▶ Fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure form re­veals the pres­i­dent re­paid his lawyer for un­spec­i­fied ‘ex­penses’

The National - News - - NEWS - CAMP­BELL MACDIARMID

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is fac­ing new ques­tions over whether he lied about money paid to an adult film ac­tress af­ter a foot­note in a fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure form re­vealed that he re­im­bursed his per­sonal fixer and lawyer by as much as US$250,000 (Dh918,125) for un­spec­i­fied ex­penses.

Crit­ics seized on the de­tails to say the pres­i­dent mis­led fed­eral of­fi­cials by omit­ting the pay­ment from a pre­vi­ous form and of ly­ing to re­porters when he said last month he knew noth­ing about $130,000 paid to Stormy Daniels, who said she had an af­fair with Mr Trump be­fore he be­came pres­i­dent.

The White House said there was no obli­ga­tion to dis­close the pay­ment to Michael Cohen.

But the Of­fice of Gov­ern­ment Ethics dis­agreed. On Wed­nes­day it sent a highly un­usual let­ter to the Depart­ment of Jus­tice say­ing “the pay­ment made by Mr Cohen is re­quired to be re­ported as a li­a­bil­ity”.

It came as Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Ave­natti, said he was speak­ing to two more women who made non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments with Mr Trump’s lawyers, deep­en­ing the sense of cri­sis hang­ing over an ad­min­is­tra­tion af­fected by fi­nan­cial, le­gal and per­sonal scan­dals.

Thurs­day was the one-year an­niver­sary of Robert Mueller’s ap­point­ment as spe­cial coun­sel charged with ex­am­in­ing pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween Rus­sia and Don­ald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Mr Trump marked the date in char­ac­ter­is­tic fash­ion.

“Congratulations Amer­ica, we are now into the sec­ond year of the great­est Witch Hunt in Amer­i­can His­tory … and there is still No Col­lu­sion and No Ob­struc­tion,” he wrote on Twit­ter. “The only Col­lu­sion was that done by Democrats who were un­able to win an Elec­tion de­spite the spend­ing of far more money.”

While the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion pro­ceeds with stately in­evitabil­ity in the form of sub­poe­nas, a grand jury and tense court hear­ings, Mr Trump and his fam­ily have also had to en­dure a more per­sonal scan­dal in the form of Daniels and her non-dis­clo­sure agree­ment.

The ac­tress and her lawyer have emerged as talk-show sta­ples, of­fer­ing not just tit­il­lat­ing de­tails of Mr Trump’s be­hav­iour in bed but a pa­per trail of al­leged fi­nan­cial ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties.

Le­gal ex­perts im­me­di­ately said the pres­i­dent may have bro­ken fed­eral ethics laws if he know­ingly and wil­fully omit­ted de­tails of the pay­ment made to his lawyer from his 2017 fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure.

David Apol, act­ing di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Gov­ern­ment Ethics, wrote to Rod Rosen­stein, the Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral, to pass on the forms.

“I am pro­vid­ing both re­ports to you be­cause you may find the dis­clo­sure relevant to any in­quiry you may be pur­su­ing,” he wrote.

Cit­i­zens for Re­spon­si­bil­ity and Ethics in Wash­ing­ton, a watch­dog group, lodged a crim­i­nal com­plaint say­ing the let­ter was un­prece­dented.

Noah Book­binder, the group’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, said: “We can­not ef­fec­tively judge his mo­ti­va­tions and his in­flu­ences with­out him pro­vid­ing truth­ful fi­nan­cial in­for­ma­tion as re­quired by law.”

Fail­ure to prop­erly dis­close in­for­ma­tion can re­sult in civil penal­ties of up to $50,000 and even lead to a crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion. But as head­lines blared the lat­est de­tails, sea­soned Wash­ing­ton hands won­dered whether it would have much ef­fect on vot­ers.

Stu­art Rothen­berg, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst, said: “Ev­ery day there is some other con­tro­versy, some other ques­tion, some earth-shat­ter­ing news and it doesn’t do much po­lit­i­cally. The lines are drawn.

“The Trump peo­ple – no mat­ter what the news – can ex­plain it and jus­tify it. And the anti-Trump peo­ple get all up­set and think it changes ev­ery­thing.”

Even so, the ques­tions mark the lat­est twist in the con­fu­sion about how Mr Trump and his team dealt with an adult movie star and her claims of a tryst in a Lake Ta­hoe ho­tel in 2006.

Mr Trump’s lawyers have al­ways said he de­nies the al­le­ga­tion.

At first the White House sug­gested Mr Cohen had used his own money to make a pay­ment guar­an­tee­ing Daniels’ si­lence with­out the pres­i­dent’s knowl­edge – dis­tanc­ing the pres­i­den­tial campaign from the mat­ter.

But that left an awk­ward le­gal ques­tion: did Mr Cohen’s money, which he ad­mit­ted pay­ing, con­sti­tute a campaign con­tri­bu­tion? If so, it could have been a breach of elec­toral law.

There was no prob­lem if the money was Mr Trump’s. Can­di­dates are al­lowed to spend as much money as they want.

But that all changed this month.

Rudy Gi­u­liani, the for­mer New York mayor who joined Mr Trump’s le­gal team, said the pres­i­dent had ac­tu­ally paid back Mr Cohen af­ter the campaign was over.

The an­swers may now lie in a tiny foot­note on page 45 of the pres­i­dent’s 92-page dis­clo­sure. Mr Trump said he re­im­bursed Mr Cohen for “ex­penses” rang­ing from $101,001 to $250,000.

For his part, Mr Guil­iani in­sisted the pay­ment did not amount to a li­a­bil­ity but a re­im­burse­ment for ex­penses, he said. “I don’t be­lieve it had to be dis­closed at all,” he told Fox News.

That still raises the ques­tion of whether Mr Trump knew why the money was paid to Mr Cohen.

Mr Gi­u­liani main­tains that the pay­ments came from funds set aside for the lawyer’s oper­at­ing costs and their pur­pose – such as the set­tle­ment with Daniels – would not nec­es­sar­ily have been known to the pres­i­dent.

He also claimed Mr Mueller had ad­mit­ted he could not in­dict a sit­ting pres­i­dent and de­manded an end to the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“It’s been a year. He’s got 1.4 mil­lion doc­u­ments, he’s in­ter­viewed 28 wit­nesses,” he said. “And he has noth­ing, which is why he wants to bring the pres­i­dent into an in­ter­view.”

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion has charged 19 peo­ple – in­clud­ing four Trump campaign ad­vis­ers – and three Rus­sian com­pa­nies.

Those charged in­clude Michael Flynn, who served briefly as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, and Mr Trump’s deputy campaign chair­man, Rick Gates, who have both pleaded guilty and are now co-oper­at­ing with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The cases have not yet re­solved the cen­tral ques­tion of whether the Trump team col­luded with Moscow. But they have re­vealed a slew of pre­vi­ously un­re­vealed links as well as the Krem­lin’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to see Hil­lary Clin­ton lose the elec­tion. And there is no sign of any of the scan­dals eas­ing any time yet.

On Thurs­day morn­ing, Mr Ave­natti said he had been ap­proached by a num­ber of women claim­ing to have had af­fairs with Mr Trump be­fore he en­tered of­fice and had re­ceived pay­ments for their si­lence.

“They are not fully vet­ted but there are at least two that are on solid ground,” he told MSNBC’s Morn­ing Joe pro­gramme.

Bloomberg; AP

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, left, may have bro­ken fed­eral laws over pay­ment made to his lawyer Michael Cohen, top right, about money paid to si­lence ac­tress Stormy Daniels, seen with her lawyer, Michael Ave­natti

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