The White House on Thursday struggled to contain the fallout from a string of damaging revelations about the criminal investigations plaguing Donald Trump’s presidency.
Washington awoke in a state of shock after Trump’s new attorney, Rudy Giuliani, disclosed that the president reimbursed his longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, for a $130,000 payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter.
The statement was designed to reduce Trump’s legal exposure to possible campaign finance charges. But it also contradicted the president’s previous claim he had no knowledge of the payment, renewing questions about the White House’s commitment to honesty.
The developments took many in the West Wing by surprise.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she first learned that Trump reimbursed Cohen at the same time the public did: When Giuliani told Fox News’s Sean Hannity in a freewheeling interview on live television.
“The first awareness I had was during the interview last night,” she said at her daily press briefing.
Asked about the payment in March, Sanders said that “there was no knowledge of any payments from the president.”
Sanders faced a barrage of questions from reporters who asked about the stream of false or misleading information coming from the White House on everything from legal investigations to policy and personnel decisions.
“We give the very best information that we have at the time,” she said. “I do that every single day and will continue to do that every day I’m in this position.”
Trump himself sought to quell the furor over the Giuliani interview early Thursday morning, arguing in a series of tweets that the reimbursement cleared him of any campaign finance violation.
“Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction,” he wrote.
Even as he contradicted his previous denials, Trump said such payments are “very common among celebrities and people of wealth” and was intended to “stop the false and extortionist accusations made by [Daniels] about an affair.”
When asked by a reporter in early April if he knew about the payment. Trump flatly replied “no.”
Sanders sought to explain the discrepancy by saying that there “was information the president didn’t know at the time, but eventually learned.”
She referred further questions to Giuliani.
The explosive chain of events deepened the sense of chaos surrounding the White House, which has seldom seen a week go by without a major controversy or crisis.
Trump has worked to break free of the guardrails put in place by White House chief of staff John Kelly, yearning for the more unconstrained environment of his businesses and campaign. But that has led to an increasing number of unforced errors made by the president and those around him.
Giuliani, 73, was brought on to Trump’s legal team last month to help bring a swift end to the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. Instead, his public statements caused more problems for the White House on Thursday.
The former New York City mayor appeared to undercut his own argument that the reimbursement was not campaign-related by saying that Trump’s electoral chances may have played a factor in paying Daniels to keep quiet about the 10-year-old incident.
“Imagine if that came out of Oct. 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton?” Giuliani said during a Thursday morning appearance on “Fox & Friends,” one of Trump’s favorite shows. “Cohen made it go away. He did his job.”
The payment is the subject of a wide-ranging criminal investigation into the business activities of Cohen, who has served as a lawyer and fixer for Trump for more than a decade.
Hours later, NBC News appeared to deliver an even greater blow for Trump’s team when it reported Cohen was wiretapped by federal investigators conducting the criminal probe, and that a call between the lawyer and the White House was picked up.
But the network later corrected the report to say investigators had logged the calls, but did not record them.
In an interview with The Hill, Giuliani argued that a wiretap on Cohen would represent a flagrant abuse of attorney-client privilege.
When he tells Trump of the report, Giuliani said, “He is going to say to me, ‘Isn’t there an attorney-client privilege?’ And I am going to tell him, ‘No, the Department of Justice seems to want to trample all over the Constitution of the United States.’ ”
But in a separate interview, the former mayor said a wiretap may not have occurred at all — an assessment that turned out to be correct.
“Us lawyers have talked about it, we don’t believe it’s true,” Giuliani told the Daily Beast.
Giuliani, however, incorrectly reasoned that the wiretap did not occur because doing it to a lawyer “would be totally illegal.”
The disarray has overshadowed the administration’s policy goals, such as the upcoming North Korea summit, the Iran nuclear deal and a confirmation battle over Trump’s nominee for CIA director.
Giuliani even caused more headaches for the administration there, claiming on “Fox & Friends” that three Americans held in North Korean prisons would be released today. The White House was forced to walk back his comments.
Joseph Yun, the State Department’s former point man on North Korea under Trump, said Giuliani and others should not discuss the release until it is completed.
“Any kind of speculation sends the wrong signal and could jeopardize them,” he said on CNN.
Trump spent most of Thursday in private, making his only public appearance at a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden.