The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did a watchdog group just find Trump’s Stormy Daniels hush money? Er, probably not.

Adult film star Stormy Daniels in Delhi, La., on July 3, 2009. (Arely D. Castillo/News-Star via AP)

There are few things more zealous than an amateur sleuth in search of a smoking gun to take down President Trump. Social media is replete with suddenly popular users pitching dubiously assembled theories that finally prove once and for all (in their minds) that Trump sold out his country or is effectively working as a foreign agent.

And it can go too far rather quickly.

That seems to be the case with the reaction to the tweet (below) from a watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). CREW found a $130,000-plus payment made by the Trump campaign to Trump Tower after the 2016 election. And given that Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, reportedly paid $130,000 in hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels just before the election, it put those two facts out there next to each other for voracious Trump critics to devour.

And devour they did. The tweet has about 9,000 retweets, 12,000 likes and is quickly climbing.

In fairness, the tweet does include a caveat — “In what is probably just a coincidence” — and CREW says it meant that quite literally. But that's not how it's being interpreted by those anxious to read the worst into this apparent coincidence.

And to be completely clear, it does appear to be a coincidence — or at the very least, there is a much more plausible explanation for all of this rather than something nefarious.

As Georgia Logothetis pointed out, this payment — which is recorded as being for “rent” — follows similar monthly rent payments of different amounts to Trump Tower Commercial LLC. The payments were $169,758.33 five times between July and October, and then $283,500 in November, when the election was held. In December, it dropped to $130,888.33. Then it dropped more, save for a larger payment in February 2017.

Here are all the rent payments made from the Trump campaign to Trump Tower:

Date  Amount
7/29/2015  $       25,874.17
8/20/2015  $       35,457.50
9/3/2015  $       35,457.50
11/9/2015  $       35,457.50
12/1/2015  $       35,457.50
1/4/2016  $       35,457.50
1/30/2016  $       35,457.50
3/10/2016  $       35,457.50
3/29/2016  $       35,457.50
4/30/2016  $       35,457.50
5/31/2016  $       72,800.00
6/9/2016  $    110,684.17
7/10/2016  $    169,758.33
8/10/2016  $    169,758.33
9/9/2016  $    169,758.33
10/7/2016  $    169,758.33
10/31/2016  $    169,758.33
11/28/2016  $    283,500.00
12/21/2016  $    130,888.33
1/10/2017  $       75,123.75
2/22/2017  $    158,996.39
3/13/2017  $       39,892.89
4/1/2017  $       39,816.67
4/26/2017  $       39,816.67
5/24/2017  $       40,816.67
7/25/2017  $       39,816.67
8/1/2017  $       37,541.67
8/3/2017  $         4,550.00

It would also seem odd that whoever made this payment would randomly add $888.33 to what has been reported to be a $130,000 hush-money payment. Some wagered this may have been the fee to wire the money. Or maybe it was part of the coverup, to make sure the payment wasn't exactly $130,000! Well, that would be a rather halfhearted attempt at a coverup to not even change one of the first three digits. Those numbers make sense, given campaigns will ramp up right before the election and then ramp down afterward. And the amount appears to be based on some formula that resulted in some of the payments ending in fractions of a dollar (33 cents or 67 cents are one-thirds and two-thirds, rounded off, 17 cents is one-sixth of a dollar, 89 cents is eight-ninths of a dollar, etc.). This could be because of a rate being paid per square foot, or something like that.

The point is that people need to be careful about connecting dots, because it risks making it look like they'll connect virtually any dots — even if they have to bust through basic logic to do so. And that certainly undermines seriousness of the whole thing.

Is it possible this is related to the Daniels payment? Of course, in the sense that you can't completely disprove most any conspiracy theory. But it doesn't pass the smell test.

CREW sent over this statement, via spokesman Jordan Libowitz. He said the coincidence line wasn't meant sarcastically, but added that it is worth further examination: “It probably is a coincidence. But given the timing and the amount and the president's history of not paying for things himself, we thought it was worth flagging. The campaign spent a ton of money at Trump properties, and the descriptions we see in FEC reports may not tell the whole story. We're not alleging wrongdoing, just noting that at the least, it's an interesting coincidence, and one worth looking into.”

CREW also tweeted this clarification:

Correction: This piece briefly misstated the gender of the CREW spokesman.