Trump lists Cohen payment on federal form, raising legal concerns about Stormy Daniels payoff
President Trump should have disclosed Michael Cohen's hush payment to porn star Stormy Daniels as a financial liability last year, the government's top ethics watchdog concluded Wednesday, potentially opening the president up to legal complications.
David Apol, the acting director of the Government Ethics Office, said in a letter appended to Trump's 2018 financial disclosure form that a payment Cohen made to "a third party" on behalf of the president during the 2016 election meets the requirements for a reportable "loan."
BREAKING: President Trump's reimbursement of $100-$250k to Michael Cohen is included in financial disclosure report released by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. pic.twitter.com/lj2IZA0QvE— MSNBC (@MSNBC) May 16, 2018
The letter does not explicitly state what Cohen's payment was for, but the president's legal team and Cohen himself have previously acknowledged he paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about claims she had sex with Trump in 2006. Cohen has also admitted the hush payment was issued 11 days before Trump's election.
While Apol didn't say so in his letter, this means Trump could have committed a crime by not disclosing the liability in his financial disclosure report last year. Apol referred his findings to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for any "inquiry" the Justice Department may pursue into the matter.
NEW: Ethics office sending letter to Rod Rosenstein stating that Michael Cohen's payment on behalf of Trump was a debt and may be relevant to 'any inquiry' Rosenstein may be pursuing. pic.twitter.com/e22Jfuozic— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) May 16, 2018
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment.
Trump acknowledged in the disclosure form for the first time that he fully reimbursed Cohen last year for "expenses" ranging between $100,001 and $250,000.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani insisted Trump disclosed the repayments to Cohen in this year's report out of "an abundance of caution."
Donald Trump's financial disclosure report has been released and discloses the debt to Cohen that was not reported in last year's report. pic.twitter.com/SCS5KVg9bO— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) May 16, 2018
"It's not a loan, but he reported it anyway," Giuliani, the latest addition to Trump's legal team, told the New York Daily News, directly contradicting Apol's findings. "It was in fact an expense, like paying a doctor. If you owe a doctor $2,000 and you pay him back that's not a liability."
Giuliani refused to answer why Trump didn't list Cohen's payment to Daniels in last year's form. Asked if Trump is worried, Giuliani delivered a one-word rebuke: "Nope."
Cohen, Trump's longtime attorney and personal fixer, had his Manhattan office, home and hotel room raided by FBI agents last month as part of a criminal investigation launched by federal prosecutors in New York. The agents seized a cache of records, including communications between Cohen and his clients, according to reports.
Whether Trump committed a crime by not disclosing the Cohen payments last year is a matter of whether or not he purposely omitted them, according to experts.
"Trump may be wondering today whether the information DOJ seized from Cohen's office included any emails or other documents showing he knew of the debt when he filed last year's report," former Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub tweeted.
One potential problem for @realDonaldTrump - in letter to DepA-G Rosenstein, @OfficeGovEthics says the payment by Cohen should have been included as a 'reportable liability' - which means POTUS should have disclosed it last year. This may buttress @CREWcrew lawsuit with DOJ— John Roberts (@johnrobertsFox) May 16, 2018
Shaub, who served as the ethics czar during President Barack Obama's second term, noted that Apol's letter to Rosenstein is tantamount to a "criminal referral."
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a legal watchdog group that first flagged Trump's financial disclosure omission in a complaint filed in March, welcomed Apol's findings and called on the Justice Department to launch an investigation.
"We now have to wonder how many other liabilities for similar payments (Trump) has that he still has not disclosed because he has not been publicly called out on them," Noah Bookbinder, CREW's executive director, said in a statement. "If the Department is not already investigating the president's failure to disclose the loan last year, it should open an investigation immediately."