Key House chairman questions hush-money statements

Key House chairman questions hush-money statements
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House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings says that his panel has obtained information that calls into question previous statements made by attorneys representing President Donald Trump to federal officials about 2016 hush-money payments to keep an alleged Trump extramarital affair under wraps.

In a letter February 15 to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, Cummings says his committee has obtained new documents showing that Trump’s personal attorney Sheri Dillon and Stefan Passantino, a former White House official who now represents the Trump Organization, “may have provided false information” when they were questioned by federal ethics officials about hush money payments paid to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels.

CNN has reached out to Passantino, Cipollone and Dillon for comment. Passantino declined to comment and CNN has not yet heard back from Dillon and Cipollone.

In a separate letter to Trump Organization attorney Alan Futerfas, Cummings warns that his panel may subpoena the Trump Organization for documents related to the payments made by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney and personal fixer who paid Daniels $130,000 to prevent her from speaking publicly about her alleged affair with Trump, if the company doesn’t comply by next week.

“I write to correct your fundamental misunderstanding of the role of Congressional oversight and to insist on full compliance with the Committee’s January 8, 2019, document request,” writes Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.

“We just received the letter and we’ll review it carefully,” Futerfas told CNN.

In the letter to Cipollone, Cummings refers to notes his committee obtained citing a federal Office of Government Ethics official who referred to the “changing explanations and excuse from the President’s legal team as ‘evolving stories.'”

According to the letter, Dillon “repeatedly” told OGE officials in spring 2018 that Trump “never owed any money” to Cohen.

But after Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani revealed in a May 2018 interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity that Trump reimbursed Cohen for the payments, and Trump confirmed he did on Twitter, Dillon changed her story, according to the Cummings letter.

After being asked about the Giulani comments and Trump tweet, Dillon told OGE officials that Cohen “always knew” he would be “reimbursed” but the “mechanisms for reimbursement changed over time.”

Cohen pleaded guilty to two campaign finance related charges for facilitating the payment to Daniels and a $150,000 “catch and kill” payment American Media Inc. made to former playboy model Karen McDougal to silence her allegation of an affair with Trump. Cohen said under oath that he made the payments “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump.

The letter says that Passantino made similar comments, telling OGE officials that Cohen “was authorized to outlay and that was part of the retainer agreement.” But Dillon would not allow OGE staff to see the retainer agreement because, she said, “it was privileged.”

But federal prosecutors from the US Attorneys Office in the Southern District of New York said there was “no retainer agreement” between Cohen and Trump dealing with these payments to silence women’s stories ahead of the 2016 election.

Cummings, in his letter to Cipollone, also cites also the President’s financial disclosure form, which in May 2018 belatedly disclosed payments up to $250,000 to Cohen. But federal prosecutors said that Trump’s payments to Cohen came in 12 monthly installments of $35,000, beginning in 2017, amounting to a total of $420,000, according to the Cummings letter.

The top Republican on the committee — Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio — said the letter “is merely retreading an old and tired story intended to embarrass the President” and that “There is nothing new here.”

“The 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,” Jordan said in a statement.

In a follow-up letter, Jordan and Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina accused Cummings of making “extremely unfair and unsupported accusations.”

“By making public assertions that these two lawyers made false statements — without even allowing them to respond — you have besmirched their reputations and have caused them irreparable professional harm,” the GOP lawmakers wrote.

This story has been updated to include details from a letter House Republicans sent in response to Cummings.