American Media, Inc.’s non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors eliminates any doubt that Trump’s hush-money payments to Karen McDougal and Stephanie Clifford, a.k.a. Stormy Daniels, violated federal election law. That agreement, along with a guilty plea from Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen, means that all parties involved in the payoff have publicly averred it was made in hopes of influencing the 2016 election.
Everyone, that is, except Trump. He’s been dancing around the fact for months, even after his current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, basically acknowledged the payment was to keep Clifford quiet at a critical moment for the Trump campaign.
The problem isn’t just the intent. It’s the question of whether the hush money impacted an election that was ultimately decided by fewer than 80,000 votes. As the Southern District of New York articulated in Cohen’s sentencing documents, the arrangement “struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency. While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks, or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows” and “deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the election.”
As the timeline below shows, it’s about the timing. The Trump campaign and AMI chose to make the hush payments at crucial moments in the presidential race. Both women alerted AMI they were considering going public months before any payments were made. At the time, Trump did nothing. But then, in two crucial campaign moments — right after Trump became the Republican nominee, and when the “Access Hollywood” tape made his sexual history front-page news and threatened to destroy Trump’s candidacy — he decided to make the hush payments. Keeping these women quiet suddenly became an urgent necessity — and perhaps a key step in his effort to win the presidency.
- August 2015: Donald Trump and Michael Cohen meet with David Pecker, head of American Media, Inc. (AMI) to discuss the possibility of using hush payments to kill any damaging stories about Trump during his campaign.
- Early in 2016: Stephanie Clifford, a.k.a. Stormy Daniels, approaches Dylan Howard, Chief Content Officer of AMI, to discuss selling her story of her affair with Trump. Howard declines to buy the story.
- May 2016: Karen McDougal retains lawyer Keith Davidson while considering going public with details of her affair with Trump.
- June 2016: Davidson contacts an editor at AMI about publishing McDougal’s story. Pecker and an AMI editor inform Cohen of the conversation and, at Cohen’s urging and with his promise of a reimbursement, begin negotiating with McDougal.
- June 20, 2016: McDougal and Davidson meet with Dylan Howard to discuss her story. After interviewing her and determining she did not have incriminating evidence of her affair with Trump, they call Cohen and decide not to purchase her story. However, they change their minds upon learning McDougal has also met with ABC News.
- August 6, 2016: McDougal signs a contract to sell her story to AMI.
- September 2016: Cohen secretly records a meeting with Trump in which they discuss how to make the payments to McDougal. In the tape, they first discuss an attempt by The New York Times to obtain Trump’s divorce records, and that they need to delay that attempt. They then discuss possible payment methods for “our friend David” — Trump suggests using cash, but Cohen says he will arrange otherwise — and agree they need to tie up loose ends because “you never know where that company, you never know where [Pecker] is going to be.”
- August-September 2016: Pecker and Cohen sign a contract to transfer McDougal’s story.
- September 30, 2016: Cohen sets up a shell company in Delaware to facilitate payment for McDougal’s story. In October, AMI calls off the deal over concerns the payment will expose AMI to greater legal liability for campaign-finance violations.
- October 7, 2016: In the immediate aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” tape, Clifford is in “preliminary talks” with “Good Morning America” to get her story published.
- October 8, 2016: Clifford’s agent informs AMI that Clifford is ready to go public with her story. Howard tells Pecker about his conversations with Clifford. Pecker informs Cohen, who informs Trump. “Over the course of the next few days,” Cohen and Davidson sign a nondisclosure agreement and agree to a $130,000 payment. According to The Wall Street Journal, Cohen and the Trump Organization work to arrange payments, telling Davidson to expect a wire transfer by October 14, but ultimately fail to do so. A major sticking point, Cohen later told prosecutors, is how to make the payments in a way that cannot be traced back to Trump.
- October 18, 2016: The Smoking Gun publishes a story about Trump and Clifford. The Trump campaign denies the encounter happens.
- October 25, 2016: Davidson informs Howard that Clifford intends to speak publicly. Howard tells Cohen via text message that they need to get the hush payments made “or it could look awfully bad for everyone.”
- October 27, 2016: Cohen transfers $130,000 to Davidson.
- November 4, 2016: The Wall Street Journal reveals that AMI paid $150,000 to McDougal. The Trump campaign denies any knowledge. AMI claims the payments were for magazine covers, fitness columns, and “exclusive life rights to any relationship she has had with a then-married man,” but denies buying McDougal’s story to protect Trump.
- Post-election: Cohen seeks and receives reimbursement from the Trump Organization, which are falsely accounted for as “legal expenses,” according to Cohen’s account to prosecutors.
These payments are part of a long pattern of cover-ups by Trump and his campaign. Along with covering up his affairs, Trump’s team continually lied about their contacts with a hostile foreign government engaged in an active attack against American democracy. They hid his financial history, covering up a lifetime of corrupt business dealings and outright fraud. It’s past time we asked the crucial question whether Trump’s criminal and unethical behavior was not just a piece of his campaign but the thing that enabled him to win.