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Michael Cohen’s hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, explained

A timeline of Michael Cohen’s hush money payments to help Trump.

Michael Cohen in Trump Tower in New York City in December 2016. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s longtime personal and business attorney, has pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including two campaign finance charges stemming from his payment of hush money to women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs. What’s more, he admitted that “an unnamed candidate” directed him to make the hush money payments — that is, Donald Trump.

At this point, it’s quite well established that two women — porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — received hush money for affairs they said they had with Trump. But it’s possible that the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, which reached the deal with Cohen, has information on more women as well.

Keeping track of the Daniels and McDougal stories can be difficult, especially given Cohen’s attempts to hide the payments in question. So here’s an admittedly incomplete timeline of the scandals, explaining how Trump got entangled with Daniels and McDougal, and how Cohen got involved in silencing them.

The beginning of the affair and early cover-ups

June 2006: According to the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, working off of handwritten notes by Karen McDougal herself, McDougal began an affair with Donald Trump. McDougal later told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that she and Trump had sex “many dozens of times” before she ended the relationship in April 2007.

July 13 to 16, 2006: Trump met Stormy Daniels during the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament. Daniels claimed they had consensual sex there. She does not allege that she and Trump slept together again, though the two did stay in contact and watched the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week together in 2007 at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

McDougal was also at the golf tournament and says she and Trump had sex there as well.

May 2011: Daniels gave an interview discussing Trump to In Touch’s Jordi Lippe-McGraw, which the magazine declined to publish until the scandal broke in January 2018, with the promise of $15,000 in compensation. In the interview, Daniels went into great detail about their sexual encounter at the Lake Tahoe golf tournament in July 2006, their subsequent communications, and the 2007 Beverly Hills Hotel encounter.

Her friend Randy Spears and ex-husband (boyfriend at the time of the alleged Trump affair) Mike Moz corroborated her story to the magazine.

Spring/summer 2011: In Touch declined to publish the story “because after the magazine called Mr. Trump seeking comment, his attorney Michael Cohen threatened to sue,” according to 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper. Daniels was not compensated and, she told Cooper, was threatened in a parking lot in the presence of her infant daughter shortly thereafter:

I was in a parking lot, going to a fitness class with my infant daughter. T-- taking, you know, the seats facing backwards in the backseat, diaper bag, you know, gettin’ all the stuff out. And a guy walked up on me and said to me, “Leave Trump alone. Forget the story.” And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, “That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.” And then he was gone.

October 10, 2011: The gossip blog the Dirty published the first article directly accusing Trump of having an affair with Daniels. Both Trump and Daniels denied the story, and Daniels’s attorney Keith Davidson sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Dirty in retaliation.

May 2016: After seeing an allusion to her affair with Trump on social media, McDougal hired attorney Keith Davidson, who told her the story is “worth millions” and arranged contact with American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer.

August 2016: As the general election campaign between Trump and Hillary Clinton raged, Daniels began talking to Jacob Weisberg, the editor-in-chief of the Slate Group (which owns Slate and Foreign Policy magazines).

“In our conversations, Daniels said she was holding back on the juiciest details, such as her ability to describe things about Trump that only someone who had seen him naked would know,” Weisberg later wrote. “She intimated that her view of his sexual skill was at odds with the remark attributed to Marla Maples.” (The “best sex I’ve ever had” was reportedly how then-girlfriend and future wife Maples described sex with Trump. Trump was still married to his first wife, Ivana Trump, at the time.)

August 6, 2016: McDougal, on advice of attorney Keith Davidson, signed a nondisclosure deal with AMI, for which she was paid $150,000 and promised she would be featured on the company’s magazine covers and in its health and fitness columns. This effectively buries the story; AMI’s CEO, David Pecker, is a longtime personal friend of Trump’s.

McDougal had, earlier that summer, worked with Keith Davidson (the same attorney that represented Daniels at this point) to reach a deal with AMI to sell the story of her affair with Trump for at least $500,000. But the company, which is run by a close friend of Trump’s, ultimately declined to buy the story. Then McDougal reached out to ABC News, after which AMI came forward with the offer to buy it for $150,000 and bury it.

Davidson and Michael Cohen were reportedly in contact about the deal as it progressed, further evidence it was meant to silence McDougal on Trump’s behalf.

October 7, 2016: The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold published the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. According to her later lawsuit, this led Daniels to want to tell her story to the media. She engaged in more conversations with reporters at this time, including Weisberg.

October 17, 2016: The Trump Organization’s Cohen created Essential Consultants LLC, as a vehicle to quietly pay hush money to Daniels.

October 18, 2016: The Smoking Gun, a news site specializing in mug shots and legal filings, published a piece by founder William Bastone featuring a photo of Trump and Daniels at the Lake Tahoe golf tournament. The piece added that Daniels “confided to friends that she engaged in a sexual affair with Trump, whom she claimed had promised to help her get cast on The Apprentice or another TV show. The piece failed to gain much traction in the chaos of the election’s final days.

Late October 2016: Daniels’s attorney, Keith Davidson, and Trump attorney Cohen negotiated a hush money deal. Daniels texted the deal to Slate’s Weisberg. “Daniels said she was talking to me and sharing these details because Trump was stalling on finalizing the confidentiality agreement and paying her,” Weisberg wrote later. “As an alternative to being paid for her silence, Daniels wanted to be paid for her story.” Slate does not pay for stories, so Weisberg made a counteroffer of an unpaid piece and an appearance on his podcast.

October 26, 2016: To prove that he had the $130,000 necessary to pay Daniels as part of the nondisclosure deal being negotiated, Cohen forwarded to Davidson an email from a bank official confirming he had made a deposit to his checking account. The emails with the bank official were sent using Cohen’s official Trump Organization email, raising questions about the source of the funds.

October 27, 2016: Cohen wired the $130,000 to Davidson, to pass on to Daniels.

October 28, 2016: Daniels and Cohen (on behalf of Essential Consultants) signed the nondisclosure agreement (attached to the end of the following lawsuit by Daniels):

Notably, however, Trump himself did not sign the document.

Throughout the document, Daniels is referred to by the pseudonym “Peggy Peterson” (or “PP”) and Trump is referred to as “David Dennison” (or “DD”), to minimize the odds that their true identities could be made public.

A separate side letter agreement, also attached in the lawsuit, specifies that PP is a pseudonym for Daniels. The original side letter also lists the true names of “David Dennison” and “EC, LLC,” but they are redacted in the version included in Daniels’s 2018 lawsuit. That said, it’s obvious those pseudonyms refer to Donald Trump and Essential Consultants.

Some point in October 2016: Fox News reporter Diana Falzone filed a story about the relationship between Daniels and Trump, which was confirmed by Daniels’s then-manager, Gina Rodriguez. The piece was shelved by Fox News leadership.

November 3, 2016: Daniels backed out of a story with the Daily Beast, which was also pursuing a piece about her relationship with Trump. The Beast had secured Alana Evans, who said Trump had propositioned for a threesome at the Lake Tahoe event, as a source.

November 4, 2016: The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Palazzolo, Michael Rothfeld, and Lukas I. Alpert reported that the National Enquirer paid $150,000 to McDougal, purportedly for “two years’ worth of her fitness columns and magazine covers as well as exclusive life rights to any relationship she has had with a then-married man,” but really to quash the story of her affair with Trump.

2018: the story goes public in a big way

January 12, 2018: The Wall Street Journal’s Palazzolo and Rothfeld broke the news of the Daniels nondisclosure agreement, the $130,000 cash payment, and Cohen’s involvement. In a statement, Cohen told the Journal that Trump “vehemently denies any such occurrence as has Ms. Daniels. … This is now the second time that you are raising outlandish allegations against my client.” Cohen did not address the payment, however.

He also sent a two-paragraph statement by Daniels denying any affair, saying, “Rumors that I have received hush money from Donald Trump are completely false.”

January 17, 2018: In Touch published its interview with Daniels, and an accompanying article. At this point, Daniels’s statement sent through Cohen was still her only public comment.

January 22, 2018: The campaign finance and anti-corruption watchdog group Common Cause filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission and Department of Justice asking them to “determine whether the payment was made by the Trump Organization or some other corporation or individual, which would additionally make it an illegal in-kind contribution to the campaign.”

Under federal law, corporations cannot donate to candidates, and individual contributions are capped at $2,700.

January 30, 2018: Daniels released another statement denying the affair:

Later, Daniels would claim that this statement was made “through intimidation and coercive tactics.” She told 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper that she was told by Trump’s representatives, “They can make your life hell in many different ways.” She told Cooper she believed “they” meant Michael Cohen.

February 13, 2018: As the story gained steam, and concerns grew that the payment violated campaign finance law, Cohen told the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman, “Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly. The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.”

The same day, Max Tani of the Daily Beast reported that Cohen was shopping a book proposal that touched on the Daniels scandal and commented on his role.

February 14, 2018: In response to those two stories, Daniels’s then-manager Gina Rodriguez told the Associated Press that she and Daniels believed Cohen had, in talking about the transaction with the New York Times and in a book proposal, invalidated the nondisclosure agreement. Rodriguez stated, “Everything is off now, and Stormy is going to tell her story.”

The same day, the gossip site the Blast reported that Daniels had held on to a “Monica Lewinsky-style” dress from her July 2006 sexual encounter with Trump, with his DNA on it.

February 27, 2018: As it became clear that Daniels was going to go public soon, Cohen obtained, on behalf of Essential Consultants, a temporary restraining order via an arbitrator, retired Judge Jacqueline Connor, in California. The order prohibited Daniels from “disclosing or inducing, promoting, or actively inspiring anyone to disclose Confidential information.” Connor issued this ruling ex parte, and Daniels and her legal team were not present or able to contest it.

Under the NDA’s terms, Trump had the clear right to “immediately obtain, either from the Arbitrator and/or from any other court of competent jurisdiction, an ex parte issuance of a restraining order … without advance notice to [Daniels].” But since Cohen, not Trump, obtained the restraining order, its validity would soon become hugely controversial.

March 6, 2018: Daniels and her new attorney, Michael Avenatti, filed suit against Donald Trump and Essential Consultants, asking that the nondisclosure agreement be voided so that Daniels could tell her story and confirm the affair.

In the lawsuit, Avenatti described the arbitration ruling obtained by Cohen on February 27 as “improper and procedurally defective” and “bogus.”

His argument is, fundamentally, about signatures. While the hush agreement purports to bind both Daniels and Trump, Trump did not sign it, either as himself or as David Dennison. Instead, the agreement was initialed and signed by Essential Consultants. Indeed, portions of the contract that are labeled to be initialed by “DD” are instead initialed by Essential Consultants:

Signatures in the Hush Agreement Michael Avenatti

“Mr. Trump … did not sign the agreement, thus rendering it legally null and void and of no consequence,” Avenatti wrote in the complaint. He alleged that Trump “purposely did not sign the agreement so he could later, if need be, publicly disavow any knowledge of the Hush Agreement and Ms. Clifford.”

Avenatti’s contention was that Cohen wired Daniels $130,000 even though the agreement was null.

The lawsuit further alleged that Cohen’s public statements on the case also served to void the agreement, or at least suggested that Cohen was treating it as void by talking about matters that Essential Consultants agreed to keep confidential. Finally, the suit claimed that Daniels’s initial denial of the affair was the result of “intimidation and coercive tactics” by Cohen.

March 7, 2018: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders falsely claimed that the “case had been won already in arbitration,” and reiterated, “there was no knowledge of any payments from the president, and he has denied all these allegations.”

March 16, 2018: In two separate court filings, Cohen and Trump’s legal team escalated their war on Daniels and Avenatti.

In the first, Essential Consultants (the Michael Cohen front group) sought to move the lawsuit Daniels filed from California state court to federal court. In the filing, Cohen and his team claimed that Daniels could owe them and/or Trump $20 million, at least, for at least 20 violations of the nondisclosure agreement, suggesting they planned to financially drain her for pursuing this case.

In the second legal filing, Charles Harder, Donald Trump’s new personal attorney on the case — who previously represented Hulk Hogan in his lawsuit against Gawker for publishing his sex tape, and Melania Trump in a defamation suit against the Daily Mail for claiming she used to work as an escort — joined the attempt to move the case to federal court. The filing also stated that Trump intended to force the case back to arbitration:

March 20, 2018: McDougal filed a lawsuit against the National Enquirer’s parent company to be released from her own 2016 nondisclosure agreement.

March 22, 2018: Avenatti, Daniels’s attorney, sent letters to the Trump Organization, City National Bank, and First Republic Bank asking them to preserve records related to the case. In the letter to the Trump Organization, Avenatti alleged that Cohen in February “attempted to interfere” with Daniels’s attempts to hire Avenatti, who brought the case public after her former attorney Keith Davidson sought to keep it private.

Also March 22, 2018: McDougal’s interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN was broadcast, in which she stated she had sexual contact with Trump “many dozens of times,” including five or more times per month.

March 25, 2018: Daniels’s interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes aired. She made public the accusations that Trump’s team sought to intimidate her in the summer of 2011.

March 26, 2018: Michael Cohen’s attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter to Stormy Daniels after the 60 Minutes interview, accusing her of claiming that Cohen was “responsible for an alleged thug who supposedly visited Ms. Clifford, while she was with her daughter, and made an alleged threat to Mr. Clifford.” While Daniels did say that one of Trump’s representatives did this, at no point did she actually accuse Cohen. Nevertheless, the letter accuses her of “libel per se and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Shortly thereafter, Daniels added a complaint in her lawsuit against Cohen, alleging defamation when on February 13 he stated in reference to claims of an affair that, “Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it can’t cause you harm or damage,” implying that Daniels is lying about the affair. This statement, Daniels and Avenatti allege, “exposed [Daniels] to hatred, contempt, ridicule, and shame.”

April 6, 2018: President Trump denied that he knew about the $130,000 payment, adding, “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. You’ll have to ask Michael.”

April 9, 2018: The FBI raided Michael Cohen’s offices in New York and reportedly seized records related to hush money payments to Stormy Daniels. Reports around the raid suggested it was related to the McDougal payment as well, and at least one report suggested that FBI agents were looking for evidence that Cohen and Trump tried to prevent the Access Hollywood tape from being released.

April 12, 2018: Stories by Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker and the AP’s Jake Pearson and Jeff Horwitz showed that Cohen helped arrange for American Media Inc. to pay $30,000 to former Trump building doorman Dino Sajudin for his story that Trump fathered a child out of wedlock in the 1980s. The Enquirer and AMI then sat on the story. “Cohen was kept up to date on a regular basis,” one source told Farrow.

April 18, 2018: McDougal and American Media Inc. agreed to a deal releasing her from her nondisclosure agreement and ending her lawsuit against the company.

April 25, 2018: Cohen announced that he planned to invoke the Fifth Amendment and not testify in the Stormy Daniels case, citing an “ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.”

April 26, 2018: US District Court Judge Kimba Wood appointed a retired judge to serve as “special master” and review material seized from Cohen, and separate out any privileged communications between him and his clients before FBI agents can review the materials.

April 27, 2018: US District Court Judge S. James Otero delayed the Daniels lawsuit against Cohen and Trump for 90 days because it’s “likely” Cohen will be indicted.

May 4, 2018: The New York Times’s Michael D. Shear, Maggie Haberman, Jim Rutenberg, and Matt Apuzzo reported, citing two anonymous sources, that Trump was aware of Cohen’s payoffs to Stormy Daniels.

June 15, 2018: Cohen sought a gag order against Avenatti to prevent him from speaking out in public about the case.

July 5, 2018: Cohen hired Lanny Davis, a longtime Clinton family loyalist, Washington political mercenary, and Trump critic, as his lawyer, suggesting his loyalty to Trump is fading.

July 24, 2018: CNN posted audio of a recording where Cohen and Trump discuss using American Media Inc. to pay off McDougal, proving that Trump was aware of efforts to use the Enquirer to pay her hush money. The New York Times had reported on the existence of the tape a few days earlier.

July 25, 2018: Trump lashed out at Cohen on Twitter:

Trump’s team, including lawyer Rudy Giuliani, continued to insist the tape doesn’t prove Trump knew about the payoff.

July 31, 2018: Judge Otero denied Cohen’s gag order request, and stayed the case another 45 days, due to the ongoing federal investigation into Cohen.

August 21, 2018: Cohen agreed to a plea deal with the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. He is pleading guilty to eight counts, including two counts of violating campaign finance law “in coordination with and at the direction of a federal candidate for office,” presumably Donald Trump. The charges say that his arranging of hush money for McDougal and Daniels amounted to an illegal campaign contribution.