- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2018

Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani escalated his media blitz Thursday against the president’s twin legal perils, calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to shut down the special counsel’s Russia investigation and justifying hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels as an attempt to protect Mr. Trump’s family instead of his campaign.

President Trump, after numerous statements to the contrary, acknowledged Thursday that he had reimbursed personal attorney Michael Cohen for the payments to the adult-film actress, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. But the president insisted that the October 2016 payoff had nothing to do with his campaign for the White House.

“These agreements are very common among celebrities and people of wealth,” the president tweeted, walking back months of denials from himself, the White House and Mr. Cohen, all of whom had been saying that the payments were made without the knowledge or financial assistance of Mr. Trump or his companies.

Mr. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and federal prosecutor who is now the public face of the Trump legal team, said in a series of interviews that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has far exceeded his original mandate from the Justice Department. But his thinking-out-loud style sometimes provided Trump critics with more ammunition about the president’s potential legal predicaments.

“The basis of the case is dead,” Mr. Giuliani said on “Fox & Friends,” asserting that the effort to find Trump campaign collusion with Moscow had turned up no evidence. “Sessions should step in and close it.”

Mr. Sessions has recused himself, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is overseeing the investigation. Mr. Rosenstein said this week that the Justice Department “is not going to be extorted” into closing the inquiry.

SEE ALSO: Donald Trump slams NBC for corrected Michael Cohen report

Mr. Giuliani also shifted the president’s explanation for firing FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017. He said the president dismissed Mr. Comey because he would not state that Mr. Trump wasn’t a target of the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

“He fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation,” Mr. Giuliani said. “He’s entitled to that. Hillary Clinton got that. Actually, he couldn’t get that.”

In another sign that Mr. Mueller isn’t going away anytime soon, the special counsel filed a document Thursday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, requesting “70 Blank Subpoenas (35 sets)” from the court related to bank fraud charges filed against Paul Manafort, a former Trump presidential campaign manager.

The document requested prosecution witnesses to appear at 10 a.m. on July 10.

Even as Mr. Giuliani was advancing the president’s complaint that he is the victim of a “witch hunt,” another cause for grievance surfaced, only to sink back.

NBC News reported that FBI agents had wiretapped phone calls and text messages of Mr. Cohen in the weeks before raiding his home and office. The FBI intercepted at least one call between the White House and a phone line associated with Mr. Cohen, NBC reported, citing an anonymous source familiar with the investigation.

SEE ALSO: Anthony Scaramucci: Rudy Giuliani’s comments on Stormy Daniels payment ‘strategic’

The report prompted Mr. Giuliani to call on Mr. Sessions to investigate the Mueller team for possible violation of attorney-client privilege.

“I am waiting for the attorney general to step in, in his role as defender of justice, and put these people under investigation,” Mr. Giuliani told The Hill.

The president “is going to say to me, ‘Isn’t there an attorney-client privilege?’” Mr. Giuliani said. “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 early Thursday evening, reporter Tom Winter walked back that key detail in an appearance on MSNBC. “This is not a wiretap; instead, it is a pen-register,” he said.

“It’s a log of phone calls. They were able to see who he called … but they were not able to listen in in real time or record those calls,” he said.

Mr. Cohen paid $130,000 to Ms. Clifford less than two weeks before the presidential election as part of a nondisclosure deal regarding a sexual affair Ms. Clifford said she had with Mr. Trump in 2006.

Mr. Trump and his attorneys are promoting a new legal argument: that the hush money paid to the adult-film actress came from the president’s personal funds, not campaign accounts, a strategy that could close off a potential prosecution for violating campaign finance laws. Election law analysts are divided on whether the argument shields the president from further legal jeopardy.

Ms. Clifford’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, said the revelation of presidential reimbursement helps her legal claims against Mr. Trump.

“I think our case just got exponentially better in the last 24 hours,” he said.

Campaign Legal Center President Trevor Potter said the Federal Election Commission should open an investigation into the payments. He said the latest explanations could spell more trouble for Mr. Cohen.

“Given the new accounts by Trump and Giuliani, it now appears Cohen violated campaign finance law when he fronted the $130,000 payment with funds financed by his home mortgage because that constitutes a campaign contribution by him well in excess of the $2,700 limit,” Mr. Potter said. “The Trump campaign (through its agent, the candidate) violated the law by accepting an excessive contribution and failing to report it. If this is the case, then the campaign further violated the law by failing to report Trump’s subsequent repayments to Cohen.”

But William Canfield, former general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said a candidate “is allowed to expend unlimited amounts of personal money to further a campaign purpose.”

He told the National Journal that if the Trump campaign is accused of filing a false or inaccurate report to the Federal Election Commission, then the campaign treasurer could simply file an amended report.

The president commented for the first time Thursday on Twitter about reimbursing Mr. Cohen for the payments to Ms. Clifford. He said Mr. Cohen “received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign.” He also said the lawyer used the money to set up a nondisclosure agreement with Ms. Clifford.

“The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair,” the president said. “Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no [role] in this transaction.”

Mr. Giuliani, as he first did Wednesday night in an interview with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, doubled down on the explanation that Mr. Trump’s motivations for the payments were personal, not political, and that the president didn’t know the full details of Ms. Clifford’s accusations until about 10 days earlier.

“This was for personal reasons,” Mr. Giuliani said of Mr. Trump’s payments. “The president had been hurt personally, not politically … and the first lady, by some of the false allegations. I think he was trying to help his family.”

But in almost the same breath, Mr. Giuliani suggested there were obvious political motivations for paying off the porn star.

“Imagine if that came out on Oct. 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton,” Mr. Giuliani said on Fox. “Cohen made it go away. He did his job.”

The new offensive by Mr. Giuliani was devised with the president and Jay Sekulow, another outside lawyer working on the special counsel case.

The strategy caught many senior White House staffers off guard. Even White House counsel Don McGahn reportedly didn’t know that Mr. Giuliani planned to reveal the presidential reimbursements to Mr. Cohen during the Hannity interview.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who told reporters in March that the president didn’t know about payments to Ms. Daniels, also was in the dark.

“The first awareness I had was during the interview [Wednesday] night,” she said at the daily press briefing.

Asked whether Mr. Giuliani’s freewheeling interviews had harmed the president, Mrs. Sanders replied, “I don’t believe so.”

Mr. Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on April 5 that he didn’t know about Mr. Cohen’s payments to Ms. Daniels, and Mr. Cohen stated in February that he paid Ms. Daniels with his own money after taking out a home equity loan.

Mr. Giuliani said the president “didn’t know about the specifics” of the payments.

“But he did know about the general arrangement, that Michael would take care of things like this, like I take care of things like this for my clients,” he said. “I don’t burden them with every single thing that comes along. These are busy people.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump ally, said “of course” Mr. Giuliani is engaged in a legal strategy.

“You know, there’s an old saying in the law, ‘Hang a lantern on your problems,’” Mr. Christie said on ABC. “So he comes in, he knows that there’s been different stories being told about this payment and how it was made. So the fact is that Rudy has to go out there now and clean it up. That’s what lawyers get hired to do.”

S.A. Miller and Sally Persons contributed to this report.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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