Donald Trump was repeatedly kept apprised of a scheme to keep adult film star Stormy Daniels silent just before the 2016 election about her alleged affair with the real estate mogul, court documents unsealed on Thursday show.
From start to finish, Trump was in regular contact with his lawyer at the time, Michael Cohen, who arranged the payment. In October, Trump was brought in on a conference call with his longtime communications adviser, Hope Hicks, to discuss efforts to purchase and kill Daniels’ story. Over the coming weeks, Trump had numerous phone calls with Cohen as he went back and forth with Daniels’ attorney. And days before the November election, after The Wall Street Journal published a story detailing a similar hush-payment Cohen also made during the camapaign to Playboy model Karen McDougal, Cohen texted “he’s pissed,” an apparent reference to Trump.
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The fresh details are contained in several applications for search warrants in the Southern District of New York in which FBI special agents described the evidence law enforcement had obtained showing that Cohen’s $130,000 payoff to Daniels constituted an illegal campaign contribution to Trump’s presidential campaign.
The newly unredacted portions of the applications show the FBI special agents detailing how the hush-money agreement was made — and how Cohen appeared to keep Trump in the know about the deal every step of the way. Cohen isnow servingthree years in prison for a series of campaign finance, tax fraud and lying charges.
Several media organizations, including POLITICO, obtainedthedocumentsthrough a federal judge’s order tied to the Cohen case. Among the items also released on Thursday is alettersent earlier this week by Audrey Strauss, the lead U.S. attorney in New York on the Cohen case, notifying the judge that the government’s probe had concluded into who else might be criminally liable for the campaign finance violations to which the former Trump campaign lawyer has already pleaded guilty, as well as whether anyone else gave false statements or obstructed justice.
While Strauss made no mention of any new charges, legal expertstold POLITICOon Wednesday that the government’s confirmation that this portion of its investigation is over suggests no one else from the Trump Organization faces legal liability.
Trump attorney Jay Sekulow on Wednesday issued a statement celebrating the end of the “investigation surrounding these ridiculous campaign finance allegations.” Asked for comment on Thursday, the president’s personal lawyer replied, “We stand by our statement released yesterday. Case closed.”
Cohen, who is serving his sentence in Otisville, N.Y., issued a statement through his attorney explaining he made the hush-money payments along with other members of the Trump Organization at Trump’s direction. “The conclusion of the investigation exonerating The Trump Organization’s role should be of great concern to the American people and investigated by Congress and The Department of Justice,” Cohen said.
Negotiations over the hush-money deal to silence Daniels appeared to begin in earnest just after The Washington Post in early October 2016 revealed the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump can be heard bragging about sexually assaulting women. In the days after that video’s release, Cohen began communicating with Daniels’ attorney, Keith Davidson, according to the FBI’s review of Cohen’s phone records, iCloud and email accounts.
“I believe that at least some of these communications concerned the need to prevent [Daniels] from going public, particularly in the wake of the Access Hollywood story,” the agent wrote.
On Oct. 8, 2016, the day the tape was released, Hicks, then the Trump campaign press secretary, called Cohen. Sixteen seconds later, Trump himself was dialed into the call, which continued for over four minutes. It was the first call Cohen had received or made to Hicks in at least several weeks, and Cohen and Trump had spoken only about once a month prior to that, according to the FBI. Cohen and Hicks spoke again for about two minutes after the call with Trump ended.
Over the next few weeks, Cohen worked to flesh out a deal with Davidson and American Media, Inc., the parent organization of the National Enquirer. The plan was to have AMI purchase and bury the story, a practice known as “catch and kill,” and Cohen would then reimburse AMI for their expenses. Cohen and Davidson worked on the arrangements with Dylan Howard, the chief content officer at AMI.
During this period, Cohen connected with Trump several times. Cohen was particularly frantic on Oct. 17, when he incorporated an LLC called Essential Consultants in Delaware to funnel the money to Daniels. It’s also when Davidson threatened to cancel the deal by the end of the day if Cohen didn’t pay up. Cohen’s first call after he spoke to Davidson at the end of the day was an eight-second call to Trump, though it’s unclear whether they spoke.
Daniels didn’t end up going public that day, and the talks picked up again on Oct. 25. On Oct. 26, Trump and Cohen spoke twice in the morning, according to the search warrant. Less than 30 minutes later, Cohen began working to open an account within Essential Consultants. By the end of the next day, Cohen’s Essential Consultants had wired Daniels the $130,000. Cohen used a home equity line of credit to pay it, according to the document.
Cohen told First Republic Bank that Essential Consultants was a real estate consulting firm whose clients would be “high-worth domestic individuals,” and used his Trump Organization account as a point of contact, according to the search warrants. Agents also sought permission to look at Cohen’s Trump Organization email account.
Trump’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani,admittedlast year that Trump had paid back Cohen for the payment.
Cohen brought the checks with him to his congressional hearing earlier this year, which showed that Trump had paid him multiple monthly installments of $35,000 throughout 2017. The first two checks were from the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust Account, and signed by Donald Trump Jr. and Trump Organization finance chief Allen Weisselberg. The other known payments were personal checks that Trump signed himself.
The drama didn’t end with Daniels, however. Another adult film star, named Jessica Drake, made similar accusations against Trump in late October. But Daniels, who knew Drake, said in a tape recording made by Davidson that she did not find Drake to be credible. Davidson sent that recording to Cohen on Nov. 1, and Cohen tried calling Trump but got no response. So he called Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, and they spoke for about six minutes, according to one of the FBI agents.
Days later, on Nov. 4, 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported that the National Enquirer had also paid McDougal, the Playboy model, $150,000 to bury her story about an alleged affair with Trump. The payment was made under the guise of McDougal being a “columnist” for the Enquirer. McDougal was also represented at the time by Davidson.
After that Journal story was published, Cohen, Hicks, Davidson, Howard and AMI CEO David Pecker “spoke frequently” about the need to keep both the Daniels and McDougal stories from gaining national attention, according to one of the agent’s reviews of phone and email records.
The story apparently set off Trump. “He’s pissed,” Cohen texted Howard, a reference to Trump, according to the FBI.
Howard replied, “I’m pissed! You’re pissed. Pecker is pissed. Keith is pissed. Not much we can do.” Cohen texted Pecker later and said “the boss” had tried calling him, another apparent reference to Trump.
The morning after the story was published, Cohen seemed optimistic. “So far I see only 6 stories. Getting little to no traction,” he texted Hicks. “Same,” she responded. “Keep praying!! It’s working!”
Pecker and Trump spoke later that morning.