Now playing: Trump's latest defense — I never said 'to break the law'

President Trump speaks at the White House on Dec. 12, 2018. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The ongoing process of revising President Trump’s explanations for hush-money payments to two women during the 2016 campaign picked up speed this week, prompted by the sentencing of his one-time lawyer Michael Cohen and the disclosure that the publisher of the National Enquirer was cooperating with prosecutors.

Trump’s latest response to the accusation that he personally directed Cohen to arrange the payments — $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and another $130,000 to adult film actress Stormy Daniels — is that he never ordered Cohen “to break the law.”

This is a long way from Trump’s outright denials in April that he knew about the payment to Daniels.

“No, I don’t know. No,” Trump said on April 5 in response to a reporter’s question about whether he knew where Cohen had gotten the money to make the $130,00 payment.

Three weeks later, the president amended that story during an interview with “Fox & Friends.”

“They weren’t taken out of campaign finance; that’s the big thing,” Trump said of the payment to Daniels. “That’s a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn’t come out of the campaign; they came from me.”

Michael Cohen walks from federal court in New York on Dec. 12, 2018, after being sentenced following a guilty plea for lying to Congress, campaign finance violations and other crimes. (Photo: Craig Ruttle/AP)

While Trump is now dismissing the possibility that the payments violated campaign finance laws, back in May his newly-hired lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was more defensive on the point.

“It’s going to turn out to be perfectly legal. That money was not campaign money,” Giuliani told Fox News on May 2, while acknowledging that the president had paid Cohen back for the money used to buy Daniels’s silence.

A day later, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders offered a slight correction to Giuliani’s statement, explaining to reporters that Trump “didn’t know at the time” that Cohen had paid off Daniels.

In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws, telling prosecutors that Trump had directed him to make payments to Daniels and McDougal in order to avoid embarrassing news stories just before the election.

Why does it matter what the president knew and when he knew it? Following Cohen’s three-year prison sentence for what Judge William H. Pauley called a “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct,” including tax evasion, violation of campaign finance laws and lying to Congress, if it can be shown that Trump directed these actions, the president faces his own legal jeopardy.

On Wednesday, the danger for Trump became even more apparent as news broke of an agreement between the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and American Media, Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, AMI agreed to aid in the investigation into Trump’s hush-money payment to McDougal. David Pecker, the publisher of the Enquirer, said the tabloid coordinated with Trump’s campaign to orchestrate a “catch and kill” strategy to silence McDougal — paying $150,000 for her story with the intent of spiking it and preventing her from telling it to other outlets. Prosecutors allege that the payment constitutes an in-kind contribution to Trump’s campaign that was never reported.

David Pecker, chairman and CEO of American Media, in 2014. (Photo: Marion Curtis/AP)

Pecker, a longtime friend of the president, has also told prosecutors that Trump was in the room when Cohen and he met to discuss ways the Enquirer could bury negative stories about Trump’s affairs with women, NBC reported Thursday.

“Pecker offered to help deal with negative stories about that presidential candidate’s relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided,” the agreement between AMI and SDNY prosecutors states.

Once again, the president was left in the unenviable position of testing out another alibi.

“I don’t think, and I have to go check, I don’t think they even paid any money to that tabloid, OK? I don’t think we made a payment to that tabloid. I was asking the question last — … I don’t think we made a payment,” Trump said in an interview Thursday with Fox News’s Harris Faulkner.

A day earlier, however, Giuliani gave another reading of the deal between prosecutors and AMI, seeking to minimize what even he seemed to recognize might constitute a crime. “Nobody got killed, nobody got robbed,” Trump’s lawyer told the Daily Beast.

To borrow a tag line from the television game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” all this leads one to ask the president, “Is that your final answer?”

“When you’re on your 13th explanation and it’s inconsistent with the first 12, no one’s going to believe that,” Walter Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, told Yahoo News, adding, “I think he’s digging a hole, and he’s digging it deeper all the time with his shifting explanations.”

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