Key Democrat Questions Whether Trump Lawyers Misled on Hush Payments

(Bloomberg) -- A key House Democrat suggested that lawyers for President Donald Trump and the White House may have provided false information to a government ethics office about his involvement in hush payments during the 2016 campaign by women alleging affairs with him.

House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings wrote Friday in a letter to the White House that internal notes taken by Office of Government Ethics officials indicate that some of Trump’s lawyers gave them “evolving stories” about the payments and money that Trump owed to his lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, for making them.

Cohen, who is headed to prison in part for his role in those payments, said in his guilty plea that he acted “in coordination with” and “at the direction of” Trump. Cohen also said this was for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election.

“It now appears that President Trump’s other attorneys -- at the White House and in private practice -- may have provided false information about these payments to federal officials,” Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said in the letter addressed to new White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.

“This raises significant questions about why some of the president’s closest advisers made these false claims and the extent to which they were acting at the direction of, or in coordination with, the president," he said.

‘Cherry-Picked’ Deliberations

In a statement, Republicans on the House Oversight panel said that “Democrats’ attempt to use cherry-picked confidential deliberations with the Office of Government Ethics to smear the president will have a chilling effect on executive branch employees wishing to obtain ethics advice.”

The letter by Cummings also mentions that the president filed a financial disclosure statement with the Office of Government Ethics or OGE, covering the period from January 2016 through April 15, 2017 making no mention of any liability to Cohen.

Cummings said notes from ethics office officials say that from March 22 to April 26, 2018, Trump’s personal lawyer Sheri Dillon was telling them that Trump never owed any money to Cohen in 2016 and 2017.

In May 2018, Cummings said, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani admitted on national television that Trump had, in fact, reimbursed Cohen for the payment to Stephanie Clifford, the adult movie actress better known as Stormy Daniels, as part of a “retainer” agreement for his services. The next day, the president tweeted as much, saying Cohen had been receiving a monthly retainer, and that there was a non-disclosure agreement between them.

When confronted with this by OGE lawyers, notes that Cummings attached to his letter show Dillon changed her story, acknowledging “vendor-type” payments from the president to Cohen. She said they weren’t overdue or unpaid, and that Cohen hadn’t provided Trump any loan “in the natural sense of the word.”

Cummings said in his letter that Stefan Passantino, a former White House lawyer for compliance and ethics, made the same representation of a “retainer” agreement between Trump and Cohen to OGE officials. Passantino has since left the White House to represent the Trump Organization.

Cummings said his committee, which has jurisdiction over OGE, is seeking immediate release from the White House of additional documents to determine “whether the president failed to report these payments,” and whether changes to the OGE are necessary.

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