Did Trump’s lawyer just implicate Trump in the Stormy Daniels payment?
When evaluating President Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen’s new admission that he paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 out of his own pocket, it’s worth focusing on what he doesn’t deny: namely, that Trump had anything to do with it.
In a statement first reported by the New York Times and also shared with The Washington Post, Cohen says for the first time that he paid Daniels. The Wall Street Journal had first reported the payment as hush money to keep the adult-film actress from disclosing an alleged affair with Trump, but thus far nobody else had confirmed that the payment existed. Cohen’s hand was apparently forced by the watchdog group Common Cause, which last month announced it was filing a complaint arguing that Cohen’s $130,000 payment could be construed as an illegal 2016 campaign contribution.
Here’s some of what Cohen said Tuesday:
In a private transaction in 2016, I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms. Stephanie Clifford [Daniels’s real name]. 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. The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.
You might notice there is one main Trump-related entity that Cohen doesn’t deny was “party to the transaction” or reimbursed Cohen, and that’s Trump. It’s also noteworthy that Cohen uses the word “facilitate” — a word that seems to leave open to the possibility that the chain doesn’t end at the use of “my own personal funds.”
It’s difficult to dismiss either as a coincidence, given Cohen is a lawyer and has carefully parsed his comments throughout this situation. He has regularly offered what seemed to be denials but didn’t totally deny the details of what the Journal had reported.
When the Journal first confronted him with its reporting in January, Cohen offered a denial that didn’t directly address whether he had made the payment; instead, he focused on whether the affair happened. “This is now the second time that you are raising outlandish allegations against my client,” he told the Journal. “You have attempted to perpetuate this false narrative for over a year; a narrative that has been consistently denied by all parties since at least 2011.”
Again, that sounds a lot like a denial, but he’s denying something very specific — and turns out it wasn’t the payment. (Cohen still denies that an affair occurred, for what it’s worth. In his latest statement, he suggests that he was merely combating the rumors of an affair: “Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean that it can’t cause you harm or damage. I will always protect Mr. Trump.”)
When the Journal reported a week later that Cohen formed an LLC in Delaware and used pseudonyms to facilitate the payment to Daniels, Cohen again offered a non-denial denial. “You’re obsessive drive to prove a false narrative, one that has been rebuked by all parties, must come to an end,” Cohen wrote.
But the lion’s share of that “narrative” has now been confirmed by Cohen himself. And whether Trump actually engaged in an affair with Daniels is kind of beside the point — at least legally speaking.
And that’s what Cohen seems concerned with. By singling out the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign as not having participated, he’s suggesting that he wasn’t serving as a conduit for either. In either case, failure to disclose such payments would be pretty easy to spot and could cause problems. (Philip Bump runs through the legal ins and outs here.)
The big question is whether Cohen served as a conduit for anyone else — especially Trump. Cohen emphasizes that he used his own personal funds to “facilitate” the payment, but he doesn’t directly say that he wasn’t reimbursed by anyone. Indeed, the word “facilitate” means to make something easy or less difficult, which could be read to describe serving as a middle man for such payments.
Given all of that, the fact that Cohen doesn’t explicitly deny serving as a conduit for Trump personally — and then says he doesn’t “plan to provide any further comment” — is tough to dismiss as a coincidence.
Almost as tough as it is to believe that Cohen would make such a payment without Trump having any knowledge of the situation.