White House seeks to distance itself from the Stormy Daniels story by shifting the focus to Trump's lawyer and his 2016 campaign

Key Points
  • The White House is attempting to create some distance between the Trump administration and two key parties in the Stormy Daniels legal battle: The 2016 Trump campaign and Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
  • "You'll have to ask Michael Cohen about the specifics," of a nondisclosure agreement at the center of multiple lawsuits, a Trump spokesman told reporters.
  • The White House response illustrates the difficult position Trump's press office finds itself in when it comes to the Daniels controversy.
Stormy Daniels goes on the record about Trump

With the legal battle between adult film star Stormy Daniels and President Donald Trump showing no signs of a quick resolution, the White House on Monday attempted to create some distance between the administration and two key parties in the Daniels controversy: The 2016 Trump campaign and the president's personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

"I can speak only for the White House. I can say categorically the White House didn't engage in any wrongdoing," said deputy press secretary Raj Shah, when asked if he could categorically state that "the Trump campaign and the Trump administration" had not broken campaign finance laws.

Shah did not defend either the Trump campaign or Cohen. Instead, he told reporters at the daily press briefing that "anything with respect to their actions" would need to be addressed by either Cohen or the campaign, but not by the White House.

Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah holds the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, March 26, 2018.
Leah Millis | Reuters

Shah applied the same tactic to questions about the 2016 nondisclosure agreement between Trump and Daniels, which Cohen was party to on behalf of an LLC he later used to pay Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, $130,000 in exchange for her silence.

"You'll have to ask Michael Cohen about the specifics," Shah said.

The controversy forced Shah to walk a rhetorical tightrope. He spoke for the president by denying Daniels' allegations, but he refused to say why the president entered into a confidentiality agreement with Daniels 10 years later to buy her silence for $130,000.

That question, Shah argued, is Cohen's responsibility to answer. "You can have Michael Cohen address specifics regarding this agreement," Shah told reporters.

The briefing came the day after CBS' "60 Minutes" aired a highly anticipated interview with Daniels. The adult film actress claimed in the interview that she had been physically threatened in a parking lot in 2011 by someone who ordered her not to speak about her alleged relationship with Trump.

Michael Cohen, personal attorney for President Donald Trump, as he arrives to appear before Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, September 19, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Shah refused to say whether Trump had watched the "60 Minutes" interview, but he did say, "The president strongly, clearly and has consistently denied these underlying claims," referring to the alleged tryst. Shah also said the president does not believe Daniels' claim that she was physically threatened in 2011 because "there is nothing to corroborate her claim."

Shah also took a shot at Daniels, saying: "The only person who has been inconsistent is the one making the claims." Daniels has signed at least three denials of the affair in recent years. She now says she made the denials under duress and out of fear for her safety.

Shah's responses illustrated the difficult position the White House press office finds itself in when it comes to the Daniels controversy.

Trump was said to be angry with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders earlier this month, because Sanders acknowledged that Trump's lawyers had won an arbitration to compel Daniels to abide by the 2016 confidentiality agreement. Before that, no one in the White House had even confirmed the existence of the agreement.

Now, White House communications staff are reportedly frustrated at being made to answer questions about Daniels day after day, despite having had nothing to do with Trump and Daniels' agreement, which was signed in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Complicating matters is Trump's refusal so far to say anything in response to Daniels' claims, save for denying the affair through his representatives.

Nor does Trump appear to be doing much to help his press team distance the White House from the scandal engulfing Cohen. On the contrary, Shah confirmed to reporters that the president had dinner with Cohen on Saturday night at Mar-A-Lago, Trump's resort in Palm Beach, Florida.

Read more: Stormy Daniels sues Trump lawyer Michael Cohen for defamation