The criminal charges looming over former President Donald Trump pivot around the payment of hush money to adult movie actress Stormy Daniels in the final days of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The payment was made by former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen as part of a scheme to “catch and kill” politically damaging stories about the real estate mogul’s marital infidelities.
Cohen pleaded guilty in connection with the case in 2018 but federal prosecutors did not charge Trump, leaving it to New York City’s district attorney to investigate the case under state law.
In court documents, federal prosecutors laid out how Cohen, working at the behest of Trump, sought to prevent then-candidate Trump’s accusers from going public with their allegations.
In October 2016, an agent for Daniels contacted American Media Inc. (AMI), the publisher of the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer, to offer the rights to a story about an alleged sexual encounter she had with Trump a decade earlier.
AMI Chairman David Pecker, a longtime Trump friend, had offered to help the Trump campaign deal with negative press about his relationships with women by identifying stories that could be bought but not published, a tactic known as “catch and kill.”
The tabloid agreed to keep Cohen “apprised of such stories,” according to federal prosecutors.
In August 2016, AMI had identified one such story and, after receiving Cohen’s assurances of reimbursement, agreed to pay former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story about an alleged affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007.
But when Daniels’ agent approached AMI, the chairman put him in touch directly with Cohen, who negotiated a $130,000 agreement to buy her silence, federal prosecutors say.
Paying hush money is not a crime. But federal prosecutors say Cohen arranged for the payments to Daniels and McDougal in an attempt to influence the presidential campaign while falsely recording it as a legal “retainer” expense and receiving reimbursements from the Trump Organization.
In fact, “there was no such retainer agreement, and the monthly invoices COHEN submitted were not in connection with any legal services he had provided in 2017,” federal prosecutors wrote.
In August 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight federal criminal charges, including campaign finance violations related to the payment of $130,000 to Daniels.
In the lead up to his guilty plea, Cohen admitted under oath that he had facilitated the hush money payments “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump.
Trump, who has denied Daniels’ allegation, later said that he “never directed Michael Cohen to break the law” and said the payment was not a “campaign contribution.”
“If it were, it’s only civil, and even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did. OK?” he told Reuters in 2018.
Cohen spent a little over two years in federal prison before being released in 2021.
Federal prosecutors did not charge Trump in the case.
The Manhattan District Attorney has since been investigating whether the hush money payments violated any state laws.
While it remains unknown what charges the prosecutor will ultimately bring, legal experts say they could center on the falsification of business records.
The theory is that Trump allegedly used the guise of a legal retainer agreement to conceal the hush money payments in violation of federal election laws.
Under New York law, falsifying business records is typically a misdemeanor. To elevate the charge to a felony, prosecutors would have to show that the act of fraud was carried out with the intent to commit, aid or conceal another crime.
“That other crime would appear to be the federal election violations which the Justice Department previously declined to charge,” Jonathan Turley, a law professor at the George Washington University, wrote in a column in The Hill.
Saying he “did absolutely nothing wrong,” Trump has called the New York District Attorney’s investigation a “witch hunt” led by a “racist” prosecutor. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is Black.
This is not the only criminal case hanging over the former president. In Georgia, prosecutors are considering bringing criminal charges in connection with Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election result in the state. Trump narrowly lost to Democrat Joe Biden in Georgia.
Meanwhile, special counsel Jack Smith has been investigating Trump’s role in the effort to overturn the election results as well as his handling of classified documents after he left office.