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The quintessential Trump campaign story: A bag of cash, Michael Cohen and a rigged online poll

President Trump regularly bragged about online surveys during the 2016 campaign that his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen said he tried to rig at one time. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

We have, on Thursday, a story that perhaps serves as the best encapsulation to date of how the early days of Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency worked, a summary that, itself, seems to explain much of what happened afterward.

It’s the details that are particularly compelling. It was, according to the Wall Street Journal, a Walmart bag, blue, containing somewhere over $12,000 in cash and a boxing glove that Michael Cohen, then Trump’s personal attorney, claimed had been owned by a Brazilian fighter. We’re meant to infer from Cohen’s assurances on the glove that it was somehow worth $38,000; otherwise, that Walmart bag wouldn’t have contained the $50,000 that Cohen was supposed to turn over.

This was in early 2015, before Trump was a candidate for the presidency, but the wheels were already in motion. Cohen had engaged a tech guy named John Gauger to help prime the pump for a Trump candidacy, according to the Journal, asking him to rig a non-scientific poll hosted at the Drudge Report.

It didn’t really work. That poll, completed on Feb. 2, 2015, ended up with Trump getting 5 percent of the vote, well behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and even Ben Carson, now a member of Trump’s Cabinet.

We’ll come back to the bag of cash (which Cohen claims was actually a check) and how Cohen sought repayment for the investment, but let’s drill down on the online, click-in poll for a second. This particular compelling detail, after all, is as revealing as the one about the bag of cash.

First of all, that Trump’s team was cheating and still only garnered 24,000 votes is somewhat remarkable. Computer scripts can vote a lot more frequently than once every four seconds — if done right. The Journal says Cohen had hired Gauger the year prior to try to rig another poll at CNBC in which Trump also fared particularly poorly, suggesting that perhaps Gauger’s ineptitude at this particular task had somehow gone unnoticed by Cohen.

Update: Or maybe not. After that poll ended, Trump tweeted that it was “a joke,” as Politico’s Kyle Cheney spotted.

“I was in 9th place and taken off. (Politics?)" he wrote. Maybe — or maybe CNBC detected the vote-rigging. That possibility would explain why Cohen went back to Gauger a second time.

But remember, too, how much Trump focused on online polls once the general election campaign got underway in 2016. During the primaries, his popularity with Republicans kept him atop most polls. In the general, he consistently trailed Hillary Clinton and, following the presidential debates, was generally seen as having been soundly beaten. So he would turn to the sort of garbage polls that Cohen had tried to rig 18 months before, touting his overwhelming victories with the conservative audience at Drudge and his success in other post-debate polls at sites that were also often linked from the Drudge homepage.

For Trump — not unlike other politicians, certainly — it has always been important to seem popular and dominant. Had the Drudge poll shown him in the lead, there is little question that Trump would have tweeted about it; instead, he ignored it. This was about four months before Trump formally announced his campaign at an event in Trump Tower, where a consulting firm working for the campaign had paid people to attend in order to boost the crowd. As he approached the lectern for that announcement, he wasted no time in pointing out the robustness of the audience, some already in “Make America Great Again” T-shirts.

So Cohen did something similar with this Drudge poll and then reportedly stiffed Gauger for his work (unless, of course, that was a very valuable boxing glove). That didn’t stop Cohen from billing the Trump Organization for the full amount of a $50,000 investment, the Journal writes — though this, again, isn’t much of a surprise. This is the same Michael Cohen who shortly before the election laid out $130,000 to keep adult-film actress Stormy Daniels from going public with her story about an alleged affair with Trump — an investment for which Cohen was repaid more than $400,000.

That payment to Daniels spawned one of the federal felonies to which Cohen admitted guilt last summer. It’s illegal to spend that much money to influence a campaign without it being campaign money and without reporting it. Lawrence Noble, former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission, said in an email to The Post on Thursday that the payment to Gauger could similarly cross legal boundaries.

“If Trump paid (or Cohen paid with the agreement of Trump) to have an online poll rigged for the purpose of influencing his run for election, it was a campaign expenditure,” he wrote. In a tweet shortly after the Journal’s report was published, Cohen indicated that the effort was at Trump’s behest.

“The issue is whether it was for the purpose of determining whether to run or help him when he made his announcement,” Noble continued. “If so, it could be considered a testing-the-waters expenditure. It could also be evidence he had already decided to run. Either way, it could be subject to the campaign finance laws.” That the $50,000 repayment may have come from the Trump Organization adds another legal problem, Noble added.

Consider the pattern here. In February and in June, Trump or people working for him tried to draw attention to his candidacy. Those doing the work, Gauger and the marketing firm that paid the attendees at the launch, were apparently either paid late (the latter) or underpaid.

Trump actually had a message that resonated with Republican voters: a hard line on immigration. It was a message amplified a few weeks after his campaign launch when business partners severed their relationships with him over his comments linking migrants from Mexico to crime and drugs. It was a message that boosted him into the lead in the Republican field for good, obviating the need for the sorts of gimmicks Cohen was working on.

For a while, anyway. The Journal report is a reinforcement that there were two points at which we see illicit investments by Cohen and the campaign meant to protect or goose the candidacy: Shortly before it began and shortly before Election Day — both points at which Trump seemed vulnerable. It raises the question: From June to October 2016, when Trump went from dominating the Republican field to trailing Clinton badly, why should we not assume that other surreptitious investments might have been made?