Let’s set aside the political question of the agreement reached between adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal attorney at the Trump Organization. And let’s set aside the legal questions that surround the idea that the payment was meant to bury the story before the 2016 election, which we have explored elsewhere.
Let’s instead consider another question that might apply to individuals who work for the government in less significant capacities than the presidency. Does the existence of that agreement with Daniels (and, potentially, one with Playmate Karen McDougal) mean that Trump was susceptible to blackmail in a way that might cost someone else a government position?
This has been presented as the more significant question to emerge from the “60 Minutes” interview with Daniels that aired on Sunday. In Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” (which has justifiably prompted some skepticism), former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon is quoted as suggesting that Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz “took care of” a hundred women during the campaign. None of those women have come forward, but the accusations presented by Daniels and McDougal (only the latter of which was public when Wolff’s book was published) make clear that there have been some instances in which alleged relationships with Trump were kept out of the public eye in exchange for money.
The idea, then, is that this gives foreign adversaries potential leverage over the president. In January 2017, acting attorney general Sally Yates visited the White House to warn White House counsel Donald McGahn that national security adviser Michael Flynn had misled Vice President Pence when he said that he hadn’t discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador in a phone call the previous December. The FBI knew this wasn’t true. So did the Russians.
This is the problem. If Russia knows that Flynn lied to the vice president, Russian agents can then try to leverage Flynn’s deceit to get him to do their bidding. They can blackmail him, in other words. This was key to Yates’s warning to McGahn.
Would alleged relationships that Trump or his allies (as in the McDougal case) paid to cover up put Trump at similar risk? Yes, according to experts with whom we spoke.
To summarize: Those seeking security clearance from the federal government fill out a form called the SF-86. It’s then turned over to the FBI, which investigates the person’s background, interviewing individuals who can validate the claims made in that document and looking for factors that might suggest that the person is a security risk. The FBI then offers the results of its investigations to adjudicating agencies in government departments that decide whether clearance should be granted.
What the government hopes to avoid is a situation in which someone has access to sensitive information having reason to want to give that information to our adversaries. People who have secrets, people who engage in behavior that might lead to such secrets or people who owe a lot of money are good examples of the sort of applicants about whom the government might be concerned. (Trump’s personal assistant John McEntee was fired this month after questions were raised about his gambling — a habit which could lead to owing a great deal of money.)
In February, when questions were raised about the security clearance process for White House staff secretary Rob Porter, we spoke with a veteran of the adjudication process (under presidents of both parties) who now works for a company that does business with the government. He walked me through the 13-point guidelines for granting clearance. We spoke again on Monday morning, and he pointed to several of those points of which the Daniels payment runs afoul.
Two that he isolated:
- Guideline D: Sexual Behavior: “Conditions that could raise a security concern and may be disqualifying include: … (c) sexual behavior that causes an individual to be vulnerable to coercion, exploitation, or duress.” He noted that Trump’s alleged proclivity for extramarital encounters might by itself be problematic, since those encounters could make him vulnerable to coercion.
- Guideline E: Personal Conduct: “Conditions that could raise a security concern and may be disqualifying include: (a) deliberate omission, concealment, or falsification of relevant facts from any personnel security questionnaire, … (b) deliberately providing false or misleading information; or concealing or omitting information.”
He also pointed to a broad guideline: “Any doubt concerning personnel being considered for national security eligibility will be resolved in favor of the national security.” In other words, an adjudicator weighing the import of concealed information who sees it as a coin toss as to whether clearance should be granted should err on the side of denying the clearance.
Trump’s security adjudication, he noted, came in the form of the presidential election, and the American public granted him the right to gain the highest security clearance when he won the electoral vote. (Of course, the public was not aware of the Stormy Daniels agreement at that point.) Had he been in a position to require security clearance, the veteran of the adjudication process seemed to be suggesting, it’s not clear that Trump would have earned it.
We also spoke with Joseph Lewis, a former assistant director at the FBI who served with the agency for nearly three decades.
“A significant problem, of course, is that you don’t know what is being paid for in this case,” he said, noting that Trump and his attorney have denied the relationship with Daniels. In general, though, “if you get into paying hush money, there are consequences — or at least some indication that there might be something that you don’t want exposed, and therefore something that had to be looked into.”
In his experience, though, it’s rare that private sexual relationships were actually used to blackmail government officials.
“I’ve worked some pretty high political corruption areas during my time,” Lewis said, “and I just can’t recall one.”
Generally, he said, corruption cases involved federal officials being offered payment. A review of recent espionage cases, for example, makes clear that those facing charges for stealing state secrets generally committed that crime in exchange for money and/or out of loyalty to the goals of a foreign government. The exception: In the late 1980s, there was the case of Clayton Lonetree, a Marine guard at the embassy in Moscow who gave secrets to the KGB, he said, to protect a KGB agent with whom he was having a relationship. (When it was revealed in court that his affair was almost certainly a function of KGB tactics, not love, he broke into tears.) Beyond that, it’s mostly money.
Earlier this month, retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey caused a stir when he alleged on Twitter that Trump was “for some unknown reason under the sway” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The insinuation, a not-uncommon one over the past two years, is that Putin might have some leverage over Trump. This was central to the first (unsubstantiated) report in the infamous dossier of material compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele that the Russian government was in possession of compromising information about Trump.
The situation with Daniels reinforces the broad idea here: that Trump — at least in the view of his attorney — had some secrets to hide.