Michael Cohen’s guilty pleas and Paul Manafort’s conviction on multiple counts of financial fraud may have made Tuesday the worst day of the Donald Trump presidency, but, on the bright side, it certainly provided a full-employment moment for former federal prosecutors and others with expertise in campaign finance law and related matters to appear on cable news outlets to explore atrocity of it all. It might also be remembered for inspiring a president of the United States to praise a freshly convicted felon still facing additional criminal charges as a “brave” man who didn’t “break” — demonstrating a kinship with (and possible future pardon for) the guy who evades taxes, lies to banks and wears $15,000 ostrich skin jackets — but not with federal prosecutors who enforce the law.
Still, rather than sort through the legal or political implications of the Trump inner circle’s day of courthouse infamy, let us turn our attention to another stunning achievement the Michael Cohen plea deal highlighted — the evolving explanation of the $150,000 in hush money paid shortly before the 2016 election to Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress with whom Mr. Trump was alleged to have had an affair in 2006. While legal experts can speculate all they like about whether that payment represented a violation of the law from Mr. Trump’s perspective — although how it could be against the law for Mr. Cohen but not for Mr. Trump who allegedly ordered him to pay it is a bit of a puzzler — there’s simply no question that the matter is quintessential Alternative Fact of the Week material. Indeed, it may prove the Alternative Fact of the Presidency.
The shifting explanations by President Trump and his minions are something to behold, particularly over the last eight months. In sum, he either paid it or he didn’t, knew about it or didn’t, reimbursed Mr. Cohen or didn’t and, of course, the affair never took place at all yet there was a nondisclosure agreement (signed or not signed) between the two. To review, here are some of the 2018 highlights, keeping in mind that Mr. Cohen now has admitted under oath that he not only paid off Ms. Clifford but also Playboy model Karen McDougal (through the parent company of the National Enquirer):
- Jan. 12: The Wall Street Journal reveals the $130,000 payoff to Ms. Clifford that Mr. Cohen calls an “outlandish” allegation against his client, Mr. Trump. A White House official denies the affair, calling the Wall Street Journal coverage “old, recycled reports” from the election.
- Feb. 13: Mr. Cohen reveals to the New York Times that he paid Ms. Clifford but used his own money.
- April 5: President Trump on Air Force One tells reporters he knew nothing about the payment.
- April 18: President Trump calls Ms. Clifford’s claims a “total con job” and mocks her claim that she was approached by an unknown assailant in 2011 to stay silent about her affair with Mr. Trump.
- May 2: Rudy Giuliani, now working as a lawyer for the president, says Mr. Trump repaid Mr. Cohen for the hush money, telling Fox News’ Sean Hannity that it wasn’t campaign money, it was the president’s money.
- May 3: Mr. Giuliani reveals to The Washington Post that the repayment took place in 2017 or early 2018 and before the president’s April 5 pronouncement.
- May 4: Mr. Giuliani changes his explanation of the timetable saying he couldn’t speak for the president’s knowledge of events.
- July 24: Lanny Davis, Mr. Cohen’s attorney, releases an audio recording of Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump discussing the payoff to Ms. McDougal two months prior the 2016 election.
- Aug. 22: President Trump appears on Fox News to say the 2016 payments never came from the campaign but “came from me.”
In sum, here’s what to look for in order to determine if President Trump, his lawyers or his spokespersons are lying about the hush money: Are their lips moving? This is a gang that appears physically unable to come clean on Mr. Trump’s behavior and financial dealings. And while Mr. Cohen’s track record for telling the truth is not exactly fabulous, he’s a far more credible source in his moment of repentance. And he’s got that tape. The only fig leaf left for Team Trump? Ironically, it’s the territory of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky apologists: He was just lying to save his family from embarrassment.
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