- Associated Press - Friday, February 15, 2019

WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal ethics officials believe President Donald Trump’s lawyers provided false information about the $130,000 payment to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels after she alleged she had sex with Trump, the chairman of the House oversight committee said Friday.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said internal documents from the Office of Government Ethics described that Trump’s personal lawyer, Sheri Dillon, and former White House attorney Stefan Passantino provided false information and “evolving stories” about the payment.

In a letter to White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Cummings requested the White House turn over documents as part of the committee’s investigation into whether Trump failed to properly report the payments as campaign expenditures. Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, has pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations connected to the payments. He said Trump personally directed him to make them.

The Trump Organization paid Cohen $420,000 in monthly installments of $35,000 throughout 2017, after Cohen sought reimbursement for the hush-money payment to Daniels and other expenses, according to court documents. Prosecutors alleged he used “sham” invoices to try to conceal the true nature of the payments.

Cohen previously said the Trump Organization didn’t reimburse him for the payments, while Trump has said Cohen was reimbursed through a retainer agreement in order to stop “false and extortionist accusations.”

In internal notes obtained by the committee, one ethics official described the changing explanations from Trump’s legal team as “evolving stories,” the chairman said.

At first, Dillon told the ethics officials that Trump didn’t owe Cohen any money and said that she confirmed with Trump that Cohen wasn’t owed any money in 2016 or 2017. The letter says that in one of the notes, the officials summarized the position of Trump’s lawyers: “Michael Cohen did not loan Pres Trump $.”

After Trump tweeted in May 2018 that the hush-money agreement was paid using a monthly retainer agreement, the ethics officials went back to Dillon and were told that all the payments were “in connection with legal services,” and compared them to “routine vendor payments,” according to the letter.

Passantino made the same argument, saying the payments were for legal fees charged on a monthly basis, according to the letter. After ethics officials asked to see the retainer agreement, Dillion denied the request and said it was privileged, Cummings wrote.

Cummings argues that it is even more critical for the White House to produce the requested documents in light of the statements made to the ethics officials. He asked the White House to respond by next week about whether they intend to voluntarily comply with the request.

Neither Dillon nor Passantino immediately responded to emails seeking comment on Friday. The White House had no immediate comment.

The Republicans on the committee, who are in the minority, said in a statement that Cummings‘ letter is “merely retreading an old and tired story intended to embarrass the President.” The statement chastised Cummings for using “cherry-picked confidential deliberations” in order to “smear” Trump.

The House oversight committee is also seeking similar documents from the Trump Organization.

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Balsamo reported from New York.

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