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Trump’s denial of knowing about the Stormy Daniels payment suffers another blow

Court documents revealed July 18, 2019, showed Michael Cohen repeatedly spoke with former president Donald Trump amid the effort to pay Stormy Daniels. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen is in jail today, having pleaded guilty last year to violating a number of federal laws. Among them were two violations of federal campaign finance law, pegged to Cohen’s efforts shortly before the 2016 presidential election to pay off two women who would otherwise have gone public with allegations of affairs with candidate Donald Trump.

Trump and his team have consistently tried to distance themselves from those payments and the suggestion of illegality that stems from Cohen’s pleas. By now, all sides agree that the women — former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels — received the money and that Cohen was central to their doing so, but Trump himself has repeatedly denied having known about the payments in advance.

On Thursday, a judge ordered the unsealing of subpoenas issued before a federal raid on Cohen’s home and apartment in April 2018. Those documents include a number of new details about how Cohen worked to keep the two alleged affairs under wraps — and how Trump’s team appears to have been more involved than we knew.

It’s worth remembering the timeline here. The alleged McDougal affair came to light a few days before the election, but Trump was fairly insulated from the fallout. McDougal was paid to keep quiet not by Trump or Cohen but, instead, by American Media Inc., then the publisher of the National Enquirer and other magazines. McDougal signed a deal to give ownership of any stories about affairs with married men to AMI in exchange for a column in an AMI publication and some cash, among other things.

That Cohen was involved in the McDougal payment appears to have come to light after the subpoenas were issued — thanks, in part, to the discovery during the resulting searches of an agreement for Trump’s team to repay AMI for the cost of the deal. AMI and its CEO David Pecker subsequently admitted to working with the campaign on that deal in exchange for not facing criminal prosecution. The proposed repayment by Trump to AMI reportedly never happened in part because AMI’s attorneys warned that it would expose the company to charges, but that was only after Cohen and Trump were recorded in early September 2016 discussing how that repayment would work.

The subpoenas document the early November Wall Street Journal article that brought the McDougal-AMI deal to light. Cohen was apparently at the center of coordinating a response between AMI and the Trump campaign (to which he was indirectly attached). Before the article was published, Cohen sent AMI’s Dylan Howard (at the time the company’s editorial director) a set of questions the paper had sent the Trump Organization and also spoke with then-campaign spokesman Hope Hicks a number of times on the phone. When the story came out and got limited traction, Cohen and Hicks exchanged celebratory text messages.

The more interesting flurry of activity revealed in the subpoenas centers not on McDougal but on the payment to Daniels. After the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape on Oct. 7, 2016, in which Trump is heard describing how he gropes women, a representative of Daniels — attorney Keith Davidson — contacted AMI about an alleged affair she had had with Trump. AMI and Pecker had met with Trump campaign officials the previous year and offered to help bury similar stories. We later learned that they reached out to Cohen in this case.

The subpoena delineates a number of points of contact between Cohen, AMI and Trump — 11 calls over the course of less than two hours on Oct. 8, 2016.

Hicks called Cohen, looping Trump. Hicks then called Cohen back. Cohen called Pecker, then called him again. Howard called Cohen. Cohen called Hicks. Pecker called Cohen. Cohen called Trump. Howard called Cohen, then called him again. More than half-an-hour of calls, including an eight-minute call with the candidate.

After that last call, Howard texted Cohen: “Keith will do it. Let’s reconvene tomorrow.” Cohen texted back at 3:30 a.m.: “Thank you.” A bit later he provided information about an LLC he had formed — though not the one he ultimately used to pay Daniels using money transferred from a home equity line of credit.

“Based on the timing of these calls, and the content of the text messages and emails," the subpoena reads, "I believe that at least some of these communications concerned the need to prevent [Daniels] from going public, particularly in the wake of the ‘Access Hollywood’ story.”

The payment wasn’t immediate, though, and the subpoenas (and later charging documents) detail the push by Cohen to get the payment finalized. It ultimately came through shortly before the election, with Davidson texting Cohen on Oct. 28, 2016, to tell him that notarized documents finalizing the agreement would arrive the following Tuesday — a week before the election.

In fact, the number of calls with Hicks is a particularly interesting detail in the subpoenas. Cohen spoke with her three times on Oct. 8, including after having heard from both Pecker and Howard and once, before those calls, when Trump was also on the line. The subpoena notes that this was unusual, that it was apparently “the first call Cohen had received or made to Hicks in at least multiple weeks.” He also contacted Hicks late Oct. 28, speaking with her for three minutes after he’d received confirmation that the Daniels situation was settled.

A footnote in the subpoena indicates that Hicks told an FBI agent during an interview that she didn’t recall knowing about the Daniels allegations until early November. In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, she denied having been present for any conversation between Trump and Cohen about the allegations.

Later, a staffer for the Democratic majority asked a similar question.

That seems unlikely given the call on Oct. 28. The extent to which Hicks’ responses to these questions rely on close parsing of the questions’ wording remains to be seen.

It’s impossible to believe, though, that Trump himself was unaware of the Daniels discussion on Oct. 8. He and Cohen spoke for eight minutes after Cohen had talked to representatives of AMI. The idea that the Daniels issue didn’t come up — particularly given that we know Cohen and Trump had discussed the other AMI-facilitated payment a month prior — defies believability.

Why Trump didn’t face federal charges for his role in these illegal payments is a question that remains unanswered. It’s possible that prosecutors didn’t think they could prove that he had the awareness of the law required to establish an illegal act. But the release of these subpoenas seems to demonstrate just how involved in the Daniels payment Trump and his team actually were.