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Why Stormy Daniels matters
On Saturday morning, Donald Trump announced on Truth Social that he "WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK." Trump's comments came after widespread reports that Manhattan District Alvin L. Bragg (D) was closing in on an indictment connected to Trump's $130,000 hush money payment to Stormy Daniels, a former adult film star who says she had an affair with Trump. Later, a Trump spokesman clarified that Trump had no "direct knowledge of the timing of any arrest" and was only "highlighting his innocence and the weaponization of our injustice system."
The strategy, it appears, is to drown out any discussion of his actual conduct by skipping right to the outrage about his arrest — even though Trump has not yet been arrested or charged. This approach involves convincing the public that his actions were unimportant and, therefore, any charges will be politically motivated.
Trump is getting help making this argument from both sides of the aisle. On the right, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said that Trump is a victim of "an outrageous abuse of power by a radical DA" who is pursuing "political vengeance against President Trump."
On the left, David Axelrod, who served as Barack Obama's chief strategist, characterized the money payments to Stormy Daniels as the "least meaningful" of all allegations against Trump. Axelrod said charges against Trump for something so insignificant would allow Trump to characterize all future charges as "politically-motivated."
While McCarthy and Axelrod are quick to dismiss Trump's conduct, his payment to silence Daniels was an effort to subvert the democratic process.
At their heart, presidential elections are relatively simple. Voters learn things about each candidate and then use that information to select their choice — including whether or not to vote at all. A campaign is a process of shaping that information environment through ads, events, policy announcements, and other activities.
There are some basic rules about how federal campaigns operate. If you spend money to benefit your campaign, it must be publicly reported. If you run an ad, you must disclose that your campaign paid for the ad. The underlying principle of these rules is transparency — voters have a right to know what you are saying and doing to get elected.
If Trump is charged, it will be because prosecutors believe he violated the law in order to hide relevant information from voters in the days leading up to the 2016 election. After Election Day, Trump allegedly engaged in more crimes, including falsifying business records, to cover up his actions.
Trump was not a "victim of an extortion plot"
Trump, in a statement released by his 2024 campaign, now says that he was a "victim of an extortion plot, yet he is the one being prosecuted." This is not what happened.
Daniels met Trump at a July 2006 celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. (There is a photo of the two of them together at the event.) Daniels says Trump invited her to his hotel room and said he could secure her a spot on his reality show, The Apprentice. She alleges that they then had a sexual encounter, which Trump denies. Afterward, according to Daniels, Trump would call her and invite her to other events, including the 2007 launch of Trump Vodka.
Daniels sought to sell the story about her alleged relationship with Trump to media outlets beginning in 2011 when Trump raised his profile by making baseless accusations about Obama and publicly contemplated a presidential run. Daniels gave Life & Style an extensive interview in exchange for $15,000. That would have been the end of it, but when Life & Style contact the Trump Organization for comment, Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, threatened to sue. Life & Style killed the story and did not pay Daniels. (The full Life & Style interview was published in January 2018.)
Daniels tried to shop the story again in 2016, when Trump emerged as the Republican nominee, but did not receive an offer. Everything changed in October 2016 when the Washington Post published the infamous Access Hollywood tape that featured Trump's lewd comments about groping women. Trump's sexual mores were now at the center of a closely contested campaign. And his ability to win the election hinged largely on Trump changing the subject before Election Day.
Daniels' agent reached out to Dylan Howard, then-editor of the National Enquirer, and asked if he was interested in Daniels' story. What Daniels didn't know is that David Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer, Trump, and Cohen, had reached a secret agreement at the outset of Trump's presidential campaign to work together to "catch-and-kill" negative stories about Trump. The purpose of the agreement was to boost Trump's chances in the campaign.
Howard reached a tentative agreement to pay Daniels $120,000 for her story. But Pecker had recently paid Karen McDougal, another woman who alleged she had an affair with Trump, $150,000. Pecker wasn't prepared to shell out any more cash. So Howard advised Cohen that he would need to take care of it himself. Cohen conferred with Trump and Pecker and negotiated a $130,000 deal to purchase Daniels' silence.
Daniels, in other words, never tried to extort Trump. Instead, she was targeted by a "catch-and-kill" operation set up by Trump and his associates prior to the campaign to hide damaging stories.
Cohen's cash crunch
Cohen had successfully negotiated a deal for Daniels' silence, but he had a big problem: where was he going to come up with $130,000? On October 25, 2016, two weeks before Election Day, Daniels' attorney, Keith Davidson, told Cohen that he was canceling the deal and Daniels would resume shopping it to media outlets.
This put Trump, and his campaign, in a dire situation. Not only could Daniels reveal the story of her affair with Trump in the critical days before the election, but she could also reveal the botched scheme to buy her silence. Had the truth emerged in October 2016, it could have played a decisive role in an election determined by about 70,000 votes across a handful of states.
That didn't happen. After consulting with Trump, Cohen withdrew $131,000 from a home equity line of credit and transferred it to a recently formed shell company, Essential Consultants. The shell company transferred $130,000 to Davidson on October 27.
There was a great deal of effort to obscure Trump's involvement with the payment. In the non-disclosure agreement itself, Trump was referred to by a pseudonym, David Dennison (DD). A separate side agreement identified Dennison as Trump.
A few days later, Trump won the presidency.
Over the course of the next year, Cohen invoiced the Trump Organization $35,000 per month to both reimburse him for the payment to Daniels and compensate him for his role in defusing a threat to the campaign. Cohen was paid a total of $420,000 by the company, and the checks were personally signed by Trump.
The public first learned of the hush money payments to Daniels from a story in the Wall Street Journal in January 2018. Trump repeatedly lied about his involvement.
On April 5, 2018, Trump was asked if he knew anything about the payments from Cohen to Daniels. He claimed he knew nothing:
Q. Mr. President, did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
TRUMP: No. No. What else?
Q. Then why did Michael Cohen make those if there was no truth to her allegations?
TRUMP: Well, you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael is my attorney. And you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen.
Q. Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?
TRUMP: No, I don’t know. No.
Federal prosecutors determined the scheme that was directed by Trump and executed by Cohen was illegal. Among other things, the payments by Cohen, which were ultimately reimbursed by the Trump Organization, constituted unlawful corporate contributions to Trump's campaign. Cohen pled guilty to campaign finance violations and other crimes and was sentenced to three years in prison for his role.
Federal prosecutors declined, however, to prosecute Trump. This decision might have been based on an opinion by the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel stating that "the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would unconstitutionally undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions." But federal prosecutors did not charge Trump after he left office either.
Whether the same scheme also violated New York State law is a separate question. If Bragg decides to charge Trump, he will have to make the case in detail. But Trump's conduct was not unmeaningful, and efforts to hold him legally accountable are not outrageous.
Trump schemed to conceal relevant information from the voting public in the days before the election, engaged in an elaborate coverup, and then lied about his involvement. This deceit was a subversion of the democratic process and may have changed the course of history.
CORRECTION (3/21): This piece has been updated to clarify the role of Dylan Howard, the former editor of the National Enquirer. We regret the error.