Experts say Trump's lawyer's admission about Stormy Daniels won't make Trump's legal problems go away

Reuters/Getty ImagesMichael Cohen and Stormy Daniels.
  • Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, thinks paying $US130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels is totally kosher and clears up the controversy about that October 2016 payment – which The Wall Street Journal reported on last month.
  • Experts disagree.
  • The payment was allegedly made to Clifford so she would keep quiet about an alleged 2006 affair with Trump.

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, asserted that his admission he facilitated a $US130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels prior to the 2016 presidential election was, in effect, a move to end the controversy over what was deemed a hush payment to keep her quiet about an alleged 2006 affair.

But experts don’t quite see eye-to-eye with Trump’s lawyer.

Cohen admitted for the first time on Tuesday that he paid the $US130,000 to Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. That payment was first reported by The Wall Street Journal last month. Initially denying the payment, Cohen now says he paid $US130,000 out of pocket to the porn actress, adding that neither the Trump Organisation or Trump campaign reimbursed him for the payment. However, he did not say whether Trump or another individual reimbursed his cost.

“The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone,” he told The New York Times, adding that the contribution was a “private transaction.”

Cohen said he made a similar statement to the Federal Election Commission in response to a complaint filed by government watchdog organisation Common Cause. That complaint contended that Cohen’s payment was an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign and exceeded the $US2,700 maximum.

“The complaint alleges that I somehow violated campaign finance laws by facilitating an excess, in-kind contribution,” Cohen said. “The allegations in the complaint are factually unsupported and without legal merit, and my counsel has submitted a response to the FEC.”

Clifford had previously told the celebrity gossip magazine InTouch in a 2011 interview published in full last month that she and Trump had sex at a 2006 celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe. The Journal originally reported that Cohen arranged for the payment to Clifford just weeks before the 2016 election so she would keep quiet about the supposed affair with Trump. The payment followed a negotiation between her lawyer and Cohen on a nondisclosure agreement.

On Wednesday, a manager for Clifford told the Associated Press that the actress believes she’s now free to discuss her encounter with Trump after Cohen violated the terms of the non-disclosure agreement they reached.

Where problems may arise

Experts said the payment needs to be further investigated.

“The admission by Donald Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen that he made the $US130,000 payment of apparent hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election does not make the Trump campaign’s legal problems go away despite Cohen’s assertions,” Paul S. Ryan, vice president of litigation and policy for Common Cause, said in a statement.

“As Trump’s personal attorney, Cohen was an agent of then-candidate Trump. The timing and circumstances of the $US130,000 payment to Daniels make it appear that the hush money was paid to Daniels in an effort to influence the election.”

Any such payment by an individual that is to benefit a candidate during an election counts as an in-kind contribution under campaign finance law, he added, and is subject to both the $US2,700 limit and disclosure requirements.

Basically, if the payment was made with the express purpose of keeping Clifford quiet so not to cause a problem for Trump’s campaign, it counts as a contribution.

“At the very least this latest admission by Cohen and the circumstances behind it requires a full investigation by the FEC and the Department of Justice as we requested last month,” he continued.

“Cohen has now admitted to being the ‘John Doe’ named in our complaints who paid off Daniels, apparently to buy her silence, at a time when she was reportedly negotiating with major media outlets to discuss the potentially damaging details of a relationship she carried on with Trump.”

Jordan Libowitz, a spokesperson for the ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told Business Insider that such an expenditure could be seen as an illegal, excessive campaign contribution.

Whether Trump himself could be in legal jeopardy in any way “depends who knew what and who was involved in the decision making,” he said.

“That’s why an investigation would be appropriate,” he said. “Because we don’t know what’s going on.”

Libowitz noted, however, that the FEC, which would be the lead government authority on such an investigation, “takes its sweet time on things.” He mentioned a complaint CREW filed against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign, which was not resolved until 2016.

As Business Insider’s Josh Barro wrote Wednesday, the payment would “probably” be fine if it was made solely because Trump and Cohen didn’t want the president’s wife, Melania Trump, to hear Clifford’s story. On the other hand, if it is because they didn’t want voters to hear, they could have a problem.

Barro brought up the criminal trial for former Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, in which the central focus was whether outside spending to conceal a similar affair constituted a campaign expenditure.

“Edwards wasn’t convicted, but his jury hung on several counts, and the trial was driven by factual questions: Did Edwards know about the payments, and was their purpose political, or were they simply intended to keep the peace within Edwards’ marriage?” Barro wrote. “Even if the president, who isn’t subject to the $US2,700 contribution limit, personally reimbursed the payment to Daniels, his campaign was still supposed to report the expenses he financed, no matter how unusual – if the expenses were for a campaign purpose.”

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.