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A theory on why the FBI raided Michael Cohen

We now know of three big payments to hush up Trump sex scandals.

Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen arrives at a Senate office building last year.
Mark Wilson/Getty
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.

Three days after the FBI raided Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office, one clear possibility of what they were looking for is beginning to emerge.

That possibility is this: investigators suspect there was a major, potentially illegal, off-the-books spending operation aimed at making problems for Donald Trump’s campaign go away — and they’re wondering what Trump himself knew about it, or even whether he orchestrated it.

Consider the following. Agents wanted information on Cohen’s payment of $130,000 to Stormy Daniels. They wanted information Cohen might have on a payment of $150,000 to Karen McDougal, shelled out by the National Enquirer’s parent company. They wanted information on a potential effort to prevent the release of Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape.

More broadly, the search warrant asked for Cohen’s communications with Trump himself, and other Trump associates, about “potential sources of negative publicity” before the election. It also asked for all communications between Cohen and two top National Enquirer figures, David Pecker and Dylan Howard.

Consider also the Washington Post’s report that Cohen is under investigation for “possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations,” along with the background information that raiding a lawyer’s office and targeting his communications with his client is an extremely serious matter unlikely to be carried out lightly.

Now recall, per Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, that Steve Bannon has bragged the Trump campaign “took care” of about “a hundred women.” (I’m assuming that number is hyperbole, but here’s what Bannon said.)

Bannon had previously bonded with [Marc] Kasowitz when the attorney had handled a series of near-death problems on the campaign, including dealing with a vast number of allegations and legal threats from an ever growing list of women accusing Trump of molesting and harassing them.

... “Look, Kasowitz has known him for twenty-five years. Kasowitz has gotten him out of all kinds of jams. Kasowitz on the campaign — what did we have, a hundred women? Kasowitz took care of all of them.”

We now know how two women — Daniels and McDougal — were taken care of by Trump’s allies: they were paid off with a combined $280,000. We’ve also learned of an earlier payment from the same media company that paid McDougal: $30,000 to hush up a former Trump building doorman who claimed he knew about a Trump love child.

Viewed together, all this looks a bit like a shadowy and very well-funded effort to hush up problems for Trump — one that certainly does not seem to have abided by campaign finance disclosure and contribution limit laws. And it leaves several more questions.

How many other, similar payments were there? For instance, the search warrant reportedly seemed to allude to efforts to prevent the Access Hollywood tape from coming out — if that happened, what did it entail?

Where exactly, was this money coming from? Solely Michael Cohen and American Media Inc., as claimed? Does it trace back to Trump himself, or companies controlled by him? The Trump campaign? Or could funds be coming from some other wealthy figure?

And if the funds aren’t coming from Trump, then why are others doing these extremely expensive favors for a billionaire presidential candidate? Were they looking to be repaid later on? Seeking “leverage” over him, as the Associated Press hypothetically suggests? None of the possibilities look good.

What we know about the payments or potential suppression efforts

1) $30,000 for a doorman: The first known payment of this kind was negotiated in November 2015, as Trump led national polls for the Republican presidential primary. Two new reports from the AP’s Jake Pearson and Jeff Horwitz and the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow describe what happened.

Reporters for the National Enquirer got a tip from Dino Sajudin, a former doorman of a Trump building, that Trump may have fathered a child out of wedlock back in the 1980s with a former employee of his. Sajudin gave them names, and the Enquirer’s reporters started to chase down the story.

The Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., paid Sajudin $30,000 for exclusive rights to his tale. The company reached out to talk with Trump representatives about the allegations. And then they ... did nothing. Four longtime Enquirer employees told Pearson and Horwitz that “they were ordered by top editors to stop pursuing the story.” (AMI says they simply determined the story wasn’t credible.)

2) $150,000 for Karen McDougal: Eight months later, in August 2016, came AMI’s even larger payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who was alleging an affair with Trump. This was $150,000 for exclusive rights to McDougal’s story, which was never published. That is a whole lot of money to spend to not publish a story in the National Enquirer. And emails show that Michael Cohen was in the loop about AMI’s talks with McDougal.

3) Possible behind-the-scenes efforts regarding the Access Hollywood tape: The Access Hollywood tape is, of course, the 2005 recording in which Trump told Access Hollywood anchor Billy Bush that he enjoyed grabbing women “by the pussy”:

You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

It was on Monday, October 3, that a producer for the NBC show reportedly discovered the notorious tape in the archives. But days passed without any story being published about it. (NBC claims it was preparing a story and lawyers were reviewing it.) Finally, after four days, someone decided to send the tape to the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who ended up scooping NBC on its own recording.

The reports on the raid suggest investigators were looking for evidence that Cohen might have of some sort of behind-the-scenes Trump team effort to prevent the tape from going public — and that they’re at least wondering whether Trump himself was involved. CNN’s Gloria Borger and Shimon Prokupecz reported that agents specifically sought communications between Cohen, Trump, and Trump associates about the tape.

4) $130,000 for Stormy Daniels: Finally, there is the Stormy Daniels money — $130,000, from a shell company set up by Cohen, a little over a week before the election, once again to get a woman to agree not to come forward with her story.

At the time, Cohen was executive vice president and special counsel for the Trump Organization. He set up a shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, to handle the payment. But he emailed a bank employee about the money from his official Trump Organization email account.

Cohen has said he got the money by taking it out of his own home equity line. He’s also said that neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign reimbursed him for the money, which leaves open several other obvious possibilities (Trump himself or other entities controlled by Trump or his allies). Yet Trump said last week that he didn’t know about the payment for Daniels. “You’ll have to ask Michael,” he said.

Cohen tries to solve problems for Trump — and also handles large sums of money

Michael Cohen has long been straightforward about what he does for Donald Trump. “If somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like,” he said in 2011, “I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit.” Sometimes he does that by threatening lawsuits, sometimes by ranting profanely at reporters.

But Cohen is also used to handling large sums of money. He’s a guy who once cashed a check for $350,000 from an NHL star, but later claimed in a deposition that he had no idea what happened to the money afterward. And, of course, he’s the sort of guy who pays Stormy Daniels $130,000.

The search warrants for the raid reportedly target Cohen’s communications with Trump on many of these matters. Trump has responded to this with fury, tweeting, “Attorney-client privilege is dead!” But as many have pointed out, attorney-client privilege doesn’t apply if the attorney is conspiring to help his client commit crimes or fraud. So if Trump was involved to some degree in these payments, and they did run afoul of banking or campaign finance laws, that could be a very big problem for the president.

Learn about Michael Cohen and what the raid means for President Trump on the April 11 episode of Today Explained.

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