With the revelation by prosecutors on Wednesday that a tabloid publisher admitted to paying off a Playboy model, key participants in two hush-money schemes say the transactions were intended to protect Donald Trump’s campaign for president.
That leaves Mr Trump in an increasingly isolated and legally precarious position, according to election law experts. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments made in 2016 to keep two women silent about alleged affairs are now firmly framed as illegal campaign contributions.
The news about the publisher, the parent company of the National Enquirer, came on the same day Mr Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison in part for his involvement in the payments.
“I blame myself for the conduct which has brought me here today,” Mr Cohen said, “and it was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man” — a reference to Mr Trump — “that led me to choose a path of darkness over light.”
Mr Cohen said the transactions were an effort to cover up the president’s “dirty deeds”, a claim that was buttressed when federal prosecutors announced tabloid publisher American Media Inc had said it had bought one of the women’s stories to ensure she “did not publicise damaging allegations about the candidate”.
“AMI further admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election,” prosecutors said in a statement announcing they had struck a deal not to charge the company in exchange for its cooperation. As part of the deal, dated in September but previously kept private, the company also agreed to train employees in election law standards and appoint a qualified lawyer to vet future deals that may involve paying for stories about political candidates.
The cascading disclosures marked a turning point in the multiple investigations related to Mr Trump and the campaign he led. Until recently, the enquiries had produced numerous guilty pleas and indictments but no direct accusations of illegality by the president. That changed with Mr Cohen’s assertions, outlined in detail by prosecutors, that his own crimes were done “in coordination with and at the direction” of Mr Trump.
Where the investigations go from here is not clear. The prevailing view at the Justice Department is that a sitting president cannot be indicted, though prosecutors in Manhattan could consider charging him after leaving office.
Investigators have continued to scrutinise what others in the Trump Organisation may have known about the crimes described by Mr Cohen, including its chief financial officer, according to people briefed on the matter. Prosecutors have met with campaign officials and asked how the campaign interacted with Mr Trump’s company, which shared office space and employees.
Establishing a nexus between Mr Cohen’s efforts to silence the women and Trump’s campaign is central to making a criminal case of election law violations. That is why AMI’s admission carries so much weight, said Richard L Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine.
“It’s looking a lot like an illegal and unreported in-kind corporate contribution to help the campaign, exposing the Trump campaign and Trump himself to possible criminal liability,” Mr Hasen said.
AMI, run by Mr Trump’s longtime friend David J Pecker, had previously claimed it had paid $150,000 (£118,000) to model Karen McDougal to secure the rights to publish her story of an alleged affair with Mr Trump.
But the company never published it, and people familiar with its operations had said it was part of a long-standing practice, known in the tabloid trade as “catch and kill”, to suppress damaging stories about favoured people.
Prosecutors said Mr Cohen had intended to reimburse AMI for its payment to Ms McDougal by arranging a bogus $125,000 (£99,000) fee to an AMI affiliate for “advisory services”. Although Mr Pecker signed off on the deal, he later contacted Mr Cohen and called it off. He also instructed Mr Cohen to tear up the paperwork, prosecutors said.
In addition to Ms McDougal, Mr Cohen said he arranged a $130,000 (£103,000) payment to Stormy Daniels, a pornographic film actress, to squelch her story of an alleged affair with Mr Trump. He said he used his own money, but Mr Trump had agreed to pay him back, with the reimbursement eventually being couched as legal fees billed to the Trump Organisation.
AMI was also involved in the early stages of Mr Cohen’s dealings with Ms Daniels. Rather than pay her, as it did with Ms McDougal, the company notified Mr Cohen she was trying to sell her story.
Until this week, it was largely Mr Cohen’s word against the president’s denials. That is why the admission by AMI is “highly significant, because it goes to corroborate” Mr Cohen’s testimony, said Jeff Tsai, part of the prosecution team that accused senator John Edwards of campaign finance violations when he arranged for payoffs to a pregnant mistress during his 2008 presidential campaign.
“In any future prosecution, Mr Cohen’s credibility is squarely at issue — as it should be — and that is where you see the nature of corroboration, either in the form of witnesses or documents, become such a pivotal factor in a prosecution,” Mr Tsai said.
The Edwards case — which ended in an acquittal and mistrial — has been invoked by Mr Trump's allies as an example of prosecutorial overreach. Central to Mr Edwards’ defence was that the payments were intended not to help his campaign but to hide the affair from his wife — they were personal, not political.
Mr Trump seemed to hint at this strategy in a tweet responding to Mr Cohen’s admissions, in which he made an oblique reference to a “simple personal transaction” that was being wrongly called “a campaign contribution”.
Given the president’s stance, the disclosure of AMI’s understanding that the efforts were campaign-related — and its promise of future cooperation — shows potential witnesses against Mr Trump go beyond Mr Cohen.
Indeed, the AMI agreement with prosecutors said there was at least one other person associated with Mr Trump’s campaign involved in an initial discussion in August 2015, attended by Mr Cohen and Mr Pecker, in which they agreed the publisher would help the campaign by identifying negative stories about Mr Trump’s relationships with women “so they could be purchased and their publication avoided”.
But many details remain hidden. Among them, the statement did not say whether the other campaign member was Mr Trump himself — identified by prosecutors last week as attending a similar meeting — or some other person. AMI had no comment on Wednesday.
Mr Pecker had been steadfast in his support of Mr Trump, equating any attack against him as an attack against AMI. But one associate of Mr Pecker’s, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr Pecker felt betrayed when the president’s legal team failed to push back against revelations in July that Mr Cohen had recorded a conversation with Mr Trump discussing Ms McDougal's payment. The recording seemed to support the notion AMI was complicit in an illegal campaign finance scheme.
In admitting to the scheme Mr Pecker, his lieutenant Dylan Howard and AMI are now protected from criminal prosecution.
The New York Times
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