WASHINGTON – He may have had a strategy, but Rudy Giuliani hatched it almost entirely in secret.
The White House counsel had no idea. Neither did the White House chief of staff, nor the White House press secretary, nor the new White House lawyer overseeing its handling of the Russia investigation.
They watched, agog, as Giuliani, the president’s recently installed personal attorney, freestyled on live television Wednesday night about the president’s legal troubles and unveiled an explosive new fact: That Trump reimbursed his longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, for the $130,000 paid to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels to ensure her silence about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump.
Giuliani’s attempt to defuse a ticking time bomb exposed Trump’s failure to divulge the full story about the Daniels hush money and highlighted contradictory public statements from him and White House spokesmen. One month ago, Trump told reporters that he did not know about the payment to Daniels or where Cohen got the money to make it.
Aides and advisers to the president — who were scrambling Thursday morning to manage the fallout of Giuliani’s interview with Sean Hannity — expressed a mixture of exasperation and horror.
One White House official, who like most others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, said of the president, “His story is obviously not consistent anymore.”
In a trio of tweets Thursday morning, Trump attempted to do some damage control, writing in a notably restrained style that Cohen had received a monthly retainer that did not come from the campaign and insisted that no campaign finance laws had been violated.
“Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA. These agreements are … very common among celebrities and people of wealth,” the president tweeted.
Aides speculated that the tweets may have been drafted by the president’s legal team, noting that they did not seem to be written in Trump’s singular Twitter voice.
The episode was just the latest convulsion for a White House that perpetually navigates turbulence, careening from one crisis to another, most of them of the president’s own making. It has become standard operating procedure for Trump and his aides to deceive the public with false statements and shifting accounts.
In this case, Giuliani said he was trying to solve one problem for Trump — by establishing that the payment came from personal funds and was “funneled” through a law firm, arguing it therefore did not violate campaign finance laws.
Giuliani said in an interview with the Washington Post that he discussed the issue with Trump a few days ago and that they agreed that he would reveal details about the reimbursement.
“He was well aware that at some point when I saw the opportunity, I was going to get this over with,” Giuliani said.
Asked whether he might be fired for what he told Hannity, Giuliani replied, “No, no, no! I’m not going to get fired.” Laughing, he added: “But if I do, I do. It wouldn’t be the first time it ever happened. But I don’t think so, no.”
The Cohen payment disclosure was not the only problematic comment from Giuliani in his wide-ranging interview with Hannity. He offered a reason for Trump firing former FBI Director James Comey — because he would not publicly state that Trump was not under FBI investigation — that differed from the one provided by the administration at the time of Comey’s firing last May.
In addition, Giuliani said scrutiny from Special Counsel Robert Mueller toward Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, was inappropriate because she is “a fine lady.” But Giuliani said it would be acceptable for Mueller to scrutinize her husband, Jared Kushner, because Kushner was “disposable,” as he jokingly put it. Both Ivanka Trump and Kushner are senior White House advisers.