FBI tied Donald Trump to Michael Cohen’s hush-money payments

FBI tied Donald Trump to Michael Cohen's hush-money payments

WASHINGTON — A day after the public heard Donald Trump boasting about grabbing women’s genitals in a leaked Access Hollywood outtake, the then-Republican presidential candidate and some of his top aides began an urgent effort to silence a pornographic actress, court records unsealed on Thursday show. 

The documents, part of the FBI’s investigation of a hush-money scheme, show agents had gathered evidence that Trump participated in an effort to pay off Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress who claimed to have had an extramarital affair with him years earlier. In them, authorities laid out a timeline of emails, text messages and phone calls – some involving Trump himself – that “concerned the need to prevent” Daniels from going public with her story. 

Trump denied knowledge of the payments after they became public. But the FBI told a judge it had obtained telephone records showing he participated in some of the first conversations about the scheme, which prosecutors have said violated federal campaign finance laws. 

Federal prosecutors said in court filings last year that Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, orchestrated payments to Daniels and another woman, Karen McDougal, “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump. The documents unsealed Thursday offer the first clear account of the extent of Trump’s involvement in that effort, which came at a particularly sensitive moment weeks before the 2016 presidential election.

The Justice Department told a judge Monday that it had “effectively concluded” its investigation of the payoffs, signaling the end of one of the criminal probes that had shadowed Trump’s presidency. 

More: Justice Department ends inquiry of hush-money payments in final months of Donald Trump’s campaign, judge says

Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow said Wednesday that he’s pleased the investigation is now closed and said Trump “never engaged in any campaign finance violation.”

Cohen called Sekulow’s comments “completely distorted and dishonest.” He said in a statement Thursday that Trump directed him and members of the Trump Organization to “handle the Stormy Daniels matter.”

“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.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The documents do not describe the conclusions of the hush-money investigation, but rather offer a window into what FBI agents had learned in the first months of their work. They include copies of applications for search warrants laying out evidence that Cohen had broken the law. Cohen later pleaded guilty to two felony violations of campaign finance laws and a series of other crimes, for which he is serving a three year prison sentence. 

The timeline of communications began on Oct. 8, 2016, the day after the Washington Post published the infamous Access Hollywood video in which Trump can be heard talking in vulgar terms about women. Around this time, Daniels was planning to talk to Good Morning America and Slate about her alleged relationship with Trump in 2006, the same year that his wife, Melania, gave birth to their son.

Hope Hicks, then press secretary of the Trump campaign, called Cohen that evening. Trump joined the call briefly. Hicks, Cohen and Trump continued to talk that night, while Cohen was also in communications with David Pecker and Dylan Howard, heads of American Media Inc. which publishes the National Enquirer, to buy rights to the story about the affair and keep it from becoming public, a tactic known as catch and kill.

Howard texted Cohen and Keith Davidson, Daniels’ attorney, on Oct. 10, 2016, to connect them regarding “that business opportunity.” Davidson texted Cohen shortly after, telling him that they need to “close this deal” that day.

Cohen spent the next few days working to finalize the agreement. On Oct. 17, he began work to create Essential Consultants LLC, a shell company he would later use to funnel money to Daniels. But the negotiation nearly fell apart, with Davidson and Daniels threatening to go public with the alleged affair. Cohen called Trump after Davidson threatened to cancel the agreement, the documents said. 

Communications picked up again a week later. Howard told Cohen on Oct. 25 that they “have to coordinate something” with Davidson “or its [sic] could look awfully bad for everyone.” Cohen called Trump twice the following morning. A half hour after that call, Cohen worked to finalize the formation of Essential Consultants.

After that, Cohen called Davidson, who then sent wiring instructions to Cohen. That night, Cohen confirmed the agreement with the National Enquirer publishers. On Oct. 27, Cohen wired $130,000 from his Essential Consultants account to Davidson.

On Oct. 28, Cohen and Trump talked again for a few minutes. Later that day, Davidson texted him: “all is AOK.” 

“I hope we are good,” Cohen replied.

More: From Trump fixer to Mueller informant: Timeline of Michael Cohen’s role in Russia probe

“I assure you. We are very good,” Davidson said. 

That night, Cohen spoke to Hicks.

On Nov. 1, 2016, Davidson transferred money to a bank account in Daniels’ name. Cohen made more calls that day to Trump and Kellyanne Conway, then Trump’s campaign manager, who called him back later that night. 

On Nov. 4, three days after the transaction with Daniels was completed and just four days before the presidential election, The Wall Street Journal broke a story about another alleged affair with McDougal, a former Playboy model. The Journal reported that the National Enquirer had agreed to pay McDougal to bury her story.  

As the Journal was preparing to publish the story, Howard attempted to reassure Cohen that there’s nothing to worry about. “I think it’ll be ok pal. I think it’ll fade into the distance,” he told Cohen. 

“He’s pissed,” Cohen responded. Investigators believe Cohen was referring to Trump. 

“I’m pissed! You’re pissed. Pecker is pissed. Keith is pissed. Not much we can do,” Howard responded, referring to David Pecker and Keith Davidson.

The morning after the Journal’s story was published, Cohen assured Hicks that the story was not getting much traction. 

“Same, Keep praying!! It’s working!” Hicks responded. 

“Even CNN not talking about it,” Cohen said. 

On Jan. 12, 2018, about a year into Trump’s presidency, the Wall Street Journal broke the story about Cohen’s hush-money payments to Daniels. 

The hundreds of pages of filings were unsealed after a federal judge in New York announced that investigators have concluded their investigation into the hush-money payments. U.S. District Judge William Pauley ordered the government to make public some of the search warrants it used when investigating Cohen, saying the campaign finance violations discussed in the records “are a matter of national importance.”

Pauley’s order signaled the end of a criminal investigation that directly implicated Trump, one of a pair of inquiries in which federal authorities were scrutinizing the president. The other, the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference, concluded in March without finding that the president had committed the crime of obstruction.

The filings reveal that federal investigators assigned to special counsel Robert Mueller began targeting Cohen within the first two months of Mueller’s appointment in May 2017. Mueller’s team first sought communications related to Cohen, described in court documents as “someone who holds himself out to be the personal attorney for President Trump,” in July 2017 as part of the investigation. Mueller’s office eventually handed the case to federal prosecutors in New York. 

The filings also reveal how deeply the investigators were looking into Trump himself. Some of the warrant applications authorities submitted said that among the information they were seeking was “evidence of communications with Donald Trump.”

More: ‘I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore.’ Michael Cohen ties the president to ongoing criminal probes

With the campaign finance inquiry now closed, Sekulow said Wednesday he knew of no other federal investigations in which Trump is a subject. 

Prosecutors have said that Cohen participated in an agreement with a tabloid to “suppress” claims by McDougal to “prevent it from influencing the election.” The agreement involved “Corporation-1,” whose description matches public description of the National Enquirer and which agreed in August 2016 to buy McDougal’s story for $150,000.

The Enquirer’s parent company later acknowledged in an agreement with prosecutors that it made the payment because McDougal’s story could have jeopardized Trump’s campaign. 

Cohen made the separate payment to Daniels out of his own pocket. Prosecutors said Trump’s business then reimbursed Cohen, added another $130,000 to pay for Cohen’s taxes and another $60,000 as a bonus. Prosecutors said the payments were disguised as legal bills.

Cohen said during a congressional testimony in February that his former boss masterminded the “cover-up” of the payments to Daniels and directed him to lie about them, including to first lady Melania Trump.

He also presented the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee with a copy of a personal check that he said Trump signed during the first year of his presidency to reimburse him for the payments. Cohen said the check, which was for $35,000, was one of 11 installments to reimburse him.

The newly unsealed documents are the result of an April 2018 FBI raid of Cohen’s home, hotel room, office, safe deposit box, cell phones and electronic communication. Media organizations sought to unseal the search warrants and affidavits related to the raid, but portions about the campaign finance investigation remained redacted until Thursday.

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