – a string of Thursday morning tweets from the President of the United States.

The hole in Trump’s argument here is that if the payments to Cohen were simply part of Cohen’s retainer, it’s hard to believe Giuliani would characterize this as a reimbursement for the Daniels payment. Nevertheless, Giuliani used the same logic when speaking with the New York Times Wednesday night, claiming that the payment came out of a $35,000-per-month reimbursement fund that was set up for Cohen out of Trump’s personal account, and that these payments included money for "incidental expenses" relating to Trump. He also told the Times that he didn’t think Trump knew about the Daniels payment "until now." In a similarly scattershot interview with Fox & Friends last week, Trump specifically cited the Daniels case as an example of the kind of legal work Cohen did for him.

Back on Fox News yet again Thursday morning, Giuliani obfuscated by implying that October of 2016 was a long time ago, that he doesn’t really remember all the details, and that in the end, the money used to pay Daniels was "pretty close" to "pocket change."

He also seemed to accidentally (or purposely – who knows at this point) imply that the payment was related to the campaign, which is at the core of the argument that it did indeed constitute a violation of campaign finance law.

Giuliani – who was enlisted to help bring Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to an end, not to work on the Daniels case – broached the topic of the payment himself Wednesday night, insisting to Hannity that because campaign funds were not used to make it, it was perfectly legal.

"That money was not campaign money, sorry," he said. "I’m giving you a fact now that you don’t know. It’s not campaign money. No campaign finance violation."

Giuliani then confirmed to Hannity that the money was "funneled it through a law firm," adding that "the president repaid it."

"Oh… I didn’t know… He did?" replied Hannity, clearly disarmed. When asked if Trump knew about the payment, Giuliani said that though he may not have known about the specifics, he "did know about the general arrangement that [Cohen] would take care of things like this."

This doesn’t exactly jibe with the narrative the administration has pushed thus far.

On March 7th, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, "There was no knowledge of any payment from the president and he’s denied all of these allegations." Close to a month later, on April 5th, a reporter on Air Force One asked the president directly if he knew about the payment. "No," Trump responded before directing further questions to Cohen, who has maintained that he made the payment with his own money and wasn’t paid back by Trump.

Giuliani also told multiple outlets that his comments about the payment were premeditated, and that he spoke with Trump before the appearance about what he would say. This, as many have pointed out, including a few Fox News personalities, is an odd move, as it’s only drawn added attention to questionable legality of the payment. Trump’s team seems convinced that because the money didn’t come directly from campaign funds that they didn’t violate any campaign finance laws, but it isn’t quite that simple, and several people have pointed out the legal issues raised by Giuliani’s comments.

But sans testimony from Cohen that Trump knew about the payment, it’s not guaranteed the president will experience any legal ramifications as a result of Giuliani’s comments. It’s hard to deny, though, that this is one of the clearest instances yet of Trump being caught lying to the American people. Trump’s team doesn’t seem very concerned the president will suffer any ramifications from this either. When Giuliani was asked by the Wall Street Journal about the apparent contradiction, he simply replied that it was "not [an] issue."

If the past 15 months are any indication, he could be right.