Watchdog Questions Whether Trump's Payment Is A Campaign Finance Violation
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders says until yesterday, she did not know that President Trump had reimbursed his lawyer for a payment made to the adult film star days before the 2016 election. The White House briefing room grew tense today as reporters asked about what Sanders knew when and, more importantly, what Trump knew when about the $130,000 transfer. It was made to Stephanie Clifford - her stage name is Stormy Daniels - to keep her allegations of an affair with Trump quiet.
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: As Mayor Giuliani stated - and I'll refer you back to his comments - this was information that the president didn't know at the time but eventually learned.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
All right, so let's refer back to the comments of Rudy Giuliani, who recently joined Trump's legal team. The thing to know here is there have been a lot of questions about whether another Trump lawyer, Michael Cohen, or whether Trump himself may have violated campaign finance laws with that hush money. Here is what Giuliani said on Fox News last night.
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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 through the law firm, and the president repaid it.
HANNITY: Oh, I didn't know. He did.
HANNITY: There's no campaign finance law.
CORNISH: Now, this contradicts what President Trump said a month ago on Air Force One. He not only said he didn't know about the payment. He also said he didn't know where the $130,000 had come from.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, I don't know.
CORNISH: The White House maintains today that the president wasn't lying. And for his part, Giuliani said Trump only learned about the reimbursement in the last 10 to 14 days.
KELLY: Well, this question of whether this is a campaign finance violation is a subject of great interest to a government watchdog group called Common Cause. Paul Ryan is vice president of policy and litigation for Common Cause, and he is with us now. Paul Ryan - the other Paul Ryan (laughter) - here in Washington, welcome to the studio.
PAUL RYAN: Thank you so much for having me.
KELLY: Your group back in January filed complaints with the Department of Justice and with the Federal Election Commission. Tell me what exactly you charge in these complaints.
RYAN: Two violations - number one, that the Trump campaign committee failed to disclose to the Federal Election Commission and to the public the payment to Stormy Daniels, which - because it was for the purpose of influencing the election, it was an expenditure under campaign finance law. And then violation number two or possible violation number two is dependent on the source of the funds. If this money came from Michael Cohen, for example - we now know it did, at least initially - that's an illegally large in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign - so undisclosed, unreported campaign finance activity and too much money from Michael Cohen to the Team Trump.
KELLY: You're of course right that if this is - if this was a campaign contribution, it would be required to be reported to the FEC. The White House says it wasn't; it was nothing like that. That's what Trump's attorneys say. Why don't you buy that?
RYAN: Well, the facts all strongly suggest this was about the election. Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels - she herself alleged in pleadings and legal documents filed in her court case in California that this was all about the election. And Rudy Giuliani this morning on live TV said, hey, imagine if this story came out in October - in middle of October when Donald Trump was heading into his debate with Hillary Clinton. Michael Cohen fixed it. He took care of that problem.
KELLY: You're suggesting the timing coming when it did just a few weeks before the election to you is key for making the case that this was completely all about the campaign.
RYAN: It's one of the keys. Another important key is motive. We know that Stephanie Clifford was talking to multiple major national media outlets about going public with her story. And this was right on the heels of the "Access Hollywood" tape going public. So the Trump campaign at that moment was reeling from a sexual misconduct scandal. So we have motive, and we have timing.
KELLY: President Trump weighed in this morning via tweet, not surprisingly. He is carrying through this line, saying this was a payment made through his private attorney, a lawyer who was - had nothing to do with his presidential campaign - said it was a private agreement between two parties. The question here being, how can you ever prove one way or the other what the intent of this payment was?
RYAN: You put all the facts together. And we - you know, the Department of Justice presumably today knows a lot more than I do about all the facts. They've executed warrants on Michael Cohen's office and home and hotel where he was temporarily living. I mean, you put all the facts together. You interview or you depose under oath Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, Donald Trump hopefully. And, you know, that's how you put the facts together. That's how the DOJ would build its case. And there is a strong case to build here.
KELLY: One other aspect I want to bounce off you - after that Giuliani interview last night, Trump and his team have emphasized the fact that Michael Cohen, the other attorney involved in this, was on retainer at the time. Why does that matter? Do you think that is a key point?
RYAN: It certainly could affect when Donald Trump learned about the nature of this payment to Stormy Daniels. I think there's a really good chance Donald Trump knew about this at the time the payment was made. But even if he did not...
KELLY: As Sarah Sanders - as we just heard White House spokeswoman saying, he didn't know what this was about until days ago.
RYAN: Right. And Stormy Daniels has said in legal filings that Donald Trump knew all about this. Her understanding was that the purpose was to keep her quiet to help Donald Trump win the election and that Donald Trump is the one who directed Michael Cohen to initiate contact with her. But, you know, so I think that we have a lot of facts here, and that's where things stand.
KELLY: Take a step back. Say this is a campaign finance violation. Say it is. What would the consequences be? Would the typical penalty for that be a fine?
RYAN: If we are talking only a civil enforcement action by the Federal Election Commission, then we're talking about a fine. But as soon as this gets into the realm of the Department of Justice and criminal enforcement actions, criminal prosecution, the fines go up double the amount of the violation, and we're talking about possible imprisonment of up to five years.
KELLY: So in the grand scheme of things to be outraged about, you're talking - the criminal aspects of this, if proven - that is what would move this out of just potential sex scandal territory, potential embarrassment for the president into something far more serious.
RYAN: Right. And the key to criminal - a criminal violation having occurred is Donald Trump's knowledge. There is only a criminal violation if the action was taken knowingly and willfully by President Trump. Here, the fact that he at some point learned that Michael Cohen had paid off Stormy Daniels - that to me amounts to strong evidence of knowledge by President Trump. Maybe it didn't happen until after the election, but that's knowledge. That's a possible crime.
KELLY: And we'll leave it there. Paul Ryan, thank you.
RYAN: Thank you for having me.
KELLY: Paul Ryan - vice president of policy and litigation with Common Cause. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.