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 customer 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 started 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 expected 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 needs that federal officials, including Mr. Trump, report any liabilities of more than $10,000 during the previous 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 analyze 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 conclusively 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 look lying to or misleading the news media as far less troublesome than lying to investigators, they said.
Even some of the president’s advisers said they were skeptical of Mr. Giuliani’s statements that Mr. Cohen entered into a settlement, made payments to a pornographic film actress and was reimbursed by the president all without Mr. Trump’s knowing why.
Mr. Giuliani’s disclosure is a sign of how Mr. Trump’s reshuffled legal team — which now includes a highly paid Washington lawyer, a popular former mayor, a constitutional lawyer who specializes in religious cases and former federal prosecutors — will function in the arriving weeks as they sort out who takes the lead on representing the president.
Mr. Giuliani has said he is the lead lawyer dealing with the special counsel’s investigation in Washington. But his statements on Wednesday night related to the continuing investigation in New York that is examining the conduct of Mr. Cohen. People close to the president are concerned that Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani may make more problems for themselves if they consult only with each other and leave out the other lawyers who may know more about the nuances of the cases.
Mr. Trump faces a two-front battle with the Justice Department: one investigation in New York into Mr. Cohen and the special counsel investigation in Washington.
Whoever runs the president’s legal defenses will almost certainly adopt a more combative strategy than the previous team, which was led by the Washington lawyers John Dowd and Ty Cobb.
Despite the president’s desire to take on the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and the Justice Department, Mr. Dowd and Mr. Cobb persuaded Mr. Trump to buy into their strategy of cooperation. The more useful the president was, Mr. Dowd and Mr. Cobb told him last year, the more likely the investigation would conclude by year’s end.
Instead, the investigation has intensified, and the president has concluded that approach was a mistake, according to people close to him. Convinced that the investigation is an increasing threat to his presidency, he has resorted to his initial inclination to fight.
Mr. Trump comes to hope that Mr. Giuliani, a like-minded political street fighter from New York, will aid his aggressive approach. Mr. Giuliani’s comments on Wednesday and Thursday were an attempt to do just that.
His aggression carried risks. Besides revealing that the president had reimbursed Mr. Cohen, Mr. Giuliani came to admit that the payment to Ms. Clifford just before Election Day in 2016 was made because of concerns about the arriving vote. That could be utilized to argue that it was an illegal campaign contribution.
“Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the, you know, last debate with Hillary Clinton,” Mr. Giuliani said on the Fox News program “Fox & Friends.” “Cohen didn’t even ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job.”
Violating campaign finance laws can be serious. John Edwards, a former Democratic senator and presidential hopeful, was charged with corruption for his role in trying to hide details of his affair with a videographer during his 2008 bid for the White House. Mr. Edwards’s trial ended in an acquittal on one count with the jury unable to reach a verdict on five others.
Mr. Giuliani’s comments also raised fresh questions about the president’s relationship with Mr. Cohen. As Mr. Giuliani told it, Mr. Cohen entered into a legal agreement with Ms. Clifford and paid her without Mr. Trump’s knowledge. Mr. Giuliani described that as commonplace, saying he performed familiar services for his own customers. But legal ethics experts said such an arrangement was highly unusual and would only expose Mr. Cohen to new questions.
Lawyers are required to keep their customers fully informed of their activities and are generally prohibited from advancing money to or on behalf of their clients, said Deborah L. Rhode, a scholar on legal ethics at Stanford Law School. “This is a guy who says he’ll take a bullet for the president,” she said. “And what they’re giving him is the legal ethics equivalent of a bullet.”
“Giuliani thinks he’s serving President Trump’s interest,” she said. “President Trump’s interest is not the same as Michael Cohen’s interest.”
In his tweets on Thursday, Mr. Trump contradicted his earlier statements that he knew of no payment to Ms. Clifford. Mr. Trump said he paid a monthly retainer to Mr. Cohen and suggested that the payment to the actress could not be considered a campaign contribution.
Government watchdog groups warned that willfully violating the financial disclosure laws can be punished by a fine of up to $50,000 and a year in prison. Although federal officials who lie on the forms are also typically charged with other, more serious offenses such as bribery or fraud, more than 20 officials or former officials have been charged in the past 12 years with creating false statements to federal officials, a felony offense. An Environmental Protection Agency official who failed to report a source of income on the form, for instance, was sentence and sentenced to probation.
“Mr. Giuliani did his client no favors,” said Norman L. Eisen, the chairman of the good-government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
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 similar 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 into probable 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 Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in Ms. Clifford’s lawsuit.