A longtime personal attorney for President Trump said tonight that he paid US$130,000 (NZ$178,000) to an adult-film star who had told people she had an affair with Trump a decade before he won the presidency.
Michael Cohen, who had previously dismissed stories about the payment, said he paid Stormy Daniels — whose real name is Stephanie Clifford — using his own money, rather than involving the Trump Organization or the Trump presidential campaign. His comments came after a watchdog group argued that the payout should be viewed as an unreported campaign expense, which Cohen denied.
"I am Mr Trump's longtime special counsel and I have proudly served in that role for more than a decade," Cohen said in a statement tonight, which was first reported by the New York Times.
"In a private transaction in 2016, I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms Stephanie Clifford. 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."
In his statement, Cohen did not say why he made a payment to Daniels or whether Trump reimbursed him or knew about the payment. He did not immediately respond to follow-up questions about these topics.
Cohen, who has called himself the "fix-it guy" for Trump, had pushed back against the suggestion of a payout to Daniels ever since the Wall Street Journal first reported it last month. In response to that story, Cohen waved away "rumors" that he said "have circulated time and again since 2011," and he also issued a statement bearing Daniels's signature denying that she "received hush money from Donald Trump".
Since that time, Daniels's signature also has appeared on another statement denying an affair with Trump, though in public appearances she has avoided explicitly commenting on that or saying whether she received a settlement.
The watchdog group Common Cause announced last month that it was filing federal complaints alleging that the reported $130,000 payout may have violated campaign finance laws and been an unreported in-kind contribution to Trump's campaign. In a letter, Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance expert with Common Cause, said the settlement should have been considered a campaign expense "because the funds were paid for the purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential general election."
The pair of complaints filed by Common Cause said that regardless of where the $130,000 payment originated — even "if Donald J Trump provided the funds" — the money was aimed at affecting the election and then never reported.
Cohen said Common Cause's claims of campaign finance violations "are factually unsupported and without legal merit, and my counsel has submitted a response to the" Federal Election Commission.
"The payment to Ms Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone," Cohen said, noting that he did not plan to make any further comments on the issue.
He added: "Just because something isn't true doesn't mean that it can't cause you harm or damage. I will always protect Mr Trump."
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The $130,000 payment to Daniels — whose real name is Stephanie Clifford — was first revealed in a Wall Street Journal report on Jan 12. The Journal reported that Cohen negotiated the payment to Daniels not long before the 2016 presidential election, which came as Trump was facing accusations of unwanted sexual contact from more than a dozen women.
After the Journal's story was published, two news organizations — Slate and In Touch — revealed that Daniels had told at least two reporters her accounts of a relationship with Trump.
Daniels has said she met Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in July 2006, at a time when he was a reality television star whose wife, Melania, had recently given birth to their son, Barron. Daniels was working at a booth promoting the adult-film company Wicked Pictures.
In Touch, the celebrity magazine, published a sprawling transcript of an interview Daniels gave to a reporter in 2011, during which Daniels discussed having a sexual encounter with Trump at the tournament and then speaking with him on the phone or seeing him in person for about a year. Jordi Lippe-McGraw, the reporter who conducted the interview by phone, confirmed to The Washington Post that the transcript accurately reflected the interview.
In that transcript, Daniels is quoted as mentioning Trump being riveted by "Shark Week" programming that aired when she saw him, his desire to buy her a condo in Tampa and his comments about putting her on "The Apprentice," his television show.
Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor in chief of the Slate Group, said she told him the same things when they spoke on the phone and through text messages over three months in 2016.
Weisberg, in an account published by Slate, wrote that Daniels had "worked out an agreement for the presidential candidate to pay her a six-figure sum to keep quiet."
But Daniels was afraid Trump would not pay up, Weisberg wrote, so she spoke to Slate multiple times before she stopped responding about a week before the election. A friend of hers said that Daniels had "taken the money from Trump after all," Weisberg wrote.
Daniels has appeared publicly since the payout story broke, but she has remained coy about what exactly happened. When she was asked on "Inside Edition" whether she had a sexual relationship with Trump and was paid not to discuss it, Daniels remained silent.
She also made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel's show after Trump's State of the Union Address last month. Not long before that appearance, a signed statement bearing her name was released, denying any affair with Trump. Gina Rodriguez, a representative for Daniels, confirmed the authenticity of the statement, whcih denied the affair but did not explicitly deny that Daniels had signed a nondisclosure agreement or received a financial settlement.
When Kimmel asked about the statement, Daniels avoided directly answering whether she signed it, saying that the signature did not look like hers. Rodriguez, her representative, emailed The Post after that interview to say Daniels signed the statement in front of her and Daniels's lawyer. Rodriguez and the lawyer did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.