WASHINGTON — President Trump’s new legal team made a chaotic debut as Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was tapped recently to be one of the president’s lawyers, potentially exposed his client to legal and political danger by publicly revealing the existence of secret payments to Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer.
After he moved into the White House, the president began paying Mr. Cohen $35,000 a month, Mr. Giuliani said, in part as reimbursement for a $130,000 payment that Mr. Cohen made to a pornographic film actress to keep her from going public about an affair she said she had with Mr. Trump. The president confirmed he made payments to Mr. Cohen in a series of Twitter posts on Thursday morning.
The explosive revelation, which Mr. Giuliani said was intended to prove that Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen violated no campaign finance laws, prompted frustration and disbelief among the president’s other legal and political advisers, some of whom said they feared the gambit could backfire.
Legally, the failure to disclose the payments could be a violation of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which requires that federal officials, including Mr. Trump, report any liabilities of more than $10,000 during the preceding year. Mr. Trump’s last disclosure report, which he signed and filed in June, mentions no debt to Mr. Cohen.
Politically, Mr. Giuliani’s remarks — made in television appearances and interviews — raised questions about the president’s truthfulness and created a firestorm at the White House, where aides were caught off guard and furiously sought to deflect questions they could not answer. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said she had been unaware of the payments before the interviews.
“Everyone is wondering, what in the world is he doing?” said George Arzt, a longtime New York Democratic consultant who has known Mr. Giuliani for decades. “I would not have sent out Rudy to talk about the investigation. But Trump likes chaos and Trump just added to the chaos.”
By the end of the day, the president and his advisers had done little to clarify the confusion that Mr. Giuliani had set in motion a night earlier.
Mr. Giuliani did not consult every member of the president’s legal team, or the network of lawyers around Washington whose clients have been entangled in Mr. Trump’s legal disputes, according to several people close to the team. Emmet T. Flood, a lawyer hired by Mr. Trump on Wednesday, was not involved in Mr. Giuliani’s plans to reveal the payments to Mr. Cohen during an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, one of the people said.
The abrupt disclosure — which even caught Mr. Hannity, a confidant of the president’s, by surprise — set off a flurry of calls between Mr. Trump’s lawyers as they sought to determine whether Mr. Giuliani meant to reveal the president’s reimbursement. Witnesses and lawyers around Washington scoured transcripts, watched television clips and called each other in an effort to grasp the consequences of what Mr. Giuliani had said.
The president’s other lawyers ultimately determined that Mr. Giuliani had consulted with Mr. Trump, people close to them said, but were left speechless about why he decided to make the disclosure in such a high-profile way and without any strategy to handle the fallout.
Mr. Giuliani recognized the situation was problematic, two people close to him said, because Mr. Trump had previously said on Air Force One that he was unaware of the hush payments to Stephanie Clifford, the actress who performs as Stormy Daniels. However, Mr. Trump and his aides see lying to or misleading the news media as far less troublesome than lying to investigators, they said.