- President Donald Trump was reportedly in the room with Michael Cohen and David Pecker, the head of American Media Inc., when they were discussing during the 2016 campaign season how to quash negative stories from women who say they had affairs with Trump.
- It’s unclear what Trump said and did during the August 2015 meeting with Cohen and Pecker.
- “But if Trump is now in the room … you now squarely place Trump in the middle of a conspiracy to commit campaign-finance fraud,” a Justice Department veteran told NBC News.
- Trump has denied that he directed Cohen to break campaign-finance laws and said it was Cohen’s own fault if anything he did on Trump’s behalf was illegal.
- But prosecutors have a slew of corroborating evidence detailing Trump’s involvement in the hush-money payments.
- “This is what prosecutors, jurors, and sentencing judges call ‘compelling evidence of a conspiracy,'” a longtime former federal prosecutor told INSIDER.
When prosecutors on Wednesday announced a nonprosecution agreement with American Media Inc., they raised eyebrows when they revealed that the company’s head, David Pecker, met with Michael Cohen “and at least one other member” of the Trump campaign.
The purpose of the meeting, prosecutors said, was to discuss how to quash negative stories about President Donald Trump’s relationships with women.
The person was not named in the portion of the document titled “Statement of Admitted Facts.” But legal scholars said that if it was Trump, it could add to already mounting legal and political troubles the president faces in the wake of his longtime lawyer saying he broke campaign-finance laws by arranging hush-money payments to two women at Trump’s direction.
On Thursday, NBC News reported that the unnamed person in the room during the August 2015 meeting was Trump, then a Republican presidential candidate. Trump’s possible presence at the meeting was first reported by The Wall Street Journal last month.
Trump, who is said to be increasingly concerned about the possibility that he will be impeached, fired off a series of tweets early Thursday denying that he directed Cohen to coordinate the payments. He said it was Cohen’s own fault if anything he did on Trump’s behalf was illegal.
NBC News’ report appears to poke another hole in Trump’s already shaky defence in the Southern District of New York’s case against Cohen, who is quickly emerging as one of the most dangerous cooperators against Trump.
Cohen pleaded guilty in August to several counts of tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign-finance violations, which stemmed from the hush-money payments.
The first was to the former Playboy model Karen McDougal by AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer. The company spent $US150,000 to purchase the rights to McDougal’s account of a 10-month affair with Trump but never published her story. Cohen has said that both he and Trump were involved in coordinating the payment.
The Manhattan US attorney’s office’s agreement with AMI said Pecker “offered to help deal with negative stories about that presidential candidate’s relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided.”
The second payment was $US130,000 to the porn star Stormy Daniels in October 2016 to keep her from discussing what she says was a 2006 affair with Trump.
Daniel Goldman, a former assistant US attorney, cautioned to NBC News that the agreement didn’t detail what Trump said or did in the meeting.
“But if Trump is now in the room as early as August of 2015, and in combination with the recording where Trump clearly knows what Cohen is talking about with regard to David Pecker, you now squarely place Trump in the middle of a conspiracy to commit campaign-finance fraud,” he said.
Trump’s attorneys have argued that the payments were a “simple private transaction” and did not constitute campaign-finance violations because they were made to protect Trump’s family and businesses. But Trump’s lead defence attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has previously insinuated that if Daniels had broken her silence so close to the election, it could have swayed the outcome in Hillary Clinton’s favour.
The SDNY’s agreement with AMI said the company’s “principal purpose” in making the payment to McDougal “was to suppress the model’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.”
Prosecutors also have a tape recording of Trump and Cohen discussing the payments and the setting up of shell companies, as well as referring to Pecker, who news reports have suggested has a history of burying potentially damaging stories about Trump.
Cohen’s and AMI’s admissions about the payments, moreover, were made under penalty of perjury.
“This is what prosecutors, jurors, and sentencing judges call ‘compelling evidence of a conspiracy,'” Jeffrey Cramer, a longtime former federal prosecutor in Chicago, told INSIDER earlier Thursday.