President Trump has long argued that he has not undertaken extra-marital affairs with the adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal and also knew nothing about the payments to keep the two quiet women before the 2016 campaign. Those insistences, already crumbling in the wake of the sworn admissions of his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, were almost completely erected on Friday after the release of a long new Wall Street Journal report.
Our strongest understanding of the interactions between Trump, Cohen and the National Enquirer's parent company, American Media Inc., comes from the criminal information document presented to the court when Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts of finance and financial crimes in July. Filling the blanks in that document reveals the broad strokes of what the magazine reports: an agreement between Trump's team and AMI's CEO to help protect Trump's presidential campaign from control. Two distinct awareness points of Daniels and McDougal at the AMI ended up in front of Cohen, and each woman received more than $ 100,000 to remain silent about their alleged relationships.
Beyond other specific details, things were obscure. Determine the most important question – Did Trump violate the campaign's financial law with his involvement in payments? – Depends in part on the details that were still missing in the story. Cohen implied Trump as he entered his guilty pleadings, but there were still some shadows. The Journal report adds new details that make the case of Trump's guilt even stronger.
This is according to Lawrence Noble, former general counsel of the Federal Electoral Commission, who spoke with The Post by telephone and e-mail on Friday, a violation of the financial regulations of the campaigns in this situation should have included the following, in his words:
- Proof that money has been paid to protect the campaign,
- Try the money exceeding the campaign contribution limits of $ 2,700,
- Coming from a forbidden source like a company,
- And / or has not been reported correctly, e
- That the violation was conscious and intentional.
"To be aware and intentional," Noble said, "they must prove that Trump knew the scheme and knew, in general, that the conduct was illegal."
We evaluate the new details included in this diary report in this light. The report comes from dozens of people and various legal documents and probably includes information from three people who collaborated with federal investigators, among others, they are AMI Chief Executive David Pecker, the Chief Financial Officer of the Trump Organization Allen Weisselberg and Cohen.
Trump initiated AMI and Pecker's request to help manage interference. The Journal report claims that Trump had started the conversation with Pecker in August 2015 on how AMI could help its campaign.
Trump and Pecker had been friends for a long time before that year, with AMI staff saying at the Associated Press in August that Pecker was buying and killing (ie, not directing) stories about Trump for at least a decade . (The history of the Journal reports this instruction in the years & # 39; 90). HuffPost reported last month that AMI staff have been encouraged to bring out stories about Trump's political opponents and to minimize or skip stories that project Trump in a negative light.
Before making McDougal payment, Pecker spoke with an electoral law expert. Pecker seems to have understood that, by making payments to women during the campaign, he runs the risk of violating the federal law on electoral finances. As we reported for the first time in July, it is not possible to coordinate with a candidate to spend tens of thousands of dollars to help their campaign. If * I could *, there would be no reason for campaign finance laws, since candidates could only instruct rich supporters to spend money wherever needed.
McDougal's agreement, unlike Daniels's agreement, included McDougal's presence in magazine covers and writing for AMI publications. That, Pecker seems to have been told by his lawyer, offered sufficient protection to the company for concluding the agreement.
But it may not have been. Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal offenses in July. One derived from his role in helping the AMI make the payment to McDougal.
Pecker refused to be reimbursed because he did not want to violate the electoral law. After an audio recording of Trump and Cohen discussing the McDougal affair became public, one of the many questions raised was why the couple planned to repay Pecker for his expenses. The conversation between Trump and Cohen implied that they were worried that AMI could handle McDougal's story if Pecker had been hit by a truck – in the formulation of Trump – then buying the story and keeping the property at home would offer some protection.
The plan had been to accept a refund from Trump for all but $ 25,000 of the payment, the value of McDougal's covers and columns. But Pecker, according to the Journal, was informed by his lawyer that a reimbursement would "undermine any argument that McDougal's payment had been made for editorial and commercial reasons, rather than as a contribution from a campaign in nature."
Daniels was paid personally by Cohen because Pecker passed and Trump has stalled. Another question that emerged was the reason Cohen would resume his finances to repay Daniels after reaching an agreement with her in October 2016.
The Journal reports that Pecker refused to be involved in the deal because he "did not want his company to pay for a porn star." That, apparently, was a step too far for the magazine that boosted Trump by accusing Senator Ted Cruz & # 39; s (R-Texas) father of having been linked to the Kennedy assassination. AMI has linked Daniels' attorney to Cohen, as the criminal information document makes clear.
Why did Trump not pay Daniels himself? Cohen, working with the Trump Organization CFO Weisselberg, tried to find a way to protect the payment from any connection with Trump. That attempt delayed the payment and, with the fact that Daniels was reportedly acquiring his story at another store, Cohen withdrew money from his home equity credit line to make the payment. (That line of domestic equity credit, admitted in July, was obtained fraudulently).
The urgency of this payment was reinforced by a three-way phone call between Cohen, Pecker and Dylan Howard, a New York-based AMI executive, reports the Journal.
Trump himself has been directly involved in every deal. It seems that Trump has called Pecker after the AMI has revealed to Cohen the story of McDougal. Cohen returned to Trump again in October 2016, when Daniels' story emerged, and Trump, allegedly, told him to "do it".
All these points, these new details, support the idea that Trump himself was involved in the violation of the electoral finance law, according to Noble.
"In order for the candidate to be held responsible for a violation, you generally have to prove that the candidate was specifically involved in the violation and knew about the violation," Noble said. "When you can show that the candidate knew of the violation or knew of the activity that led to the violation – and especially when you can prove that they did so to avoid it appearing to be a violation – then I think you have evidence that the candidate is been involved and the candidate can be held responsible ".
He pointed to the numerous examples above.
Apparently Trump started the relationship with AMI based on the campaign: "He's a candidate, and if he's doing it for election purposes – and I think the evidence is very strong, he's personally responsible for it," Noble said.
That the payments to bury the stories took place at a distance from Trump, protecting him from a connection with them for an apparent awareness of the need to keep them secret: "When someone makes an effort to hide what they're doing in a country setting," he said, "it's at least proof they knew it was illegal. … The mere fact that you're trying to hide the transactions suggests that you you knew it was illegal. "In other words, this speaks of obstinacy.
Quel Pecker has decided not to accept a refund from Trump because it would put AMI at risk: "My first reaction … was, well, this is proof that they knew it was a violation of the law," Noble said. "They knew they were paying to keep her silent." When the recording was first published, Noble told The Post that the coordination between the campaign and the AMI would have compromised the defense of expenses in commercial terms. The Journal report makes it clear that it was not.
"What this article does is fill in a lot of lines claiming that Trump was actually specifically involved in these businesses," Noble said. "And if that's true, and if Pecker says so, then I think it's very hard for him to get out of a discussion that's related to the campaign." And, therefore, illegal.
The Journal included the thoughts of Rick Hasen, an electoral law expert at the University of California, Irvine. According to the Journal, Hasen claimed that Trump's involvement in payments would not necessarily imply it.
In a private message with The Post on Twitter, Hasen reinforced the importance of showing that the payments were linked to the campaign, a point that had made us go back to March. But since then, a further point to suggest that their payments were related: the accusation of guilt of Cohen. That, said Hasen, was "some proof" that the payments were related to the campaign.
The Journal report reinforces much of the rest of Noble's five-part standard to prove a violation.