The most stunning announcement from a whirlwind Tuesday was Michael Cohen claiming in open court that Donald Trump ordered him to make hush money payments to women during the 2016 campaign.
Cohen said under oath that he took those actions “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” with the express purpose of “influencing the 2016 election.”
Court documents filed by prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office from the Southern District of New York don’t go quite that far. But they do implicate a number of other entities, including the Trump Organization and campaign, in helping to protect Trump from exposure of his past illicit affairs.
Cohen on Tuesday pleaded guilty on eight counts, including six related to his personal financial misconduct and tax evasion. It’s the two campaign finance violations that draw in those in Trump’s orbit. The details in the court documents confirm months of reporting on how those close to the President dealt with women who threatened his rise to the Oval Office – and offer new, previously unknown details.
Key to that protection operation was David Pecker, chairman of American Media Inc., parent company to the National Enquirer. Prosecutors identified them as “Chairman-1,” “Corporation-1,” and “Magazine-1,” respectively. Trump himself is identified as “Individual-1.”
Back in August 2015, just two months after Trump declared his candidacy, Pecker “in coordination with Michael Cohen, the defendant, and one or more members of the campaign, offered to help deal with negative stories about Individual-1’s relationship with women,” the document claims. The parties agreed to work together to quash any stories about Trump’s alleged extramarital affairs.
Their first opportunity came in June 2016, when “Woman-1,” Playboy model Karen McDougal, asked her lawyer Keith Davidson, “Attorney-1,” to try to sell the story of her alleged two-year relationship with Trump to the Enquirer. The magazine’s editor-in-chief tipped off Pecker and Cohen, and they began negotiations for a deal.
Ultimately, per court documents, the Enquirer entered into an agreement with McDougal in August 2016 to acquire her story for $150,000 and afford her various opportunities to work with the magazine. No such work ever materialized, nor was McDougal’s account published; the agreement was instead intended to “suppress Woman-1’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election,” documents say.
Not long after, in early October 2016, the agent for “Woman-2,” or adult film star Stormy Daniels, contacted the Enquirer about her own alleged sexual encounter with Trump. Cohen went to Davidson to personally negotiate a $130,000 hush money payout, and set up an LLC to discreetly transfer the funds. But Cohen didn’t actually make the payment until Oct. 26, after the magazine’s editor warned Cohen via text that Daniels was threatening to take her story elsewhere and that action was required “or it could look awfully bad for everyone,” per the documents.
In handling both matters, Cohen “coordinated with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments,” according to prosecutors.
Outside of the campaign, executives at the Trump family real estate company helped reimburse Cohen for these so-called “election-related expenses.” Per the court filings, Cohen in January 2017 submitted an invoice requesting a total of $180,000: $130,000 for the Daniels payment plus $50,000 for “tech services.” Unnamed executives at the Trump Organization, or “Company-1,” allegedly “grossed up” the total Cohen would receive to $360,000 “for tax purposes,” and then “added a bonus of $60,000.” They determined Cohen would receive the money via $35,000 monthly retainer fees throughout 2017, which he did.
“The Company accounted for these payments as legal expenses,” the documents read. “In truth and 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.”
The identities of “Executive-1” and “Executive-2,” who handled the payments, were not immediately clear from the court documents.
In a September 2016 recording Cohen made and recently released, he can be heard telling Trump that he spoke to Trump Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg about how best to structure a reimbursement to American Media Inc. in the McDougal matter. Weisselberg, a decades-long veteran of the Trump Organization, was reportedly subpoenaed in the Cohen investigation.
The allegations laid out by federal prosecutors indicate that Cohen worked “in cooperation, consultation, and concert with, and at the request and suggestion of one or more members of the campaign” to carry out these campaign finance schemes. They also indicate that Cohen was not just reimbursed by the Trump Organization but rewarded with a bonus for this work.
After Cohen’s Tuesday hearing, Deputy U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami released a statement saying that “his day of reckoning serves as a reminder that we are a nation of laws, with one set of rules that applies equally to everyone.”
The court documents suggest that Cohen may not be the only one facing a reckoning for the crimes he committed.