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Trump Switches Up Presidential Legal Team

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are learning more about how the shakeup on President Trump's legal team is changing his defense strategy and possibly opening new leads for the Mueller investigation. New Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani revealed that the president paid back his attorney, Michael Cohen, for hush money for Stormy Daniels. That payment could be a violation of election spending laws. On Twitter, the president said the money that he gave Michael Cohen was a monthly retainer and had nothing to do with the campaign. For more on this, we're joined by Scott Coffina. He served as a White House counsel to President George W. Bush. Thank you so much for being with us.

SCOTT COFFINA: Thank you. It's great to be here, Rachel.

MARTIN: How much potential trouble is the president in right now?

COFFINA: Well, I don't think this revelation about the payments to Stormy Daniels really changes anything.

MARTIN: Why not?

COFFINA: Well, it changes things from a - maybe a credibility standpoint because there was a different account there before Mr. Giuliani said something different the other night. But from a legal point of view, I don't think it necessarily changes anything at all. There is this campaign finance question that you raised...

MARTIN: Right.

COFFINA: ...And it certainly is a legitimate question to be asked considering the timing of the payment just two or three weeks before the election. However, they would have to prove for a campaign finance violation an intent to advance the campaign. Now the timing suggests certainly that, but there is also a history of Mr. Trump having payments to other people for their silence, including the playmate that he was allegedly involved with who received some benefits in the past when he wasn't running for president.

MARTIN: Right. Although Rudy Giuliani yesterday in his Fox News interview - earlier this week in his Fox News interview - said explicitly, can you imagine if this had come out right before the campaign, right before the last debate with Hillary Clinton? And that Michael Cohen just made it go away. So can that be considered when making an argument about intent?

COFFINA: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that comment is what puts that question as to what the intent of that payment was, whether to benefit Mr. Trump's campaign or to benefit him personally right in the spotlight and makes the campaign finance question, I think, get some new life.

MARTIN: So it wouldn't matter if they insist that the money didn't come from the campaign? It's about intent - not necessarily - the money could have come from wherever.

COFFINA: That's correct. I'm not a campaign finance expert, but the key is really the intent to benefit the campaign, not the source of the money.

MARTIN: Along with Giuliani, the president added another attorney to his team, a man named Emmet Flood. You worked with him in the Bush administration. What does he bring to this team?

COFFINA: So I did have the privilege of working with Emmet. He is an outstanding lawyer who has, you know, really deep experience in exactly this kind of political legal controversy that the president, and quite frankly, the executive branch finds itself embroiled in. When I worked with Emmet in the Bush White House, we were responding to a heavy influx of congressional oversight demands, and Emmet was at the tip of the spear in dealing with that. He brings a wealth of experience in defending and fiercely defending executive branch prerogatives and presidential privilege as well as dealing with Justice Department investigation. So he really brings a great diverse background for precisely the problems that the president is facing right now.

MARTIN: Does his client in this case, President Donald Trump, present a special challenge? I mean, he is someone who has proven himself to be someone who doesn't necessarily heed the advice from his own lawyers.

COFFINA: I would have to say yes. Every attorney faces a challenge in working with their client to have them - convince them to follow what they believe is their best advice and trust their judgment. This president certainly has shown a tendency to go independent and sometimes defy his lawyer's advice. But I am confident that Emmet has taken that consideration into account in taking on this very big engagement and joining the White House staff to oversee the investigation.

MARTIN: From your own past experience, how do you - how do you view the challenges ahead for your former colleague?

COFFINA: Well, this is somewhat unique. And it's at a different level than Emmet had been at before, but he's certainly up to it. You know, he's got to keep an eye on a full 360-degree range of issues. In front of him is, of course, special counsel Robert Mueller and that investigation and the legal peril that that creates for the president and the White House. But there's also the congressional issues that are around there as well. There's an election in November. You don't know how the balance of the House and the Senate will wind up...

MARTIN: He'll have to take all that into consideration. I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Scott Coffina. He joined us from our member station at WHYY. Thank you so much for your time this morning, sir.

COFFINA: Great to be here, Rachel. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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