clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump’s new Stormy Daniels money disclosure may have gotten him in even more legal trouble

The Office of Government Ethics says he should’ve disclosed his debt to Michael Cohen — and lets the Justice Department know.

Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

President Donald Trump has now admitted repaying Michael Cohen more than $100,000 for the Stormy Daniels hush money on his new financial disclosure form — but the admission may have gotten him into even more legal trouble.

That’s because David Apol, the acting director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), is disputing Trump’s assertion that he wasn’t required to report the debt — and has sent along the matter for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to look into.

Apol wrote that an outside group requested he investigate whether Trump was legally required to report his debt to Cohen on last year’s financial disclosure form (which Trump did not do). Apol concluded that, yes, Trump was legally required to report it. And he wrote that Rosenstein may find that information “relevant to any inquiry you may be pursuing.”

Walter Shaub — Apol’s predecessor at the Office of Government Ethics, who resigned last year after clashes with Trump officials and has frequently criticized Trump in the media since — tweeted that this was “tantamount to a criminal referral,” reporting Trump “for potentially committing a crime.”

It is unclear what the Justice Department will do with this information. But it adds to the lengthening list of legal problems Trump may face related to the Daniels payment and the investigation into Cohen.

The backstory: Trump has been vague about the facts surrounding the Stormy Daniels payment for some time

Shortly before the 2016 election, on October 27, Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen sent Stormy Daniels $130,000 through her then-lawyer so she wouldn’t come forward to allege a past sexual encounter with Trump.

This remained secret through the first year of Trump’s presidency — but then the Wall Street Journal reported the existence of the hush money payment this January. Yet many questions remained. Most notably: What did Donald Trump know about all this, and was Cohen eventually paid back?

Those questions have legal implications. If Cohen spent the money entirely on his own, he potentially exceeded campaign contribution limits and violated disclosure laws. Conversely, if the money was understood to be a loan from Trump to Cohen for a campaign purpose, it would still be a violation of campaign finance disclosure laws.

But there’s more. The president, like other federal employees, is required to fill out a financial disclosure form each year. Yet Trump’s first such form — submitted in June 2017, and covering 2016 and early 2017 — makes no mention of a debt to Cohen.

So the White House remained cagey on what exactly happened here until, in the wake of the FBI raids on Cohen’s offices, they put out at least part of their version of events. At some point in 2017, they said, Trump repaid Cohen for the money. He did so through, they claim, monthly payments to keep Cohen on retainer.

Trump tried to have it both ways in the new financial disclosure form

This brings us to Trump’s new disclosure form, due to be filed with the Office of Government Ethics this week, and covering the calendar year 2017. Beforehand, reporters speculated about whether he’d disclose the Cohen payment as a debt he’d incurred.

Trump decided to try to have it both ways. In the form, his team does not disclose the Cohen debt alongside Trump’s other liabilities. Instead, they mention it at the bottom of the relevant page in a note saying it was fully paid back in 2017. They claim that they don’t believe Trump was legally required to disclose this, but that “in the interest of transparency,” they’ve decided to do so anyway.

But the OGE didn’t buy their argument. Acting Director Apol added his own note stating that the Cohen payment information “is required to be reported” and should have been listed by Trump as a reportable liability.

And Apol didn’t stop there. He publicly released a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein making OGE’s position clear — that “the payment made by Mr. Cohen is required to be reported as a liability.”

Apol sent both of Trump’s disclosure reports to Rosenstein, saying that he might find them “relevant to any inquiry” he “may be pursuing” about Trump’s earlier, apparently incomplete, disclosure form that didn’t mention the Cohen payment.