In January we learned, thanks to The Wall Street Journal, that Michael Cohen, a lawyer for Donald Trump, arranged a $130,000 hush money payment to the pornographic film star known as Stormy Daniels in the closing days of the 2016 presidential campaign. The payment was to stop Daniels from speaking out about an alleged affair she’d had with Trump shortly after Melania Trump, his third wife, gave birth to their son, Barron.
With any previous president the story would have been explosive, but with this one, it felt relatively minor. The real scandal, it seemed, was that there was no scandal, because no one expects any better of Trump. The religious right was willing to give him a “mulligan,” in the words of Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. Liberals rolled their eyes at right-wing hypocrisy, but ranked the affair fairly low on the list of Trump outrages.
But Daniels – whose real name is Stephanie Clifford – is a clever capitalist who’s been determined to force the story of her relationship with Trump into the public eye. She has parlayed her new notoriety into a series of strip-club appearances, including two in South Florida on Friday and Saturday. More significantly, her lawyer has filed a lawsuit arguing that the nondisclosure agreement she signed is null and void because Trump himself never signed it. The suit, ingeniously, has given Daniels’s lawyer a pretext to make that agreement public.
As this drama unfolds, it’s becoming clear that, for all its sordid details, it isn’t really a sex scandal. It’s a campaign finance scandal, a transparency scandal and potentially part of an ongoing national security scandal. It’s salacious and absurd, but we should take it seriously. Trump’s team certainly seems to; Cohen recently obtained a temporary restraining order to silence Daniels.
Let’s start with the campaign finance piece. On Jan. 22, the nonpartisan government watchdog group Common Cause filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department claiming that the $130,000 payment to Daniels constituted an in-kind contribution to Trump’s presidential campaign, in violation of federal campaign law.
In response, Cohen claimed that the payment was a private transaction that he was able to “facilitate” with his own personal funds. (It was made through a limited liability company Cohen created called Essential Consultants.) “Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly,” Cohen said in a statement to The Times.
Paul Seamus Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at Common Cause, told me that even if Cohen didn’t tell Trump what he did, Trump was still responsible, since “the actions of agents are attributable to their principals.” But the release of the NDA makes clear that Trump himself was a party to the agreement. If Trump authorized the $130,000 payment, it’s harder to explain away his campaign’s failure to disclose it, as required by law. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, all but confirmed Trump’s involvement Wednesday, when she said that a recent arbitration proceeding – the one that resulted in the temporary restraining order – was “won in the president’s favor.”
Norman Eisen, chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Barack Obama’s former ethics czar, points out another potential violation on Trump’s part. He calls it the “Al Capone problem.” The Daniels NDA refers repeatedly to “property” she agreed to turn over to Trump, including video images, still images, emails and text messages. Eisen argues that Trump was required to report ownership of this property, as well as any obligations he might have had to reimburse Cohen for the $130,000, in his federal financial disclosure forms.
“The asset here is this incredibly valuable agreement with Stormy,” Eisen told me. “Imagine what she could get if she has texts or images. Imagine the millions she could command! So there’s this incredibly valuable agreement, and the LLC, Essential Consultants, which Trump now appears to be a beneficiary of. That’s an asset.” But it’s an asset Trump didn’t reveal.
Finally, the Daniels story is germane to the overriding scandal of the Trump administration, the one involving Trump’s relationship with Russia. Christopher Steele, the British ex-spy who compiled an infamous dossier of opposition research on Trump, wrote that Russia could blackmail Trump with evidence of his “sexual perversion.” Nothing we know of Daniels confirms the dossier’s outré claims about what such perversion entailed. The NDA does, however, show that Trump was susceptible to blackmail.
Indeed, Daniels isn’t the only woman who was allegedly paid off after an encounter with Trump. The former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who claims she had an affair with Trump, was paid $150,000 by a media company closely aligned with the president, which quashed her story. Steve Bannon told “Fire and Fury” author Michael Wolff that another Trump lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, “took care” of “a hundred women” during the campaign.
“It all kind of fits together in a way,” Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor, said of the Daniels scandal and the Russia one. “It’s really blackmail over sex.”
Ultimately, the details of Trump’s relationship with Daniels will likely come out. David Super, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, told me he was surprised by how legally strong Daniels’ lawsuit seems, due to the way the original NDA was written. “Any halfway competent lawyer could have drafted the contract so that he didn’t need to sign it,” Super said of Cohen and Trump. “But they didn’t do it that way.”
Should Daniels prevail in court, we might learn interesting information about the president. Among other things, the NDA forbids her from discussing Trump’s “alleged children” or “paternity information.” But the scandal will lie less in the details of Trump’s degeneracy than in the steps he and his lawyers took to cover it up. “This is early days yet in the unfolding of this scandal,” said Eisen. Like Trump himself, it’s preposterous, but it’s not going away.