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The Michael Cohen-Stormy Daniels subplot, explained

Cohen’s hush money payments to Daniels are on the agenda at his House hearing on Wednesday.

Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti at the 2019 Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas in January 2019.
Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti at the 2019 Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas in January 2019.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, is back in the headlines as he testifies before Congress on Wednesday — and thus, so is Stormy Daniels.

Daniels, the porn actress whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is one of the central figures in the ongoing campaign finance legal woes of Cohen and President Trump. Daniels alleged she had an affair with Trump in 2006 and that Cohen paid her $130,000 to keep quiet about it ahead of the 2016 election.

Cohen has pleaded guilty to eight federal crimes, including campaign finance violations related to the payout, and was sentenced to three years in prison for his misdeeds. He implicated Trump in his admissions in court, saying hush money payouts for Daniels and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who also says she had an affair with Trump, were made “in coordination with and at the direction of a federal candidate for office” in order to influence the election. That candidate is, of course, the president.

Trump denies both women’s accounts.

The Daniels storyline has been among the most surprising — and, at times, entertaining — subplots in the legal cloud surrounding President Trump. Daniels’s flashy lawyer Michael Avenatti became a frequent face on the television airwaves and even flirted with a potential 2020 presidential run, though he decided against it last year after an arrest on suspicions of domestic abuse in Los Angeles.

Daniels, meanwhile, has become a well-known figure in American culture and politics. She was one of the 10 most Googled people in 2018, behind Meghan Markle and Demi Lovato but ahead of Cardi B. She released a book that included eyebrow-raising details about her alleged relationship with Trump.

She and Trump have also continued to trade barbs. In October 2018, he called her “Horseface” in a tweet. She responded with, “Game on, Tiny.”

The payment to Daniels — and Trump’s involvement in it — is almost certain to be a major topic of discussion during Cohen’s testimony on Wednesday. According to Cohen’s prepared statement, published by the New York Times, Cohen will tell lawmakers that Trump “asked me to pay off an adult film star with whom he had an affair, and to lie to his wife about it, which I did.” He will give the committee a copy of the $130,000 wire transfer he made to Daniels’s attorney as well as a copy of a $35,000 reimbursement check for the hush money signed by Trump in August 2017, while he was president.

What supposedly happened between Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels

Trump met Daniels at the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, in July 2006. (There is photographic evidence of them having at least having met there.) She claims they had consensual sex there. (McDougal was also at the golf tournament and says that she and Trump had sex there as well.) Daniels does not claim that she and Trump slept together again, though she says they stayed in contact and watched the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week together in 2007 at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Daniels spoke about the alleged affair on multiple occasions after it happened. During a 2007 radio appearance, she wrote down Trump’s name as one of the famous men she had slept with and described some details of their encounter.

In 2011, she gave an interview discussing Trump to In Touch’s Jordi Lippe-McGraw, which the magazine declined to publish until news of the scandal broke in January 2018, with the promise of $15,000 in compensation. In Touch didn’t run the story earlier because Cohen threatened to sue over it when the magazine reached out to ask for comment. Also in 2011, the gossip blog the Dirty published the first article directly accusing Trump of having an affair with Daniels, but both Trump and Daniels denied it at the time.

Then as Trump’s presidential bid took off, the matter began to percolate again. Daniels began talking to Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg about her alleged affair with Trump. And after the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold published the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women, Daniels became more determined to go to the media.

Except she didn’t. In October 2016, Cohen created Essential Consultants LLC as a vehicle to pay hush money to Daniels. And later that month, her then-attorney, Keith Davidson, and Cohen negotiated a deal through which Daniels would receive $130,000 as part of a nondisclosure agreement on her allegations. Daniels and Cohen signed the NDA. Trump did not.

The month prior, in September 2016, Cohen also orchestrated a $150,000 hush money deal involving McDougal through the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., which bought the story in order to keep it from coming out.

The hush money payment obviously didn’t work

The Daniels affair floated around in the background for a while until January 12, 2018, when Michael Rothfeld and Joe Palazzolo at the Wall Street Journal broke the news of the Daniels NDA, the $130,00 payment, and Cohen’s involvement. Cohen told the WSJ that Trump “vehemently denies” Daniels’s allegations. He also sent a two-paragraph statement from Daniels denying the affair and saying hush money rumors are “completely false.”

And then it all snowballed from there. In Touch published its Daniels interview, and a campaign finance watchdog filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission and Department of Justice asking them to look into potential violations from the Trump Organization or those tied to it.

Daniels and Cohen kept denying it for a while, but then Daniels determined that Cohen’s discussions of the allegations with the Times and in a book proposal he was shopping invalidated the NDA, and so she decided to talk.

That ignited a litany of legal wrangling, with Cohen obtaining a temporary restraining order on Daniels in California to keep her from speaking out and Daniels and her new attorney, Avenatti, filing a lawsuit asking for the NDA to be voided. Their argument: Trump had not signed the agreement, so she could talk.

The legal back-and-forth between the parties continues to this day, but the cat is already out of the bag on the basics of the story. Daniels has spoken about it publicly on multiple occasions.

The Trump camp’s story has changed over time, from denials that the payments and affair happened to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani basically admitting to the hush payments but saying they’re not actually a crime.

The hush money payment is part of a legal case against Cohen — and potentially Trump

The hush money payments to Daniels and McDougal were part of a broader investigation out of the US Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York.

In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges on eight counts, including five counts of tax evasion, one count of making a false statement to a financial institution, one count of being a “willful cause” of an unlawful corporate contribution, and one count of making an excessive campaign contribution. (The limit on campaign contributions in 2016 was $2,700; Cohen’s hush payments obviously greatly exceed that.)

Cohen said he violated campaign finance laws in coordination with and at the direction of an unnamed candidate — as in Trump — in coordinating payouts to Daniels and McDougal and acted with the purpose of influencing the election.

He cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, partly in hopes that it would earn him leniency in his sentencing. He was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison for his crimes. He is supposed to report to prison in May after obtaining a 60-day delay earlier this month.

The Daniels payout is one of many questions surrounding Cohen and his involvement in President Trump’s business and legal dealings as well as potential crimes, and what it will mean for Trump remains to be seen. But it seems Stormy Daniels isn’t going away anytime soon.


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