AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's been a wild 24 hours in the story of the adult film actress Stormy Daniels and the hush payments she received from President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen. It began last night when Rudy Giuliani, a member of President Trump's legal team, told Fox News' Sean Hannity that the president knew Michael Cohen had made a payment to Daniels.
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RUDY GIULIANI: He didn't know about the specifics of it as far as I know. But he did know about the general arrangement that Michael would take care of things like this.
CORNISH: Giuliani's remarks contradicted what Trump had previously said about Cohen's payments to Daniels, that he didn't know anything about it. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has been following all of this. He's here to explain. Welcome to the studio, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: So what's new in all of this?
LUCAS: Well, in early April Trump was asked point-blank on Air Force One whether he knew about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels. Trump replied that he didn't know anything about it. Now, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said today that the president didn't know about the payments when he spoke to reporters in April on Air Force One. He only became aware of them since then. Still, Giuliani's acknowledgment last night is significant.
Giuliani said that Trump had repaid Cohen the $130,000. He said Trump didn't know the specifics of it, but the general arrangement was that Cohen would take care of things. This morning, Trump himself said in a series of tweets that Cohen made the payment out of a monthly retainer. The payment was made as part of an agreement used to stop what the president called Daniels' false and extortionist accusations about an affair. And Trump said the money had nothing to do with the campaign and that no campaign funds were involved.
CORNISH: So why does this matter?
LUCAS: One reason is this could be a possible violation of campaign finance laws. Watchdog groups and outside experts say the payment could amount to an in-kind contribution or loan to Trump's campaign. It's unclear at this point exactly how this falls because there are still questions about who knew what, when they knew it, what the intent was. But Giuliani alluded to a possible campaign link this morning when he was talking to Fox. Here's what he said.
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GIULIANI: However, imagine if that came out on October 15...
STEVE DOOCY: Sure.
GIULIANI: ...2016 in the middle of the, you know, last debate with Hillary Clinton.
DOOCY: Right. So to make it go away, they made this payment.
GIULIANI: Cohen didn't even ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job.
CORNISH: Cohen made it go away. A central character here is Michael Cohen, the longtime personal lawyer of the president. And he's under criminal investigation right now, right?
LUCAS: He is. He is. And it's very significant to note that he's under criminal investigation. Remember; Cohen acted as a lawyer and a fixer for Trump. Giuliani actually noted that in his interviews with Fox. So there's a lot that Cohen knows that could potentially be damaging to the president. It was just last month that the FBI raided Cohen's home, his hotel room and his office in New York. Agents seized boxes upon boxes of materials. They took off electronic devices. Prosecutors have said they are investigating Cohen's business dealings. But in those raids, investigators were also looking for materials related to the Stormy Daniels payment. The bottom line is this - Michael Cohen is under an incredible amount of legal pressure. Former prosecutors that I've spoken to say that investigators will use all the leverage that they can come up with to try to get Cohen to flip.
CORNISH: Rudy Giuliani is newish to the president's legal team. Is this reflecting a new strategy?
LUCAS: Giuliani is certainly taking a more public and more publicly aggressive stance in his criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation. One big outstanding question at the moment is whether the president will indeed sit down for an interview with Mueller's team. Negotiations over that have been going on for a long time. Giuliani says that as of now he's inclined to tell the president not to do the interview. He says it could be a perjury trap. But Giuliani also says he's not shutting the door on this at this point. He's still open to a possible compromise.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thank you.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.