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What’s next for the Trump hush money investigation

Michael Cohen got sentenced, and prosecutors announced they won’t charge AMI.

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

New York federal prosecutors’ investigation into the hush money payments Michael Cohen arranged during the 2016 campaign isn’t yet over — and it appears to have moved closer to President Trump.

Shortly after Cohen was sentenced, prosecutors in his case announced they’d reached a non-prosecution agreement with a company involved in one of those payments, American Media Inc. — and said the company assisted in the investigation and admitted it acted “in concert” with Trump’s presidential campaign.

This follows up on a sentencing memo filed last week, in which prosecutors asserted that Cohen “acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1” — Trump — in violating campaign finance law.

Meanwhile, recent reports from both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times suggest the involvement of Trump and the Trump Organization in the payoffs both remain major focuses of the probe.

So prosecutors have concluded that the payoffs were criminal, because they were effectively designed to help Trump’s electoral chances but went far above campaign contribution limits. They’ve gotten Cohen to plead guilty to charges. They’ve also decided not to prosecute AMI.

Which means that the obvious next step in the probe would seem to involve Trump or his company.

Trump’s known personal involvement in the illegal payoffs

In August, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) charged Cohen with two campaign finance-related offenses, each involving a separate hush money payment to a woman who claimed she had an affair with Trump.

First was a $150,000 payment to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model. This payment was made by AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer, in August 2016. But Cohen pleaded guilty to “causing” the payment to happen.

Second was the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels, made by Cohen himself in the final weeks of the campaign.

Both reporters and prosecutors have suggested that Trump was informed about and involved in these payments at every step of the way.

Near the very beginning of Trump’s campaign, in August 2015, AMI’s CEO David Pecker had a meeting with Cohen, at which Pecker floated the idea of buying the silence of women who came forward with allegations about Trump. Prosecutors have said that “one other member of the [Trump] campaign” was at this meeting.

That seems to refer to Trump himself. According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump attended this meeting and asked Pecker for help with his campaign. That’s significant because it shows Trump and Pecker had an understanding about hush money payments well before they actually happened.

Fast-forward to a year later, when McDougal was talking about coming forward. Per the Journal, AMI executives then tipped off Cohen, Cohen told Trump, and then Trump called Pecker asking for help.

After the deal to pay McDougal was made, Cohen reported back to Trump — in a conversation he secretly taped. When Cohen vaguely brought up “our friend David” (Pecker), Trump asked, “What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?” So that’s more evidence Trump knew what was happening.

SDNY prosecutors also said in a filing last week that, “as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments” — to McDougal and Daniels — “he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.” They haven’t revealed all the evidence they have to back up this statement, but it’s a clear assertion that Trump directed both payoffs.

The Trump Organization was also involved

There’s also potential legal danger for Trump’s company — “the Company,” as SDNY prosecutors have dubbed it.

Cohen was an executive at the Trump Organization when he arranged the payoffs. But he wasn’t the only one at the company (in addition to Trump) who was involved.

During Cohen’s taped conversation with Trump, Cohen also says he spoke to a Trump Organization executive — CFO Allen Weisselberg — about how to repay AMI for the McDougal payoff. “I’ve spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up,” Cohen says.

Weisselberg was also reportedly involved in paying back Cohen for the Daniels payoff with Trump Organization funds in 2017. The money was split into several monthly payments that the company falsely described as “legal expenses.”

Prosecutors investigating the payments reportedly gave Weisselberg immunity for testimony earlier this year. However, this does not mean that Weisselberg “flipped” on Trump, as some surmised: The New York Times reported that the immunity grant “was narrow in scope,” and it remains unclear what Weisselberg said.

But after Cohen pleaded guilty, “federal prosecutors in Manhattan shifted their attention to what role, if any, Trump Organization executives played in the campaign finance violations,” the Times reported this week, citing “people briefed on the matter.”

So Trump’s company certainly appears to have been heavily involved in these illegal payoffs — which raises the question of whether the company itself will be charged.

Matt Miller, a former Obama Justice Department aide, tweeted that he’d “have to think a non-prosecution agreement or indictment of the Trump Organization is coming,” based on prosecutors’ deal with AMI.

Indeed, though the AMI non-prosecution agreement was announced today, the accompanying document is dated September 20, 2018 — suggesting prosecutors have had ample time to move their focus to the next stage of the probe since then. And that next stage certainly seems to point toward Trump and his company.

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