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FILE - In this Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016 photo then President-elect Donald Trump and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani pose for photographs at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Trump, Giuliani confirm payment to porn star: Legal strategy or strategic blunder?

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WASHINGTON (Circa) — Former New York Mayor and career federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani joined President Donald Trump's legal team three weeks ago. It was part of an effort to resolve the Department of Justice investigation into the Trump campaign and turn down the legal heat on the White House.

On Wednesday evening, Giuliani dropped a bombshell admission that the president paid a former adult film actress $130,000 through his personal attorney, Michael Cohen. The statement, confirmed Thursday morning by President Trump, left many wondering if this was part of a legal grand strategy or a strategic blunder.

In the lengthy Fox News interview, Giuliani asserted the $130,000 payment to former porn star Stephanie Clifford, known by her stage name as Stormy Daniels, was "funneled through a law firm, and the president repaid it."

According to Giuliani's understanding, the president "didn't know about the specifics" of Cohen's deal with Clifford, "But he did know about the general arrangement, that Michael would take care of things like this. Like I take care of this with my clients."

He asserted the arrangement was "perfectly legal," and did not violate campaign finance laws, despite Cohen making the original payment one month before the election. The president repaid Cohen over a period of "several months," Giuliani continued, emphasizing, "It's not campaign money, no campaign violation."

Former federal prosecutor Pat Brady described Giuliani's explanation as "a head-scratcher" from the standpoint of a legal strategy.

"I think Mayor Giuliani was trying to help him by saying this is not campaign money, so it's not a campaign finance violation, but what, in effect, he did is he contradicted the president at pretty much every turn," he said.

That could prove fatal for the newcomer to Trump's legal team, according to Brady. "Directly contradicting your client, something they said previously, publicly ... when your lawyer does that, it typically sours the attorney-client relationship," he said.

For months, President Trump and Michael Cohen denied coordinating on the hush money payment. In April, Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he did not know about Cohen's payment to Clifford or when it was made. He further denied any knowledge of Cohen's motivations for making the payment.

Cohen similarly protected Trump with numerous public statements taking personal responsibility for paying off the former porn star. In February, Cohen issued a public statement defending the action as "lawful" and unrelated to the Trump campaign or organization.

"In a private transaction in 2016, I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms. Stephanie Clifford," Cohen stated. "Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly."

Those prior statements added to the surprise Thursday morning when President Trump backed Giuliani's statements in a series of tweets, admitting he paid Cohen to silence Stormy Daniels.

"Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA," Trump said.

Such agreements are "very common among celebrities and people of wealth," the president added. "Prior to its violation by Ms. Clifford and her attorney, this was a private agreement. Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction."

The argument reflects "a clear calculus that the logically implausible can still be legally defensible," wrote Jonathan Turley, George Washington University constitutional law professor. Turley is among the legal experts who believe it will be difficult for Trump and his team to claim the $130,000 hush money payment did not directly benefit the campaign.

"I don't think there's any credible argument it wasn't to influence the election," said Georgetown University law professor David Super. Despite the payment being privately negotiated and the money repaid, he said the deal constituted an "in-kind" campaign contribution.

"This money was spent just before the election at a time when the president's treatment of women was under great scrutiny because of the Access Hollywood tape," Super explained. "If its purpose was to keep Ms. Daniels from going public and further embarrassing the president just before the election, then that is a campaign expenditure and should have been reported."

On the campaign trail, at least 11 women accused President Trump of sexual misconduct, including another porn star, Jessica Drake. Notably absent from the list of accusers was Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels.

According to reports, Ms. Clifford had been in talks for months with ABC's "Good Morning America." She planned to publicly disclose details of her alleged 2006 affair with Donald Trump before the 2016 election, but abruptly cut off contact with the network and essentially disappeared until Jan. 2018.

At that time, The Wall Street Journal revealed Trump's personal lawyer, Cohen, arranged a $130,000 "hush money" payment to Clifford in Oct. 2016 as part of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to prevent Clifford from publicly discussing her alleged affair with Trump.

For months, Trump's legal strategy was to deny the affair and deny any coordination between Cohen and the president or the Trump campaign. This week's sudden shift is likely the result of new facts coming to light after the April 9 FBI raid on Cohen's New York City office and hotel, suggested Super and Turley.

In March, Special Counsel Robert Mueller reportedly interviewed several witnesses with knowledge of matters related to Cohen and Trump. According to Cohen's lawyer, Mueller obtained the search warrant authorizing the raids and referred Cohen to prosecutors at the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY).

During the raids, the FBI seized business records, communications and financial documents related to several topics, including the payment to Stormy Daniels. According to reports, the SDNY is investigating Cohen for possible campaign finance violations, wire fraud and bank fraud.

"The Trump legal team is slowly finding out what the prosecutors obtained in that raid," explained David Super. Both sides are currently reviewing the seized materials to determine what is and what is not protected under attorney-client privilege.

"It's very possible that process has reached a stage where Mr. Trump's legal team is aware the prosecutors have evidence that the Cohen payment was repaid and they are feeling the need to get out in front of that," Super suggested.

Following the raid, President Trump began to shift his public position on Cohen. In an April 26 interview with Fox & Friends, Trump acknowledged for the first time Cohen represented him "with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal."

He also actively distanced himself from the besieged lawyer, who pled the Fifth in a recent court filing. Trump denied any knowledge or involvement in Cohen's "business" dealings, saying, "They're looking at something having to do with his business. I have nothing to do with his business."

It is unclear how vulnerable the president is legally. Super said it is "theoretically possible" Trump will be charged if both he and Cohen were involved in the paying off Stormy Daniels.

"Campaign finance violations carry criminal penalties," he said. "It's a question of whether the Department of Justice is willing to charge a sitting president."

Turley suggested the "upshot" of the latest admissions is that the Trump team could have effectively isolated Cohen, and may face a campaign-finance allegation, a misdemeanor. "It also means there was a conscious effort to pay Cohen for hush money paid to a porn star days before an election. That is not a material improvement."

If President Trump is implicated in a misdemeanor campaign finance violation or other misconduct, the House of Representatives could use it as cause to impeach him. Some Democrats in the House have said they will pursue impeachment if they win a majority in the midterm elections.

Under different political circumstances, the scandal would likely be career-ending, but given the unusual political times, Brady believes the president may walk away unscathed.

"The president lied to the American public about a pay-off to a porn star a month before the election. In a normal universe, that's a big deal. But it doesn't seem to have any effect on him politically," he stressed. "I'd be surprised if we're talking about this on Tuesday."

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