Michael Cohen’s story about the development of the non-disclosure agreement signed by porn star Stormy Daniels goes like this: He, acting solely in his capacity as a loyal friend to Donald Trump, decided to negotiate the agreement in October 2016 with Daniels (without informing the then-candidate) for reasons that had nothing to do with the campaign. The cost of the settlement, $130,000, was paid out of his home equity line of credit. He was not repaid, the Wall Street Journal reported, at least through Election Day — if ever.
The effect of that story is something like a drunk making his way home in the dark. Picking a safe path is tricky given the number of unexpected obstacles that can appear out of nowhere. In this case, many of the problem areas involve campaign law, which dictates that a payment meant to clear the path for Trump’s election likely violated the law, as would the Trump Organization having helped to foot the bill. The path Cohen is picking here would theoretically avoid tripping him up — if you believe the story he tells.
A new Journal report on Tuesday suggests that federal investigators are skeptical of at least the claim that the Trump Organization played no role. Prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan have asked the Trump Organization for “records relating to” the Daniels payment. In theory, the Trump Organization wouldn’t have any awareness of the payment, of course, since Cohen says he operated completely independently of his full-time employer in making it. In practice, though, we know of at least two points of contact between the payment negotiations and the Trump Organization: Cohen used his business email to confirm the payment made to Daniels, and Daniels’s attorney sent a signed copy of the NDA back to Cohen at his Trump Organization office.
The question is whether the Trump Organization has been involved to any further extent. One theory that’s been floating out there for several weeks speculates that the $130,000 payment flowed from the campaign to the Trump Organization and then on to … Cohen? Daniels? It’s not entirely clear. But that theory — which has cropped up repeatedly — seems to clearly lack merit.
Over the last month of the campaign — more specifically, from Oct. 1, 2016, through Nov. 8, 2016 — the campaign spent more than $138 million. Of that, $1.5 million was spent at Trump properties, in keeping with the campaign’s past practices. (Among other things, the campaign was headquartered in and paid rent to Trump Tower in Manhattan.)
The argument that the $130,000 payment came from the campaign was first formulated by attorney Susan Simpson. In short, it goes like this:
- On Oct. 17, Daniels’s attorney emailed Cohen to say the deal was off because she hadn’t received any payment. “Please be advised that my client deems her settlement agreement canceled and void,” the attorney wrote.
- That same day, the campaign paid a sum totaling just under $120,000 to three Trump Organization properties in Nevada, D.C. and Virginia.
- Eight days later, another $10,000 or so was paid by the campaign to the Trump hotel in New York. In total, those five payments totaled $129,999.72.
- On Oct. 27, the agreement was finalized.
For a variety of reasons, this argument doesn’t really hold up.
The first is that those five payments are just some of the Trump campaign spending at Trump properties that month. Between Oct. 14 and Oct. 31, the campaign spent $1.2 million at Trump properties or businesses, including with TAG Air, the corporation that managed Trump’s private jet. That includes 23 separate payments totaling more than $1,000. (You can see all of the various payments on various days above.) Simpson’s tally above excludes a $460 payment to the hotel in New York on Oct. 17. It excludes a $16,100 payment to the hotel in Vegas on Oct. 25. It picks out five payments out of 29 total that add up to … not exactly $130,000.
What’s more, those payments sync with legitimate Trump events, as Simpson herself notes. There was, for example, a presidential debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 19 for which the campaign would have needed to get hotel rooms, etc.
More broadly, though, the implication is that the campaign wrote checks to these businesses, which then turned around and wrote checks to someone else without holding a single penny to cover their own costs. The implication is that either the checks went to some sketchy single point of contact who then passed the money along, or that multiple people were looped into what is obviously a violation of campaign finance law, if not fraud more generally.
It seems more likely that the payment would be buried in the one payment to TAG Air on Oct. 31 than that it was divvied up among various companies that, at the same time, were getting paid for actual services rendered. Or, if you’re violating campaign finance law anyway, why not just pay the money later?
Let’s assume, then, that this particular theory was not how the Daniels payment was cobbled together. We can then consider what is actually a more interesting question: How did the home equity line of credit work?
The actual payment to Daniels was made from a Delaware limited-liability company called Essential Consultants LLC. Cohen says that the $130,000 was taken from his home equity line of credit and transferred to a checking account controlled by the LLC at the same bank. The money was then wired to Daniels.
The Post reported Monday that FBI agents searching Cohen’s home and office were looking for “possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations.” It’s not clear what those allegations concern, but investigators could be assessing whether Cohen’s description of how the payment was made is backed up by evidence.
It’s also worth noting that the home equity line of credit was not necessarily linked to Cohen’s primary residence. He has owned a number of properties over the years, including four that he sold at a significant profit in 2014 to a private LLC.
With the search of Cohen’s property and the request to the Trump Organization, it’s likely that federal investigators now have at their disposal the information needed to determine whether Cohen’s original story was accurate. And, if not, precisely where Cohen might have stumbled in putting together his remarkable agreement with Daniels.
On Tuesday, another interesting bit of data emerged, via the pollsters at Quinnipiac University. Asked if they believed that Trump himself knew about the payment to Daniels, nearly 6 in 10 respondents said they did.
The answer to that question might be found in the communications between Cohen and Trump that were scooped up in Monday’s search warrant.