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Democrats on FEC blast decision to drop probe into Trump hush-money payment to Stormy Daniels: ‘Defies reality’

Stormy Daniels was paid $130,000 in the days leading up to the 2016 election. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

The Federal Election Commission on Thursday dropped its inquiry to determine whether Donald Trump violated campaign finance laws when his personal lawyer paid an adult-film actress $130,000 in the days leading up to the 2016 election.

The case stems from allegations that Trump ordered his personal lawyer at the time, Michael Cohen, to make a hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to keep her from disclosing an affair less than two weeks before Election Day.

Cohen has served time in prison for lying to Congress, breaking campaign finance laws and tax evasion, but Trump has not faced any consequences in the incident.

The bipartisan commission evenly split on the matter, with the two Democrats who voted to continue the investigation questioning how their Republican colleagues could drop the case.

“To conclude that a payment, made 13 days before Election Day to hush up a suddenly newsworthy 10-year-old story, was not campaign-related, without so much as conducting an investigation, defies reality,” Chair Shana Broussard and Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub said in a statement Thursday. “But putting that aside, Cohen testified under oath that he made the payment for the principal purpose of influencing the election. This more than satisfies the Commission’s ‘reason to believe’ standard to authorize an investigation.”

The two Republican commissioners, Sean Cooksey and Trey Trainor, said they voted to dismiss the case because it was “statute-of-limitations imperiled” and that pursuing it further would be a poor use of agency resources. They argued that because there had been other federal inquiries into the incident — namely the Justice Department probe that led to Cohen’s prosecution — an FEC case would be redundant.

“The Commission regularly dismisses matters where other government agencies have already adequately enforced and vindicated the Commission’s interests,” they said in a statement on Thursday.

Without a majority voting to move forward, the case was dropped. One Republican member recused himself from the case, and one Democrat was not present to vote on the issue.

The Democrats agreed that Cohen’s role in the payment scheme had been sufficiently litigated, but disagreed with the decision to abandon the case. They cited a December recommendation by the agency’s Office of General Counsel that suggested the commission find that Trump and his campaign “knowingly and willfully” violated multiple election laws.

“There is ample evidence in the record to support the finding that Trump and the Committee knew of, and nonetheless accepted, the illegal contributions at issue here,” Broussard and Weintraub said in their statement.

The FEC first launched its inquiry in 2018 after the nonprofit government watchdog group Common Cause filed a complaint against the Trump campaign.

On Thursday, Paul S. Ryan, Common Cause’s vice president for policy and litigation, said the decision to drop the case showcased how the federal agency is “broken.”

“The FEC’s nonpartisan career staff attorneys recommended that the Commission find reason to believe that Trump, his campaign committee, and the Trump Organization committed the violations alleged in Common Cause’s complaints,” Ryan said in a statement. “Today’s announcement that the FEC will not be holding Trump accountable for his campaign finance violations is just the latest display of dysfunction at the FEC.”

Ryan also encouraged the Justice Department to pursue an investigation of Trump’s role in the scheme before the statute of limitations expires in October.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has publicly discussed an alleged affair that she had with Trump, but she also issued a statement denying the intimate relationship in 2018. She and Trump had been locked in a legal battle over the hush-money payments and the agreement to keep the decades-old affair quiet until last year.

Cohen has admitted making the $130,000 payment to Clifford and was sentenced to three years in federal prison for several financial crimes, including paying women to remain silent during the 2016 campaign about their alleged relationships with Trump. He testified under oath that Trump directed him to make the payments.

Trump denied ordering Cohen to make the payment for nearly two years, until he acknowledged reimbursing his lawyer in May 2018. Even then, Trump denied that the payment had any connection to his campaign, despite its proximity to Election Day and the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, which sparked one of the biggest controversies of his first presidential candidacy just days before Cohen paid Clifford.

On Thursday, Cohen blasted the FEC’s decision to drop its case without pursuing consequences for the former president.

“The hush money payment was done at the direction of and for the benefit of Donald J. Trump,” Cohen said in a statement after the decision. “Like me, Trump should have been found guilty. How the FEC committee could rule any other way is confounding.”