One of the ironies at the heart of President Trump’s effort to hide an alleged sexual encounter in 2006 with adult-film actress Stormy Daniels is that, had the story emerged shortly before Election Day 2016, it’s not clear it would have done much damage. We say that in part because a hint of the story did come out before the election, and Trump won. We say it in part, too, because the emergence of the story after his inauguration nestled neatly into the well-worn grooves of public opinion in the Trump era: His supporters mostly wave it off while his opponents splutter with irritation.
But Trump, his campaign team, his administration and his private business all contributed to trying to bury the Daniels story. We keep learning new ways in which this coverup was constructed, with the addition Tuesday morning of a report in the Wall Street Journal indicating that Trump personally pushed earlier this year for a restraining order to be issued against Daniels.
That report runs contrary to comments from both the president and the Trump Organization, a conflict that, by now, is par for the course in the Daniels situation. But it’s still important to highlight, specifically because it reinforces the extent to which Trump and those around him tried to cover up and lie about something that, had another path been taken, might not have been a big deal at all.
Here’s how the coverup unfolded.
July 2006. Daniels and Trump meet at a golf tournament at Lake Tahoe. Daniels alleges that they have sex.
2011. Daniels details the alleged encounter in an interview with the celebrity In Touch Weekly magazine. The magazine never runs the interview after Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, threatens to sue.
June 16, 2015. Trump announces his candidacy for the presidency.
August 2015. David Pecker, the head of the media company that publishes the National Enquirer, offers to help the Trump campaign identify negative stories so that they can be squashed. (This is according to a document from federal prosecutors outlining Cohen’s efforts to bury the Daniels story.)
Oct. 8, 2016. Precisely one month before the election, a National Enquirer editor hears that Daniels is shopping her story around. He and Pecker contact Cohen and connect him to Daniels’s attorney. Over the next few days, Cohen reaches an agreement with the lawyer to pay Daniels $130,000 to stay quiet.
When Cohen pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation related to the Daniels payment, he stated that he had worked in coordination with Trump to make the payment, made “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
Oct. 26. But Cohen didn’t pay it right away. On Oct. 25, 2016, the National Enquirer editor texted Cohen to tell him that Daniels’s attorney was close to finalizing an agreement with another outlet to tell her story. (That outlet was apparently Slate.) The next day, Cohen transferred the money from a home equity line of credit — a loan that was fraudulently obtained, he later admitted — to an LLC he had created called Essential Consultants. From there, the money was sent to Daniels.
Nov. 1. The agreement is signed by Daniels and Cohen.
“In so doing,” the government document says, “he coordinated with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments.”
Nov. 4. The Wall Street Journal reports another hush agreement involving Trump and the National Enquirer, mentioning Daniels tangentially.
Hope Hicks, the campaign’s spokeswoman, tells the Journal that allegations of an affair between Daniels and Trump are “absolutely, unequivocally” untrue.
Nov. 8. Trump wins the presidency.
Jan. 20, 2017. Trump is inaugurated. To separate his business from his new role, he hands over control of the Trump Organization to his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump.
In an interview with Forbes in March 2018, Eric Trump describes how the wall between the president and his business will work.
“I do not talk about the government with him, and he does not talk about the business with us,” the younger Trump says. “That’s kind of a steadfast pact we made, and it’s something that we honor.”
Jan. 12, 2018. The Journal breaks the story about the Daniels payment. The White House replies, “These are old, recycled reports, which were published and strongly denied prior to the election.”
Jan. 18. The White House is asked about the allegations.
“This allegation was asked and answered during the campaign, and I’ll point you to those comments,” says principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah. He adds, “Anything else could be directed to Michael Cohen.”
Mid-February. The Journal’s report on Tuesday indicates that Trump told Cohen to get a restraining order against Daniels, seeking to enforce the hush agreement before she gave an interview to the media.
The Journal reports:
“Mr. Trump told Mr. Cohen to coordinate the legal response with Eric Trump, one of the president’s sons, and another outside lawyer who had represented Mr. Trump and the Trump Organization in other matters, the people said. Eric Trump, who is running the company with his brother in Mr. Trump’s absence, then tasked a Trump Organization staff attorney in California with signing off on the arbitration paperwork, these people said.”
Feb. 13. Cohen tells the New York Times that he did pay Daniels but that all of the money came from him.
“Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly,” he says. “The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.”
It’s important to note that this, at the time, was questionable. Cohen, as an agent of the Trump campaign, couldn’t make a payment of that amount to aid Trump’s election. Cohen tried to imply at that point that the payment was unrelated to the campaign, but that strained credulity. He later admitted that it wasn’t true, as noted above.
Feb. 22. An attorney for the Trump Organization, Jill Martin, files arbitration paperwork in California. Five days later, the restraining order is granted.
“Ms. Martin was asked to sign off on the arbitration documents by Mr. Rosen,” an outside attorney, “who told her the request came from Eric Trump, according to the people familiar with the matter,” the Journal reported Tuesday.
March 6. Daniels sues to negate the agreement.
March 7. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is asked about Daniels’s claims.
“Look,” Sanders says, “the president has addressed these directly and made very well clear that none of these allegations are true. This case has already been won in arbitration. And anything beyond that, I would refer you to the president’s outside counsel.”
Pressed on the claim that the president had addressed the payment, Sanders reiterated that Trump “has denied the allegations against him. And, again, this case has already been won in arbitration. Anything beyond that, I would refer you to outside counsel.”
Asked whether he knew about the payment at the time it was made, Sanders replied, “Not that I’m aware of.”
Sanders is also asked why the Trump campaign continues to pay Cohen for legal services. She says she “can’t speak on behalf of the campaign.”
March 14. The Journal notes the Trump Organization attorney’s role in the arbitration.
“Ms. Martin emailed a statement from the company that said she facilitated the filing ‘in her individual capacity’ until a New York-based lawyer gained approval to practice in California,” it reports. “ ‘The company has had no involvement in the matter,’ the statement said.”
March 25. Daniels appears on “60 Minutes,” where she tells interviewer Anderson Cooper about her alleged affair with Trump.
March 26. An attorney for Cohen sends Daniels a cease-and-desist letter in the wake of the “60 Minutes” interview.
At the White House press briefing, Shah is asked whether the Daniels payment violated election law.
“I can speak for only the White House, and I can say, categorically, and obviously, the White House didn’t engage in any wrongdoing,” he says. “The campaign or Mr. Cohen can address anything with respect to their actions.”
March 29. An attorney for Cohen, David Schwartz, tells CNN’s Erin Burnett that Trump wasn’t aware of the payment.
“The president was not aware of the agreement,” Schwartz says. “At least Michael Cohen never told him about the agreement. I can tell you that.”
April 5. Trump for the first time answers questions about the Daniels payment directly during a conversation with reporters on Air Force One.
REPORTER: Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
TRUMP: No. No. What else?
REPORTER: Then why did Michael Cohen make those if there was no truth to her allegations?
TRUMP: Well, you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. And you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen.
REPORTER: Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?
TRUMP: No, I don’t know. No.
Trump’s responses to the first two questions are later directly rebutted by Cohen in his plea agreement.
April 9. Cohen’s homes and office are raided by federal investigators, kicking off an extended battle over what is and isn’t protected by attorney-client privilege. Attorneys for both Trump and the Trump Organization join Cohen in trying to keep investigators from accessing all of the material seized in the raid.
April 26. Trump is interviewed on “Fox and Friends.” He’s asked about his relationship with Cohen.
“He has a percentage of my overall legal work — a tiny, tiny little fraction,” Trump says. “But, Michael would represent me and represent me on some things. He represents me — like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal he represented me. And, you know, from what I see, he did absolutely nothing wrong. There were no campaign funds going into this, which would have been a problem.”
Trump speculates that Cohen’s legal trouble is unrelated to his work for the president or the Trump Organization.
May 2. In an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity (who had been identified as a client of Cohen’s the previous month), Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani claims that the $130,000 paid by Cohen was ultimately repaid by the Trump Organization. Giuliani insists that this makes the repayment entirely aboveboard.
Trump, Giuliani says, “didn’t know about the specifics of [the Daniels payment], as far as I know. But he did know about the general arrangement, that Michael would take care of things like this. Like, I take care of this with my clients. I don’t burden them with every single thing that comes along. These are busy people.”
May 3. Amid the firestorm that Giuliani’s comments whipped up, Trump responds with several tweets.
“Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA. These agreements are very common among celebrities and people of wealth. In this case it is in full force and effect and will be used in Arbitration for damages against Ms. Clifford (Daniels). The agreement was used to stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair, despite already having signed a detailed letter admitting that there was no affair. Prior to its violation by Ms. Clifford and her attorney, this was a private agreement. Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction.”
Later that day, Sanders is asked how Trump rationalized having denied knowledge of the payment in the April 5 interview.
“This was information that the president didn’t know at the time but eventually learned,” Sanders replied.
Aug. 21. Cohen admits to having paid Daniels to influence the election and to having done so at the direction of Trump for the benefit of Trump’s campaign.
Nearly simultaneously, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is convicted of several criminal charges in a federal courtroom in Virginia.
Aug. 22. Trump praises Manafort for not breaking under pressure from the feds, taking a swipe at Cohen in the process by implying that Cohen “made up stories.”
Three weeks later, Manafort breaks under pressure from the feds.