Tucker Carlson arrives for the 60th anniversary celebration of NBC's "Meet the Press" at the Newseum in Washington in 2007. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
Media critic

One allegation from Friday’s many federal court filings appears to have lingered in the mind of Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) alleged that the illegal campaign contributions of Michael Cohen, the former fixer for President Trump, came “in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.” By now, we all know the identity of Individual-1.

Those illegal campaign contributions were payoffs to two women — Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels — who were interested in telling their stories about alleged affairs with Trump. The notion that Trump would have directed this scheme prompted some very forceful commentary, as Carlson documented on his program Monday night. “If precedent means anything in the Trump era, Donald Trump will be, must be impeached because of the crimes prosecutors say he committed in the Michael Cohen case,” said MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell.

In the face of the court filings, Carlson took a step back and asked: What’s the problem here? Here’s his explanation:

Why is what Cohen is alleging a criminal offense? Remember the facts of the story. These are undisputed: Two women approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money. Now, that sounds like a classic case of extortion. Yet for whatever reason, Trump caves to it and he directs Michael Cohen to pay the ransom. Now more than two years later, Trump is a felon for doing this. It doesn’t seem to make any sense. Oh, but you’re not a federal prosecutor on a political mission. If you were a federal prosecutor on a political mission, you would construe those extortion payments as campaign contributions. You’d do this even though the money in question did not come from or go to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Then you’d claim that Trump and Michael Cohen violated campaign finance law because they didn’t publicly disclose those payments , despite the fact that disclosing them would nullify the reason for making them in the first place, which was to keep the whole thing secret. That is the argument you would make, both in federal court and through your proxies on cable television. It is insultingly stupid but because everyone in power hates the target of your investigation, nobody would question you, and that’s what’s happening right now.

Bolding added to highlight a clever little flourish. The facts-not-in-dispute preface is an old standby — a way for well-intentioned commentators to introduce a novel argument or interpretation. In this case, the allegedly not-in-dispute facts are that these two women “approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family.”

These “undisputed” facts find a high degree of disputation in federal court filings. For example, the SDNY filing notes that McDougal — identified as "Woman-1″ — began attempting in June 2016 to sell her story about Trump, a process that included hiring an attorney. From the court papers:

Attorney-1 then contacted the editor-in-chief (“Editor-1”) of a popular tabloid magazine

(“Magazine-1”) and offered to sell the story to Magazine-1. The Chairman and Chief Executive

Officer (“Chairman-1”) of the media company that owns Magazine-1 (“Corporation-1”) had a

prior relationship with Individual-1 and Cohen. In August 2014, Chairman-1 had met with Cohen

and Individual-1, and had offered to help deal with negative stories about Individual-1’s

relationships with women by identifying such stories so that they could be purchased and “killed.”

Consistent with that offer, after Editor-1 told Chairman-1 about Woman-1’s story, they contacted

Cohen to tell him about the offer.

Let’s fill in some blanks: “Chaiman-1” is David Pecker, the American Media executive who oversees the National Enquirer and has performed “catch-and-kill” services for Trump. The term refers to the act of paying for the rights to a salacious and unfavorable story, only to turn around and shelve it for good.

Now for the SDNY description of the Stormy Daniels (“Woman-2”) situation:

On October 8, 2016, an agent for an adult film actress (“Woman-2”) informed Editor-1 that

Woman-2 was willing to make public statements and confirm on the record her alleged past affair

with Individual-1. Chairman-1 and Editor-1 contacted Cohen and put him in touch with Attorney-1,

who was also representing Woman-2. Over the course of the next few days, Cohen negotiated

a $130,000 agreement with Attorney-1 to purchase Woman-2’s silence. Cohen received a signed

confidential settlement agreement and a separate side letter from Attorney-1.

So: What Carlson’s account misses is the sleaze inherent in the Trump-Cohen arrangement: They’d worked with their buddies at the National Enquirer to construct an early-warning system for bad news. The plea agreement that Cohen struck with SDNY prosecutors back in August spells out the formula. According to that document, Pecker in August 2015 “offered to help deal with negative stories about Individual-1′s relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided. [Pecker] agreed to keep Cohen apprised of any such negative stories.” Consistent with that arrangement, continues the plea document, “Corporation-1 advised Cohen of negative stories during the course of the campaign, and Cohen, with the assistance of Corporation-1, was able to arrange for the purchase of two stories so as to suppress them and prevent them from influencing the election.”

In the universe of Tucker Carlson, then, Trump is a poor victim of extortionist villains.

In the universe of fact-based court filings, Trump is the ringleader of a corrupt scheme with a simple purpose: Tell us who we may need to pay off.

In a discussion later in his program, Carlson welcomed Alan M. Dershowitz to discuss the ins and outs of his polemic. This exchange occurred:

CARLSON: Is - is it unfair to describe this scenario as extortion?  I say I know something about your sex life. I know a secret about you that you want to keep the - that’s non-criminal but that you want to keep hidden. And unless you pay me money, I’m going to reveal it.  That seems like textbook extortion to me. Why is it not?

DERSHOWITZ: It is absolutely textbook extortion.  And there ought to be a prosecution of any person, man or woman, who approaches any candidate or anybody else and says, “Unless you pay me money, I’m going to reveal a sex act that occurred.” That is absolute classic extortion.

And it’s shocking that the Special Counsel looking into this, who has a  broad mandate, he described it very broadly, isn’t looking into the extortion  committed by, at least, the porn star, whose lawyer obviously approached the candidate or the candidate’s people, and threatened exposure. Otherwise, why would you pay? Just listen to the tape. The tape makes that clear. The tape that Cohen made unwittingly of President Trump, it’s clear that they were paying off an extortion--

Michael Avenatti, attorney for Daniels, ripped Dershowitz on Twitter:

In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog on Tuesday, Dershowitz said the McDougal situation “does not sound” like extortion, but that the Daniels case “warrants further investigation” on this front. “Extortionists are often very careful,” adds Dershowitz, noting that they may use indirect approaches to send this message, “There’s only one way you can stop me from going public and that’s to pay me.”

We’ve asked Carlson and Fox News about the “undisputed” facts of this case. We’ll update this post if we receive a response.

With one argument, Carlson managed to slime federal prosecutors, minimize the misdeeds of the Republican president and sow civic distrust among his viewers: “Screw you, America and your stupid election. We’re in charge. That’s the real message here, in case you missed it,” said Carlson.

Read more by Erik Wemple:

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