As of last week, the American public had been told that President Donald Trump’s doctor had certified he would be “the healthiest individual ever elected.” That the president was happy with his legal team and would not hire a new lawyer. That he did not know about the $130,000 payment to a former pornographic film actress who claimed to have had an affair with him.
As of this week, it turns out that the statement about his health was not actually from the doctor but had been dictated by Trump himself. That the president has split with the leaders of his legal team and hired the same new lawyer he had denied recruiting. And that Trump himself financed the $130,000 payment intended to buy the silence of the actress known as Stormy Daniels.
Even in the current political environment that some derisively call the post-truth world, the past few days have offered a head-spinning series of revelations that conflicted with the version of events Trump and his associates had previously provided. Whether called lies or misstatements, Trump’s history of falsehoods has been extensively documented, but the string of factual distortions that came to light this week could come back to haunt him.
The shifting statements also illustrated starkly why some of the president’s lawyers have urged him not to submit to an interview by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether Trump’s campaign cooperated with Russia during the 2016 presidential election and whether the president obstructed justice to thwart that investigation. Those lawyers have said Mueller is setting a perjury trap for Trump. What they do not say publicly is that they worry the president would be unable to avoid contradicting himself.
To be sure, not every misleading statement is equally meaningful. In March, the New York Times reported that Trump was in discussions to hire Emmet Flood, a veteran Washington lawyer.
Trump reacted angrily. “The Failing New York Times purposely wrote a false story stating that I am unhappy with my legal team on the Russia case and am going to add another lawyer to help out,” he wrote on Twitter. “Wrong. I am VERY happy with my lawyers, John Dowd, Ty Cobb and Jay Sekulow.” Dowd resigned 11 days later. Cobb announced his resignation this week. He will be replaced by Flood.
Under the unforgiving glare of federal prosecutors, however, misrepresentations carry far greater jeopardy. In nearly a year on the case, Mueller has shown that he is more than willing to charge associates of Trump with lying to investigators; independent lawyers have said it would be reckless for the president’s lawyers to allow him to be interviewed. Even supporters who maintain that Trump is essentially a truth teller acknowledge that he can be loose with details.
For Trump, it is about creating a narrative that suits his desired image, and dictating the terms of his own life. But he now risks losing his grip on the story line he has long sought to control, in part because of his own treatment of associates like his doctor and the lawyer who paid the porn star.
When Dr. Harold Bornstein released a letter in December 2015 saying that Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” few believed it was authentic. It contained the exact language about “strength and stamina” that the candidate often used to describe himself.
Bornstein confirmed this week that Trump had dictated the letter, a disclosure that stemmed from his own split with the president. After he told the Times last year that Trump used hair-loss medicine, the president was angry and embarrassed, according to aides. Trump, who often calculates the risks of angering people who know intimate details about him, did not express his frustration publicly. But he sent aides to seize his medical records from Bornstein, who felt burned enough by the incident to break his silence.
Likewise, Trump has to worry about whether his brusque treatment of his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, might come back to hurt him. Cohen, facing an investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, originally said he made the $130,000 payment to Daniels from a home equity line of credit and that he was not reimbursed by the Trump Organization or campaign.
Trump, asked by reporters on Air Force One last month whether he knew about the payment to Clifford, said “no.”
But in an interview on Fox News on Wednesday night, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor now serving as a lawyer for the president, said Trump had reimbursed Cohen for the money.
The past few days have shown that Trump’s narrative is now at least in part in the hands of others — his lawyers, his friends, his doctor, even his investigators. And for a man who prefers to craft his own story line, that is not a comfortable situation.