Trump Says Payment to Stormy Daniels Did Not Violate Campaign Laws

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday directly contradicted his earlier statements that he knew of no payment to Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film actress who says she had an affair with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump said he paid a monthly retainer to his former lawyer and fixer, Michael D. Cohen, and suggested that the payment by Mr. Cohen to the actress could not be considered a campaign contribution.

The president’s comments reiterated an explosive announcement late Wednesday by one of his recently-hired attorneys, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who said on Fox News that the president reimbursed Mr. Cohen for the payment to the actress Stephanie Clifford, who performs as Stormy Daniels. Though Mr. Giuliani described his interview as part of a strategy, the disclosure caught several Trump advisers by surprise, sending some scrambling on Thursday morning to determine how to confront the situation.

In three Twitter posts Thursday morning, the president repeated some of what Mr. Giuliani said a day earlier, specifically that Mr. Trump repaid a $130,000 payment Mr. Cohen made to Ms. Clifford just days before the presidential election in 2016.

Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump said this removed the question of whether it was a campaign finance violation. Mr. Trump also continued to deny the affair.

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said on Thursday that she could not comment on the president’s legal strategy. In comments on “Fox & Friends,” she referred viewers to Mr. Giuliani’s remarks and the president’s tweets.

The changing accounts about the president, the payment and the pornography actress came as a surprise to the attorneys of Ms. Clifford and Mr. Cohen and are forcing some of Mr. Trump’s advisers to prepare for a new round of questions from the public.

As of a few hours before Mr. Giuliani went on television, his revelations were not part of a wider strategy, beyond whatever conversations Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump had, two people close to the president’s team said. One noted that Mr. Hannity seemed surprised when Mr. Giuliani made the statement and did not immediately follow up. Some of Mr. Trump’s allies were frustrated that they, once again, had no advance warning of the new narrative, making it more difficult to discuss it adequately as surrogates on television.

The president’s tweets on Thursday had far more formal and legalistic language than his typical morning messages to the world, which often include words in all capital letters and are punctuated with exclamation points. “Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction,” Mr. Trump wrote. It was not immediately clear whether the tweets were composed by Mr. Trump or if they were written by one of his attorneys or advisers, which happens on occasion.

On Thursday morning, Mr. Giuliani said Mr. Cohen was just doing his job when he made the payment.

“Imagine if that came out on October 15th, 2016, in the middle of the, you know, last debate with Hillary Clinton,” Giuliani told Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.” “Cohen didn’t even ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job.”

Mr. Cohen had worked for Mr. Trump for a decade and has said he would “take a bullet” for him. Mr. Trump, however, treated Mr. Cohen poorly over the years, people familiar with their relationship have said.

Ms. Clifford is suing Mr. Cohen to try to be released from the nondisclosure agreement. And Mr. Cohen is under federal investigation for bank fraud, raising concerns in the president’s inner circle that Mr. Trump’s longtime personal lawyer will cooperate with the government. Federal agents raided Mr. Cohen’s office and home last month and seized documents that included information about payments to Ms. Clifford.

Mr. Cohen recently invoked his constitutional right to take the Fifth Amendment in the ongoing Stormy Daniels case.

A government accountability group, Common Cause, which has filed complaints to the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission about the $130,000 payment, said Mr. Giuliani’s remarks strengthened their case and put the president “in legal peril for ‘knowing and willful’ violations of campaign finance law related to hush money payments.”

Mr. Trump has made changes recently to his legal team, as the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, increases pressure on the president to answer questions about possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Mr. Mueller is also investigating whether the president sought to derail the inquiry with certain decisions he made during his first few months in office.

Maggie Haberman in New York contributed reporting.