Marin Independent Journal

DA faces complex tangle in Trump payoff case

- By Michael Rothfeld

At the time, it all was more tawdry than momentous. A reality star invited a porn actress half his age to a hotel room after a round in a celebrity golf tournament. She arrived in a spangly gold dress and strappy heels. He promised to put her on television and then, she says, they slept together.

Yet the chain of events flowing from the 2006 encounter that the adult film star, Stormy Daniels, has said she had with the television personalit­y, Donald Trump, has led to the brink of a historic developmen­t: the first criminal indictment of a former U.S. president.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has signaled he is preparing to seek felony charges against Trump; Bragg is expected to accuse him of concealing a $130,000 hush-money payment that Michael D. Cohen, Trump's lawyer and fixer, made to Daniels on the eve of the 2016 presidenti­al election.

A conviction would be likely to hinge on prosecutor­s' proving that Trump reimbursed Cohen and falsified business records when he did so, possibly to hide an election law violation.

It would not be a simple case. Prosecutor­s are expected to use a legal theory that has not been assessed in New York courts, raising the possibilit­y that a judge could throw out or limit the charges. The episode has been examined by both the Federal Election Commission and federal prosecutor­s in New York; neither took action against Trump.

Trump has denied having sex with Daniels and said he did nothing wrong. The former president, who is seeking the 2024 Republican nomination for the White House, has made it clear that he will cast the indictment as a political “witch hunt” and use it to rally his supporters. On Saturday, he predicted he would be arrested Tuesday and called for protests.

The prosecutor­s' chief witness would be Cohen, who pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance violations in August 2018, admitting

he helped arrange the Daniels payment — and another to a former Playboy model — to aid Trump's presidenti­al bid at the behest of Trump.

An indictment would mark another extraordin­ary episode in the Trump era: The former president — whose tenure closed with a riot at the Capitol, who tried to overturn a fair election and who is under investigat­ion for failing to return classified material — may face his first criminal charge for paying off a porn star.

Lake Tahoe encounter

Daniels, born Stephanie Gregory and raised mostly in a ramshackle ranch house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was 27 in July 2006, when she met Trump, then 60, at the celebrity golf tournament in Nevada.

When he met Daniels, Trump had largely transition­ed from real estate mogul to reality star; he had traveled to the tournament without his third wife, Melania, who remained behind with their newborn son. Trump and Daniels crossed paths on the golf course and later in the gift room, where they were photograph­ed together at a booth for her porn studio, Wicked Pictures. He invited her to dinner.

As they chatted that night in Trump's penthouse at Harrah's Lake Tahoe —

she has said he wore black silk pajamas and slippers — he told her that she should be on “The Apprentice,” an NBC reality show. She doubted he could make it happen. He assured her he could, she said.

Afterward, he would phone her occasional­ly from a blocked number, calling her “Honeybunch.” They saw each other at least twice more in 2007, at a launch party for the shortlived Trump Vodka and at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where they watched “Shark Week.” But they did not sleep together again. And Trump never put her on “The Apprentice.” Still, he kept calling, she has said. Eventually, she stopped answering.

Selling stories

Since 2000, Trump had staged long-shot presidenti­al runs that more resembled publicity stunts than serious bids for office. He kicked off another in 2011, promoting conspiracy theories that then-President Barack Obama had been born outside the United States. As he did so, Daniels, still bitter, began working with an agent to see if she could sell the story of their liaison.

They negotiated a $15,000 deal with Life & Style, a celebrity magazine, telling its reporter that Daniels believed that Trump's offer to make her

a contestant had been a lie, according to a transcript later published online.

“Just to impress you, to try to sleep with you?” the reporter asked. “Yeah,” Daniels responded. “And I guess it worked.”

When the magazine contacted the Trump Organizati­on for comment, Cohen returned the call. A lawyer who had joined the company four years earlier, Cohen had become Trump's fixer, diving headlong into resolving thorny problems for his boss and the Trump family. Cohen threatened to sue, the magazine killed the story, and Daniels did not get paid.

Trump, for his part, dropped out of the race and continued hosting “The Apprentice.”

That October, Daniels' story about Trump surfaced briefly after her agent leaked it to a gossip blog called “The Dirty,” trying to gin up interest from a paying publicatio­n. A couple of media outlets followed up, but none offered payment. Daniels denied the story, and her agent had a lawyer in Beverly Hills, California, Keith Davidson, get the post taken down.

As Obama prepared to leave office in 2015, Trump decided to run for president once more. That August, he sat in his office at Trump Tower with Cohen and David Pecker, the publisher of American Media Inc. and its flagship tabloid, the National Enquirer.

Pecker, a longtime friend of Trump's, had used the Enquirer to boost Trump's past presidenti­al runs. He promised to publish positive stories about Trump and negative ones about opponents, according to three people familiar with the meeting. Pecker also agreed to work with Cohen to find and suppress stories that might damage Trump's new efforts, a practice known as “catch and kill.”

In spring 2016, Daniels attempted through her agent to sell her story again — this time for more than $200,000. But the publicatio­ns she approached all passed, including The Enquirer. Her luck changed in early October.

`Awfully bad'

The news hit the presidenti­al race like a bomb. On Oct. 7, 2016, the Washington Post published what would become known as the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump, unwittingl­y on a live microphone, was recorded describing in lewd terms how he groped women.

The people surroundin­g Daniels immediatel­y realized that Trump's new vulnerabil­ity made her more of a threat — and thus gave her story value. Davidson, the Los Angeles lawyer, was also friendly with Daniels' agent, Gina Rodriguez, and with the Enquirer's editor, Howard. On the day after the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged, Davidson and Howard texted about the damage it had done to Trump's campaign. Then Howard asked Daniels' agent to send another pitch for his boss, Pecker.

The Enquirer executives alerted Cohen; Cohen asked Pecker for help containing it.

Howard haggled with Daniels' agent, but when he presented Pecker with an offer to buy the story for $120,000, the publisher refused.

“Perhaps I call Michael and advise him and he can take it from there,” Howard wrote.

That night, Cohen spoke by phone to Trump, Pecker and Howard, according to records obtained by federal authoritie­s. Howard connected him to the lawyer, Davidson, who would negotiate the deal for Daniels.

Three days after the “Access Hollywood” tape's release, Cohen agreed to pay $130,000 in a deal that threatened severe financial penalties for Daniels if she ever spoke about her affair with Trump. The contract used pseudonyms: Peggy Peterson, or “PP,” for Daniels, and David Dennison, or “DD,” for Trump. Their identities were revealed only in a side letter.

Daniels signed her copy on the trunk of a car near a porn set in Calabasas, California. Cohen signed on Trump's behalf.

But Cohen delayed paying. He has said he was trying to figure out where to get the money while Trump campaigned. According to Cohen, Trump had approved the payment and delegated to him and the Trump Organizati­on's chief financial officer the task of arranging it. They considered options for funneling the money through the company, Cohen said, but did not settle on a solution.

Daniels began to believe that Trump was trying to stall until after the Nov. 8 election; if he lost, her story would lose its value. In mid-October, after Cohen had blown two deadlines, Daniels' lawyer canceled the deal, and the porn actress again began shopping the story. The next week, Howard texted Cohen that if Daniels went public, their work to cover up the sexual encounter might also become known.

“It could look awfully bad for everyone,” Howard wrote.

Cohen agreed to make the payment himself. He spoke briefly by phone with Trump, twice. Then he transferre­d about $130,000 from his home equity line of credit into the account of a Delaware shell company and wired it to Daniels' lawyer.

Daniels remained silent. A week and a half later, Trump won the election.

Once he was in the White House, Trump handled one more piece of business related to Daniels. He signed checks to reimburse Cohen for paying her off.

 ?? JEFFERSON SIEGEL — THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has signaled he is seeking criminal charges against Donald Trump over an alleged hush-money payment to the porn actress known as Stormy Daniels.
JEFFERSON SIEGEL — THE NEW YORK TIMES Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has signaled he is seeking criminal charges against Donald Trump over an alleged hush-money payment to the porn actress known as Stormy Daniels.

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