Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation gets most of the press. But the other major federal investigation into President Trump’s associates — the New York-based probe into campaign hush money payments that ensnared Michael Cohen — remains active too. And it’s looking ever more dangerous for the president.
That’s because, according to a new Wall Street Journal report, Trump was deeply involved in those hush payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who had alleged sexual encounters with him. He was “involved in or briefed on nearly every step,” reporters Joe Palazzolo, Nicole Hong, Michael Rothfeld, Rebecca Davis O’Brien, and Rebecca Ballhaus write.
That matters because, as a candidate for office, Trump may have violated campaign finance law by not disclosing these payments. Cohen has already pleaded guilty to two campaign finance charges in connection with all this back in August.
Since Cohen’s plea deal, the state of this investigation — which is being run by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) — has been somewhat unclear. All we knew for sure was that it wasn’t over, since federal prosecutors said the grand jury probe was “ongoing” in a court filing last month. And now, per the Journal, “the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has gathered evidence of Mr. Trump’s participation in the transactions.”
Earlier this week, Trump pushed out Attorney General Jeff Sessions and installed a loyalist, Matt Whitaker, at the top of the Justice Department. Whitaker has a history of criticizing the Mueller probe and may want to try and protect the president. But in his new role, he’ll gain authority over and visibility into the SDNY probe too — and that’s a probe that could be very threatening to Trump as well.
Trump was very involved in the payments, the Wall Street Journal reports
The new Journal report fills out more details in the story of what exactly prosecutors have learned Trump knew about the hush money — and it turns out to be a lot.
1) Trump discussed the scheme with David Pecker very early on: The article opens by revealing a new detail in this saga — that back in August 2015, shortly after Trump first started running for president, he asked his friend David Pecker for help with his campaign.
Pecker, who ran the National Enquirer’s parent company (American Media Inc.), responded by offering to use the tabloid to pay off women for their silence — a practice known as “catch and kill.” Prosecutors had previously described this interaction in court documents, but did not specify that Trump was personally involved. (They said Cohen and “one or more members of the campaign” was involved.)
This anecdote is significant because it shows Trump and Pecker had an understanding about hush money payments well before they actually happened. It also shows Trump asked Pecker directly for campaign help. That matters because, to charge campaign violations like this, it’s important to document that the payments were made for a campaign-related purpose.
2) Trump knew all about the Karen McDougal payment: Then, around the summer of 2016, former Playboy model Karen McDougal started trying to sell her story about an affair with Trump.
The news quickly got to Trump himself — and the Journal lays out how that happened.
- McDougal’s lawyer reached out to the National Enquirer to try and sell the story.
- The top executives from the Enquirer’s parent company (AMI), Pecker and Dylan Howard, then tipped off Cohen.
- Cohen told Trump.
- Trump then “phoned” Pecker “for help.”
Over the next several weeks, Pecker and Howard negotiated the deal with McDougal. They kept Cohen in the loop, and Cohen “updated” Trump “on developments throughout,” per the Journal. In the end, they agreed to pay her $150,000 for exclusive rights to her story — which they never intended to publish.
All this provides added context to that secret tape Cohen made of Trump shortly after the payment went through. Cohen brought up “our friend David” (Pecker), and Trump asked, “What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?”
3) Cohen says Trump told him to make the Stormy Daniels payment: Then there is of course the infamous payment of $130,000 that Cohen made to Stormy Daniels for her silence in the closing month of the campaign.
Initially, Cohen had hoped to do this payment through AMI as well. But Pecker and Howard, after some discussions, decided not to get their company involved. The Journal reports that, per Cohen’s account to prosecutors, he had to tell Trump this bad news in mid-October 2016 — and Trump told him to “get it done.”
So what does all this mean for Trump?
To get a sense of what prosecutors might be driving at, it’s useful to review the specific campaign finance charges Cohen pleaded guilty to back in August.
First was “causing an unlawful corporate contribution” to a federal campaign. Prosecutors alleged that Cohen “caused” AMI’s $150,000 payment to Karen McDougal, and that that violated the law because it was effectively a campaign contribution for Trump, in excess of the legal limit on what a corporation like AMI is permitted to give to a campaign.
Second was that Cohen made an “excessive campaign contribution” himself, by paying $130,000 to Stormy Daniels. This, too, was effectively a campaign contribution for Trump above what Cohen was permitted to give, prosecutors said.
Now, prosecutors have amassed evidence Trump — Cohen’s employer — was personally involved in and informed about both of these payments, and was encouraging Cohen to make them happen.
So it certainly seems that Trump himself may be vulnerable to similar charges, considering how involved he was in both of these payments.
But don’t expect him to be indicted anytime soon. Even before Whitaker arrived at the Justice Department, it was highly unlikely federal prosecutors would actually try to indict a sitting president — DOJ has long held that that can’t be done.
What the SDNY prosecutors’ next move will be, then, remains unclear. It’s possible they’d amass evidence on crimes committed by Trump, and leave it to Congress to decide what to do with that evidence. Trump could also theoretically be charged after he leaves office. But the Journal piece is a reminder that this investigation remains very much alive.