President Donald Trump disclosed the reimbursement of at least $100,000 to Michael Cohen, his personal attorney, in a financial disclosure filing covering 2017 with the federal Office of Government Ethics on Tuesday. According to a note at the bottom of one of the 92 pages filed with ethics officials, Cohen sought reimbursement for expenses in 2016, which Trump “fully reimbursed” Cohen for last year.
The note identified the reimbursement as being more than $100,001 and less than $250,000, and claimed that the repayment was not required to be disclosed as a reportable liability.
Yet in a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Acting Director of OGE David Apol flagged the note because, he said, he had determined the reimbursement did, in fact, require reporting.
“OGE has concluded that, based on the information provided … the payment made by Mr. Cohen is required to be reported as a liability,” Apol stated, adding that the note met legal disclosure requirements.
The reporting raised more questions than it answered. The amount reimbursed to Cohen appears to have covered the $130,000 he paid to adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels, shortly before the 2016 election, as part of an agreement to keep her from going public about a sexual encounter she claims to have had with Trump a decade earlier.
Cohen’s payment, and the nondisclosure agreement that went along with it, has created a cyclone of chaos and controversy for the president’s attorney and the White House. Cohen and Trump are now battling Clifford in California federal court, where she is suing to have the NDA nullified. They are also the subject of defamation suits filed by Clifford for publicly calling her claims of an affair with Trump lies.
There have been multiple public explanations of the payment. Cohen initially said the payment was made solely by him, and was covered by a home equity line to cover the cost. Cohen stated that Trump was not party to the transaction, nor had he reimbursed Cohen for the transaction.
Cohen’s own one-time attorney, David Schwartz, would later state that Trump had no knowledge of the payment ahead of time, which was why he never signed the agreement with Daniels—a fact the adult film actress argues makes the agreement void.
More recently, former U.S. attorney and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now working as a member of Trump’s legal team, stated that Trump had, in fact, reimbursed Cohen for the payment to Clifford, among a number of legal services.
On Wednesday, Clifford’s outspoken attorney, Michael Avenatti, took to Twitter to lambaste Trump and his team.
“Mr. Trump’s disclosure today conclusively proves that the American people were deceived by Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump, Mr. Schwartz, the WH, and Mr. Giuliani,” Avenatti said. “This was NOT an accident and it was not isolated. Cover-ups should always matter.”
The one consistent element that each person on Trump’s side has maintained is that the payment was not illegal and did not run afoul of any campaign finance laws. Clifford, in her complaint in the California suit, has alleged the $130,000 constituted an in-kind campaign contribution. However, absent more information, election lawyers say it’s impossible to determine whether this is the case.
“No one can honestly weigh in on this without knowing what the parties knew about the law and what they intended,” Stroock & Stroock & Lavan special counsel Jerry Goldfeder said in an email.
Additionally, before the disclosure Wednesday, a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has requested the DOJ investigate the repayment by Cohen as a potential loan the president should have been required to disclose. In his letter, Apol referenced the lawsuit as the reason he was alerting the DOJ about the note.
In a statement, CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder took credit for the president’s disclosure.
“It is good that in the face of overwhelming evidence and public pressure, the president came clean about this liability on this year’s form, but we now have to wonder how many other liabilities for similar payments he has that he still has not disclosed because he has not been publicly called out on them,” Bookbinder said.