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Trump’s company approved $420,000 in payments to Cohen, relying on ‘sham’ invoices, prosecutors say

August 21, 2018 at 10:56 PM

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President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty Aug. 21 to eight violations of banking, tax and campaign finance laws. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s real estate company authorized paying $420,000 to lawyer Michael Cohen in his effort to silence women during the presidential campaign and then relied on “sham” invoices from Cohen that concealed the nature of the payments, according to legal filings released Tuesday.

The payments began flowing in February 2017, soon after Trump took office, when Cohen approached Trump Organization executives seeking to be reimbursed for “election-related” expenses, prosecutors said.

That included a $130,000 payment Cohen had made to adult-film star Stormy Daniels so she would remain silent about an alleged affair with Trump, according to the court documents.

Trump executives decided Cohen should be paid more than he sought — an additional $360,000 for expenses and other fees and taxes, plus a $60,000 bonus, prosecutors said.

The involvement of Trump’s company in the hush-money payments has been previously reported, but Tuesday’s documents, released as part of Cohen’s plea deal with federal prosecutors, offered the most detailed accounting yet of the full scope of the payments and the machinations inside the president’s company over how they were made.

Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to President Donald Trump, leaves federal court after reaching a plea agreement in New York, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

While Trump removed himself from day-to-day operations of the Trump Organization after the election, he put his assets in a trust and retained his ownership stake.

A Trump spokesman referred questions to the Trump Organization, where a spokesman declined to comment on the arrangements Tuesday evening.

The documents point to two unnamed Trump Organization employees who prosecutors say approved the payments — with one executive instructing an employee to describe the fees to Cohen as legal expenses. The employee was instructed to put the words “retainer for the month of January and February 2017” in the description of the first payments, court filings said.

Cohen submitted monthly invoices and received all the monthly checks, according to the filings, for a total of $420,000.

“In truth and fact, there was no such retainer agreement, and the monthly invoices COHEN submitted were not in connection with any legal services he had provided in 2017,” prosecutors wrote.

Trump’s trust paid Cohen early in 2017, but according to Trump’s attorney, he personally paid Cohen the rest of the monthly invoices. The payments, as well as Cohen’s admission to prosecutors that he made illegal campaign contributions “in cooperation” with Trump’s campaign, present potential legal questions for Trump’s company and his campaign, experts said.

“If you believe the theory that the payment was made solely for the purpose of influencing a federal election, then the recipient of the benefit would be the Trump presidential campaign, and therefore they would have received an impermissible excessive contribution,” said Charlie Spies, who served as counsel for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign.

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CNN aired audio from 2016 of then-candidate Donald Trump and his lawyer Michael Cohen discussing purchasing the rights to model Karen McDougal's story of their alleged affair, after months of claims of Trump's ignorance about any payment arrangements. (Jenny Starrs /The Washington Post)

The total amount cited Tuesday by prosecutors marked the latest twist in the hush-money saga, which gained notice earlier this year when Daniels went public with information about her arrangement with Cohen. Cohen also arranged for a Trump ally and friend, the the publisher of the National Enquirer, to purchase and bury the story of another woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claimed an affair with Trump.

Initially, Trump had said he was unaware of the payments to Daniels.

But later, Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani revealed publicly that Trump made a series of payments reimbursing Cohen for the $130,000 settlement with Daniels.

Trump then acknowledged that Cohen was reimbursed through a monthly retainer to stop what Trump called “false and extortionist accusations” about a decade-old affair.

In May, Trump’s attorneys filed disclosures with the Office of Government Ethics reporting that Cohen had incurred expenses of between $100,001 and $250,000 in 2016 just before the election, and that Trump fully reimbursed Cohen in 2017.

But the prosecutor in the Cohen investigation said Tuesday that Cohen “sought reimbursement for that money by submitting invoices to the candidate’s company, which were untrue and false. They indicated that the reimbursement was for services rendered for the year 2017, when in fact the invoices were a sham.”


Carol Leonnig is an investigative reporter at The Washington Post, where she has worked since 2000. She won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for her work on security failures and misconduct inside the Secret Service.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee is a reporter on The Washington Post's national political enterprise and accountability team, covering money and influence in politics.

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