Has President Trump, his lawyer Michael Cohen or anyone at the White House lied about the hush money paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels just before the 2016 presidential election?
Emails, text messages, recordings of phone calls and other evidence gathered by the FBI for a criminal investigation of Cohen might one day clarify precisely what was true and what was false.
For now, the public is left to sort through the contradictory statements of the president and his allies on the $130,000 payoff to Daniels, who says she had sex with Trump 12 years ago at a Lake Tahoe golf resort.
Both Trump and Cohen, who deny wrongdoing, face a thicket of legal trouble in the growing scandal. The falsehoods upon falsehoods, legal experts say, reflect an apparent cover-up that could well yield fraud, money-laundering or other criminal charges.
Nov. 4, 2016
Four days before the election, the Wall Street Journal reports that Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was in talks with ABC to tell her story about Trump.
Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks — who would later admit to Congress that she sometimes told “white lies” for Trump — says it is “absolutely, unequivocally” untrue that he had a relationship with Daniels.
It’s not yet publicly known that Cohen had just set up a shell corporation in Delaware to buy Daniels’ silence.
Jan. 12, 2018
The Journal breaks the story of Cohen paying off Daniels. Cohen denies that Trump had a sexual encounter with Daniels, but does not comment on the $130,000 payment.
Feb. 13, 2018
“I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms. Stephanie Clifford,” Cohen tells the New York Times.
“Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly. The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.”
Notably absent from Cohen’s statement is whether Trump personally reimbursed him.
March 7, 2018
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders fields questions on the payoff to Daniels after Cohen secretly wins a temporary restraining order from an arbitrator to bar the porn star from breaking her nondisclosure agreement.
Asked whether Trump knew about the payment at the time it was made, Sanders responds, “Not that I’m aware of.”
“I’ve had conversations with the president about this,” Sanders says.
She adds: “There was no knowledge of any payments from the president, and he’s denied all of these allegations.”
In California, a Trump Organization lawyer seeks an arbitration order requiring Daniels to pay the president as much as $20 million in damages for breaching the nondisclosure agreement.
March 9, 2018
Cohen tells ABC News that he took the $130,000 from his home equity line of credit and transferred it to the shell company that he used to pay Daniels.
“It was my money,” he says.
March 19, 2018
In a Vanity Fair article, Cohen says Trump did not know that he paid off Daniels. For his own reasons, Cohen says, he made the payment with no expectation of getting reimbursed.
Cohen says he had no concern that he was jeopardizing his state bar standing by failing to inform a client of a major transaction affecting him.
April 5, 2018
On Air Force One, Trump is asked directly whether he knew about the payment to Daniels.
“No,” he responds, saying reporters need to check with Cohen on why he’d pay off a woman making false allegations.
“Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?” a reporter asks.
“No,” Trump answers. “I don’t know.”
May 2, 2018
Rudolph W. Giuliani, now Trump’s lawyer, changes the story, saying the president “funneled” the hush-money reimbursement through Cohen’s law firm.
“The president repaid it,” Giuliani tells Fox News.
Rather than a one-time reimbursement of $130,000, Giuliani says, it was split into $35,000 retainer payments to Cohen “with a little profit and a little margin for paying taxes.” At the time, Giuliani says, Cohen was “doing no work for the president.”
Trump “didn’t know about the specifics of it, as far as I know, but he did know about the general arrangement — that Michael would take care of things like this, like I take care of things like this for my clients,” Giuliani says. “I don’t burden them with every single thing that comes along. These are busy people.”
May 3, 2018
Contradicting his earlier denial that he knew about the hush money, Trump backs up Giuliani’s statements in a series of Twitter posts.
The tweets seem designed to shoot down the argument that the payoff was intended to influence the election by keeping voters from finding out about Trump’s alleged extramarital relationship with Daniels. If the point was to sway the election, Trump’s campaign was required by law to report the payment to the Federal Election Commission in its filings on donations and spending.
A “knowing and willful” evasion of the law would be a felony.
May 4, 2018
Trump and Giuliani muddle the story further. Giuliani “is a great guy but he just started a day ago” and is “learning the subject matter,” Trump says. “He’ll get his facts straight.” Giuliani actually went to work as the president’s lawyer two weeks ago.
Trump dodges the question of when he learned that the Cohen “retainer” payments were in part reimbursements for the payoff to Daniels, saying, “You’re going to find out, because we’re going to give a full list.”
Giuliani releases a statement “to clarify the views I expressed over the past few days.” The payment to Daniels, he says, “was made to resolve a personal and false allegation in order to protect the president’s family. It would have been done in any event, whether he was a candidate or not.
“My references to timing were not describing my understanding of the president’s knowledge, but instead, my understanding of these matters.”
May 4, 12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with comments made by President Trump and Rudolph W. Giuliani on Friday.