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The porn star, the checks and the president: Trump’s tawdry path to peril

The first indictment of a former president may result from an episode with a long, rippling tail of criminal consequence

President Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen showed on Feb. 27 a $35,000 check Trump personally signed "while he was president." (Video: Reuters)
14 min

Donald Trump had been president for only a month when his longtime lawyer and confidant Michael Cohen paid him a visit in the Oval Office. As the president showed off the office’s historic paintings to an awestruck Cohen, he mentioned in passing another, less august, matter.

“Don’t worry, Michael,” Trump said. “Your January and February reimbursement checks are coming.”

The money was to reimburse Cohen for a secret payoff to the adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the name Stormy Daniels, delivered in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign. The jaw-dropping scene — in which the commander in chief and his fixer discussed hush money payments to a porn star in the Oval Office — was described two years later by Cohen in congressional testimony.

Former president Donald Trump’s indictment marks the first time a criminal case has been brought against an ex-president. Here’s how we got here. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

In a day-long public hearing before the House Oversight Committee in 2019, Cohen outlined a plot in which Trump agreed to pay the actress to keep her quiet before the presidential vote. The president then worked to hide the money by repaying Cohen slowly over time and falsely classifying the reimbursements as a portions of a “retainer” for legal work.

Those payments are now at the heart of the investigation led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, an elected Democrat, who could bring charges against Trump as early as this week for allegedly falsifying business records related to the payments. Cohen described meeting with Trump repeatedly to discuss the payments and provided Congress two of the 11 reimbursement checks he received, each for $35,000 — one signed by Trump and the other by his son, Donald Trump Jr.

Cohen’s testimony came a few months before he reported to federal prison after pleading guilty to various charges, including violating campaign finance laws with his pre-election payment to Daniels. His narrative of the saga was delivered to a rapt nation, but the details of that scandal have now been overwritten by more than four years of newer Trump material — two impeachments, an insurrection, an unrelated FBI raid of Trump’s Florida home.

Nevertheless, the first indictment of a former president may now result from Trump’s payment to the porn star, one of the most tawdry of all of Trump’s alleged misdeeds and one with a long, rippling tail of criminal consequence that has touched nearly every person involved.

Cohen served a little over a year in prison and additional time on house arrest. After a decade of loyal service, he flipped against his boss, cooperating with investigators and telling Congress his former boss was a “racist,” a “con man” and a “cheat.” His sharp turn against Trump was one of the most operatic episodes in the whole Trump drama.

Michael Avenatti, who was once ubiquitous as the attorney who guided Daniels as she went public, is now incarcerated. He has been convicted of various crimes, including stealing from clients like the adult film actress. A top Trump Organization executive Cohen accused of being involved in the scheme has been convicted of unrelated tax issues.

Daniels herself has been ordered to pay nearly $300,000 to Trump in legal fees as a result of a failed defamation case Avenatti filed on her behalf. But otherwise, only she has remained relatively unscathed, her popularity now expanded beyond her field as she feistily fends off Trump trolls on Twitter. (She tweeted recently that she only responds when the former president talks about her on social media or television but joked that she believes Trump likely watches her movies on repeat.)

A lawyer for Daniels did not respond to a request for comment but said last week that she was interviewed by investigators with the district attorney’s office via Zoom on Friday. Cohen has met with the district attorney’s office repeatedly, testified to the grand jury and issued a statement this week that he stands by his account that the payment to Daniels was made at Trump’s direction and to benefit him. Trump has denied the sexual encounter with Daniels, insisted Cohen is lying and accused Bragg of conducting a politically motivated witch hunt.

In a widely watched interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in 2018, Daniels described how she first met Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in 2006. She was 27, he was 60 and had just become a father for the fifth time, after his wife Melania gave birth to their son, Barron. The business mogul, who was then popular as host of the reality show “The Apprentice,” invited Daniels to have dinner at his hotel suite. There, she said he tried to impress her by showing off a magazine with his own face on the cover.

“I was like, ‘Does this normally work for you?’” Daniels said in the interview.

Daniels recalled that she responded by telling Trump, “Someone should take that magazine and spank you with it,” prompting the future president to turn around and lower his pants.

Believing that Trump could snag her a role on his television show, Daniels said she had sex with Trump that night. In the following months, Trump called frequently and invited Daniels to a few events. They met again the following year at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. Trump, she recalled, spent the meeting watching “Shark Week” on television. They did not have sex, and Daniels said they never met again.

When Trump considered running for president in 2011, Daniels tried to sell her story to a tabloid, but the story never ran after Cohen threatened to sue on Trump’s behalf, employees of the tabloid have said. When a little-known gossip website called the Dirty published details of the sexual encounter, Daniels denied it — in part, she later told “60 Minutes,” because she had been threatened by a man in a parking lot and was frightened.

In 2015, Trump decided to run for president. Two months after he announced his candidacy, Cohen met with David Pecker, who was a friend of Trump’s and then the chairman and chief executive officer of American Media Inc., the owner of the National Enquirer. According to a statement of facts agreed to later by Pecker as part of a deal to avoid prosecution, the two men came to an unusual agreement to collude to bury potentially harmful stories about the candidate. Pecker would use his tabloid to “deal with negative stories about the presidential candidate’s relationships with women,” including by buying the rights to stories and then never publishing them, a practice known in the tabloid industry as “catch-and-kill.”

National Enquirer sent stories about Trump to his attorney Michael Cohen before publication, people familiar with the practice say

The deal was tested in June 2016, as Trump was preparing to clinch the Republican nomination, when a model named Karen McDougal contacted the National Enquirer and said she had had an affair with Trump in 2007 and was interested in telling her story. Trump later denied the affair. AMI agreed to purchase McDougal’s life rights for $150,000, locking down her story, but never published an article about the alleged affair. Pecker told prosecutors that he signed a deal in which Cohen would repay the company — but he never paid.

It fell to Cohen alone to deal with Daniels in October 2016, when he received word that she was once again contemplating going public. An agent for Daniels had contacted the National Enquirer in the days after Trump’s campaign was rocked by the publication of the “Access Hollywood” video, in which Trump could be heard bragging about sexually assaulting women. A series of women then came forward to accuse Trump of inappropriate sexual advances, and the campaign could little afford another hit. The National Enquirer editors connected Cohen to Daniels’s lawyer, and Cohen swung into action, negotiating over the course of several days to pay Daniels $130,000 for her silence, according to Cohen’s 2018 guilty plea.

Daniels told “60 Minutes” that she quickly agreed to sign the deal, which required her to remain silent about Trump, because she said she was fearful for her family. “I think the fact that I didn’t even negotiate, I just quickly said yes to this very, you know, strict contract, and what most people will agree with me extremely low number — it’s all the proof I need,” she said.

Before closing the deal, Cohen told Congress, he consulted directly with Trump. “After several rounds of conversations with him about purchasing her life rights for $130,000, what I did, each and every time, is go straight into Mr. Trump’s office and discuss the issue with him,” Cohen said.

Also in the room, Cohen said, was Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization. Cohen testified that Trump directed him and Weisselberg to work together to come up with a plan to pay Daniels. Weisselberg pleaded guilty to tax fraud and grand larceny last year in an unrelated matter and was sentenced to five months in jail.

According to federal prosecutors, Cohen failed to immediately pay Daniels, and she got antsy. On Oct. 25, 2016, a few weeks before the election, a National Enquirer editor texted Cohen with concern, urging Cohen to work out a deal with Daniels’s lawyer and warning “it could look awfully bad for everyone” if he did not.

Cohen told the House committee that he first asked Weisselberg to use his money for the transaction, but Weisselberg declined. The Trump executive proposed instead that Cohen find a friend who wanted to join one of Trump’s clubs or golf courses and use their membership fees to pay the actress, but Cohen said he didn’t know anyone to ask.

“It got to the point where it was down to the wire, it was either somebody wire the funds and purchase the life rights to the story from Ms. Clifford or it was going to end up being sold to television, and that would have embarrassed the President, and it would have interfered with the election,” Cohen said.

Cohen testified that Trump’s aim was “to avoid any money being traced back to him that could negatively impact his campaign.”

So, at that point, Cohen said he agreed to tap a home equity line of credit he had taken out and make the payment himself, wiring the money to a newly formed shell company he called Essential Consultants and then directing the company, in turn, to pay Daniels’s attorney. In January 2017, as Trump was preparing to take office, Cohen presented the Essential Consultants bank statement to Trump Organization executives and asked for reimbursement, his charging documents show.

Executives at Trump’s company agreed to pay Cohen $420,000 for his trouble, a figure intended to reimburse him not just for the Daniels payment, but additional tax payments and a $60,000 bonus on top. (It also included a $50,000 payment that the Wall Street Journal later reported was reimbursement for money Cohen paid to a small technology company to help rig online polls in Trump’s favor.)

Cohen testified that he would have preferred to receive the money in “one shot.” But Weisselberg directed that the payments be spread out over a year. “In order to be able to put it onto the books, Allen Weisselberg made the decision that it should be paid over the 12 months, so that it would look like a retainer,” Cohen testified.

A lawyer for Weisselberg did not respond to a request for comment.

The arrangement, Cohen insisted, was approved personally by Trump. “Everything had to go through Mr. Trump,” he said, “and it had to be approved by Mr. Trump.”

Starting in February 2017, prosecutors said Cohen began sending monthly invoices to the company, writing: “Pursuant to the retainer agreement, kindly remit payment for services rendered.”

On receiving the first request for payment, a company executive directed another in writing: “Please pay from the Trust. Post to legal expenses. Put ‘retainer for the months of January and February 2017’ in the description.” Internally, the company accounted for the expenses as “legal expenses,” referencing the trust into which Trump placed his company while serving as president.

But prosecutors noted in Cohen’s charging documents that, in fact, there never was any retainer agreement and the invoices were not submitted in connection with any legal services Cohen provided in 2017.

This central falsehood is likely to form the basis of charges against Trump, should Bragg move forward in New York.

And it’s the money Cohen testified that he and Trump discussed in the Oval Office during their first meeting at the White House shortly after Trump took office. Cohen testified that after Trump reassured him his checks for the first two months of the year were in the mail, the president continued: “They were FedEx’d from New York. And it takes a while for that to get through the White House system.”

When the Wall Street Journal broke the news of the pre-election payment to Daniels in early 2018, Cohen at first tried to deflect on Trump’s behalf, issuing a statement claiming that “neither The Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was party to the transaction” nor did either reimburse him for the money.

Asked about the payments by reporters during a gaggle onboard Air Force One in April 2018, Trump lied, claiming he was unaware. “No, I don’t know,” he replied when asked if he knew where the money had come from.

Eventually, Trump acknowledged the payment, tweeting in May 2018 that Cohen “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 nondisclosure agreement or NDA.’’

The Post's Fact Checker Glenn Kessler explains why he's labeling President Trump's claims about Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels "a lie." (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Legal experts have said the case Bragg is likely to bring could be complicated. Falsifying business records is a misdemeanor in New York but can be elevated to a felony if records are falsified to cover up or commit another crime. In this case, the underlying crime could involve concealing the true nature of a campaign donation in a presidential election.

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But the campaign donation came in a federal campaign, which could make the case harder. Trump could also argue he made the payment to protect his family and not to influence the campaign. (Cohen testified that shielding Melania Trump was among his motivations.) Trump could also note that he was acting at the behest of his lawyer, Cohen, who he believed would not advise him to break the law.

Among the insults Republicans lobbed at Cohen during his congressional testimony was that he gave Trump bum legal advice in agreeing to arrange the payment to Daniels.

“You said you didn’t even consider whether it was legal. How could you give your client legal advice when you’re not even considering whether it’s legal?” asked Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).

“I did what I knew Mr. Trump wanted,” Cohen responded. “I was trying to protect Mr. Trump.”