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How Trump's Statements On The Payments Michael Cohen Arranged Have Changed Over Time


President Trump, his spokespeople and his attorneys have changed their story repeatedly about what the president knew about hush money to women and when he knew about it. Trump's story changed again this week after his one-time lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to criminal campaign finance violations associated with those payments. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: On April 5, President Trump leaned into the press cabin on Air Force One and started answering questions. A reporter named Catherine Lucey from the AP asked, Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels? Daniels is the adult film actress who claimed to have sex with Trump in 2006. The audio quality is poor, but Trump's answer was short and unambiguous.


CATHERINE LUCEY: Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?


KEITH: No, he said. Then why did Michael Cohen make those payments? Trump said, you'd have to ask Michael Cohen. Asked where Cohen got the money to make the payments, Trump said he didn't know. But a month later, another of Trump's lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, was trying to explain why the payment wasn't illegal when he seemed to reveal that what Trump had said on Air Force One wasn't the truth. It happened in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News.


RUDY GIULIANI: That money was not campaign money. Sorry, I'm giving you a fact now that you don't know. It's not campaign money, no campaign finance violation. So...

SEAN HANNITY: They funneled it through the law firm.

GIULIANI: Funneled it through the law firm, and the president repaid it.

HANNITY: Oh, I didn't know he did.


KEITH: The next day, Trump followed up with a series of tweets explaining that Cohen made the payment from money he received as part of a monthly retainer and that the payment to Stormy Daniels locked her into a nondisclosure agreement, quote, "to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair." This was Trump contradicting his earlier statement and admitting he did know about the payment to Daniels, although at that point the timing was still murky as to when Trump learned about it.

Earlier this week, Michael Cohen testified under oath that Trump had directed him to make that payment. Prosecutors described supporting evidence including text messages, audio recordings and financial records. As for the financial arrangement Trump and Giuliani described, that may not be accurate either. Speaking outside the courthouse earlier this week, Robert Khuzami, the deputy U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Cohen submitted invoices to Trump's company last year.


ROBERT KHUZAMI: They indicated that the reimbursement was for services rendered for the year 2017 when in fact those invoices were a sham. He provided no legal services for the year 2017. And it was simply a means to obtain reimbursement for the unlawful campaign contribution.

KEITH: That brings us to today.


AINSLEY EARHARDT: Did you know about the payments?

TRUMP: Later on I knew. Later on.

KEITH: This was Trump in an interview with Ainsley Earhardt on "Fox & Friends" pushing back on the idea that he knew about Cohen's payment when it was made.


TRUMP: What he did - and they weren't taken out of campaign finance. That's a big thing. That's a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn't come out of the campaign. They came from me.

KEITH: Trump's insistence that the hush money didn't come from campaign funds is puzzling to Paul S. Ryan, who specializes in campaign finance law at Common Cause and has filed a complaint against Trump and his campaign for the payment made to Stormy Daniels. Puzzling because if, as Cohen testified in court, the payments were made with the principal purpose of influencing the election, then the law requires that campaign funds be used.

PAUL S RYAN: It is precisely because Donald Trump and his campaign failed to use campaign funds to make these payments, which were for the purpose of influencing the election, that Donald Trump and his campaign have seemingly violated campaign finance law.

KEITH: Now, Ryan also notes there is a vast difference between seemingly violating the law and prosecutors choosing to or being able to prove it in a court of law. Ryan says there was another option, too. Trump could have made the payments himself directly and disclosed them in campaign filings with vague language that hid the true purpose.

RYAN: One of the ironies in all of this is that this could have - probably all could have been done legally by Donald Trump. But it wasn't.

KEITH: Ryan says if he were Trump's attorney, he'd tell him to come up with yet another explanation of the payments, one that insists the payments were about protecting his family, not his campaign for president, and downplaying any understanding of campaign finance law. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONCAKE'S "RAIN IN THE ASHTRAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.