If Trump and others had hoped the story might die down, the admission by attorney Michael Cohen that he “facilitated” a payment of $130,000 to Stormy Daniels at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign assured that the drama would continue to play out for weeks to come.
This marked the latest chapter in the strange saga of Trump, a reality-television star turned president, and Daniels, an adult film star who said she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. Cohen’s statement that he paid Daniels $130,000 from his own resources — or at least financed the payment — raised the question of whether campaign finance laws governing disclosure requirements and how much individuals may contribute to campaigns could have been violated, a watchdog group said.
Cohen pushed back against charges that the payout should have counted as a campaign contribution, but experts were split on his argument. His comments about the payment “strongly suggests he’s not doing it on his own accord” and, instead, seeking to benefit Trump, said Karl Sandstrom, a former commissioner with the Federal Election Commission.
“I’d want to discover what prompted it,” he said. “Who’s having conversations with whom? This is not just a matter of a person writing out a check. Someone’s drafting the agreement, someone’s signing the agreement, someone may have prompted the agreement by informing Michael Cohen the state of play with respect to potential [news] stories.”
Cohen’s statement came a month after the Wall Street Journal first reported that he had arranged a payment to Daniels in 2016. The Journal also reported that he used a Delaware corporate entity to pay Daniels. Cohen and the White House initially dismissed “rumors” around Trump and Daniels after the first story, and the lawyer also released a statement bearing Daniels’s signature denying an affair.
Daniels, who had previously given interviews detailing an affair with Trump, more recently played coy when asked about another statement issued under her name denying the affair. In her public appearances since the story broke, Daniels has been avoiding directly answering key questions about Trump.
All told, it was a saga with no apparent end in sight, lingering around the White House as the administration confronts questions about Trump’s treatment of women and struggles to respond to the #MeToo movement.
Cohen’s confirmation of the payment to Daniels was apparently prompted by a complaint that Common Cause, a watchdog group, filed last month with the FEC. Common Cause said that the payment to Daniels — whose real name is Stephanie Clifford — violated campaign finance laws.
In a statement Tuesday, Cohen called the allegations “factually unsupported and without legal merit.”
Paul S. Ryan, Common Cause’s vice president for litigation, said that Cohen’s statement does not get rid of the legal issue for him and the Trump campaign.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, given the timing and the other circumstances around this, that this was a payment intended to influence the election,” Ryan said Wednesday.
Campaign finance experts were split on whether the payment would be deemed a violation by the FEC. Some saw parallels to the case of former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), who was indicted by federal authorities in 2011 on charges that he took payments from wealthy donors and used them to hide an extramarital affair. The jury acquitted him on one charge and deadlocked on five other counts.
“It’s exactly the same principles, and they’re remarkably similar in terms of the facts,” said Jan Baran, an elections and finance lawyer and former general counsel for the Republican National Committee. “It involved a private relationship with a woman and expenses related to that relationship. So that is personal, it’s not campaign, even though it happened while the campaign was going on.”
Baran said that Cohen’s statement made the situation look “even more like the John Edwards incident than it did before” and said that it did not appear campaign finance laws were broken.
Ryan said that the cases were different because the Daniels payment was reportedly made shortly before the 2016 election in an effort to keep her from telling her story to national news outlets, while in Edwards’s case, there was no evidence the situation involved keeping his mistress from speaking to the media.
Key elements of the payment to Daniels remain unknown — in large part fueled by what Cohen did, and didn’t, say.
“In a private transaction in 2016, I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms. Stephanie Clifford,” Cohen said. “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.”
His statement left unsaid why, exactly, Daniels would have received this payment. And while he denied being reimbursed by the Trump business or campaign, he notably did not address whether he was paid back by the president himself.
Cohen did not respond to that question and others, including whether Trump was aware of the payment or whether he had made similar payments in the past. In his statement, Cohen said he would not speak further on the issue, and he reaffirmed that to The Washington Post on Wednesday.
While Cohen dismissed the story of Daniels’s alleged sexual encounter with Trump, Daniels had told at least two journalists over the years her accounts of it. In one of those cases, she spoke to Slate in the months before the 2016 election but cut off contact about a week before Trump was elected. Reporters from other outlets were also said to be chasing the story.
This may factor into how commissioners view the payment, Sandstrom said.
“Given their apparent knowledge that certain press outlets were likely to write a story, that was motivation for the payment to prevent those stories from being run, and therefore to ensure they didn’t have a negative impact on the election,” he said.
The FEC said it received the Common Cause complaint, but the agency otherwise intends to remain silent until the situation is resolved. It is unclear how long it will take for the FEC to determine whether the potential violation needs to be investigated. Once the matter is closed, redacted files involved will be released publicly, which would include any responses submitted by the Trump campaign or the Trump Organization, both of which are named in the complaint.
Daniels has not publicly commented on Cohen’s statement. Her representatives did not respond to requests for comment, though one of them told the Associated Press that even with the reported nondisclosure agreement, she felt free to speak out after Cohen’s statement.
“Everything is off now, and Stormy is going to tell her story,” Gina Rodriguez, Daniels’s manager, told the AP.
Tom Hamburger, Anu Narayanswamy and Frances Stead Sellers contributed to this report.