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Financial disclosure deadline traps Trump in a dilemma of his own making

A dilemma for a president who does not like to admit mistakes.

US President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the 37th Annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol Building on May 15, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the 37th Annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol Building on May 15, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

By the end of the day Tuesday, President Donald Trump must file his federal financial disclosure form. This document presents Trump with a dilemma: He must come clean about the nature of the payments made to Stormy Daniels, or else compound his legal problems.

The issue at hand is the $130,000 payment that was made to adult film star Stormy Daniels in October 2016 by Trump’s longtime attorney Michael Cohen. For the bulk of his time in office, Trump has assiduously denied all knowledge of the payment and Cohen, through another attorney, has stuck to his claim that he had never been reimbursed.

On May 2, however, Trump’s newly installed attorney Rudy Giuliani appeared on Hannity and upended everything, revealing that Trump had reimbursed Cohen for the money in a series of monthly payments over the course of 2017.

If Cohen’s payment to Daniels was a campaign expense, made to improve Trump’s chances of winning the election, it presents Trump and Cohen with a host of legal problems. But even it was not made for that purpose, as Giuliani sometimes claims, it was a debt that Trump was required to disclose on his June 14, 2017 financial disclosure. He did not.

Signature page of Trump's financial disclosure, filed June 14, 2017
Signature page of Trump's financial disclosure, filed June 14, 2017

In interviews, Giuliani admitted that Trump was “aware that Michael incurred expenses to help him” and “Michael [Cohen] knew he’d be reimbursed for it.” (Giuliani claims that Cohen’s payment was an “expense,” not a loan — a distinction that is not recognized under the law.)

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The Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has argued that Trump’s failure to disclose his debt to Cohen in June 2017 was a violation of federal law, including “18 U.S.C. § 1001 and the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 (‘EIGA’).” The law requires Trump to disclose the “identity and category of value of the total liabilities owed to any creditor . . . which exceed $10,000 at any time during the preceding calendar year.”

This next filing, due Tuesday, covers the calendar year 2017. Trump is faced with a difficult decision. He can come clean, report the debt he owed to Cohen over the course of 2017, and attempt to limit his legal exposure. Alternatively, Trump can again omit the debt, making his legal problems even worse.

Apparently, Trump also owed Cohen additional money in 2017 for unknown reasons. (Total payments to Cohen from Trump over 2017 exceeded $350,000, according to Giuliani.) The nature of those debts may also have to be disclosed.

The clock is ticking.