Trump struggled to pay Stormy Daniels hush money

Among many tantalizing morsels in Michael Cohen’s Feb. 27 Congressional testimony is the suggestion that President Trump’s top lieutenants struggled to figure out how to pay adult film star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to remain silent about her alleged affair with Donald Trump in 2006.

As the world now knows, Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid Daniels $130,000 in hush money in October 2016. Cohen has pleaded guilty to a campaign-finance violation for that payment, one of several crimes for which he will spend roughly three years in prison.

In testimony before the House Oversight Committee, Cohen provided more details about how Trump and his top officials arranged the payment. Cohen said he had several conversations throughout 2016 with Keith Davidson, a lawyer representing Daniels. Davidson told him $130,000 was Daniels’ asking price.

“We contemplated whether or not to do it,” Cohen testified. “I wasn’t sure she was really going to go public. I had gone into Mr. Trump’s office, as I did after every conversation, and he told me he had spoken to a couple of friends, and it’s $130,000, it’s not a lot of money, we should just do it.”

Cohen then brought Allen Weisselberg into the narrative. Weisselberg was and still is chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, and he has reportedly accepted immunity from prosecutors in exchange for cooperating with investigations into Trump’s business practices. “In the office with me was Allen Weisselberg,” Cohen testified. “Allen Weisselberg and I went to his office to determine how the money was going to be wired.”

That’s where they got stuck. “I asked Allen to use his money,” Cohen continued. “I didn’t want to use mine. He said he couldn’t.” Then they tried to get creative. “Allen asked me, ‘Do you know anybody who wants to have a party at one of his clubs? Do you know anybody who wanted to be a member at one of the golf clubs?’” Cohen didn’t spell it out, but he was suggesting that Weisselberg was looking for ways to hide the payment to Daniels behind legitimate expenditures.

None of those avenues materialized. “It got down to the wire,” Cohen testified. “Either somebody had to wire the funds and purchase the rights to the story or it was going to end up being sold to television and that would have embarrassed the president and interfered with the election.”

In October 2016, Cohen ended up establishing a company called Essential Consultants, which made the payment to Daniels’ lawyer using Cohen’s own money. Cohen and Trump had a verbal agreement that Trump would repay Cohen in installments. Cohen provided copies of two checks to the House Oversight Committee as evidence of those reimbursements.

One check made out to Cohen, dated March 17, 2017, was for $35,000. It was not signed by Trump. Cohen said there are two signatures on the check: Allen Weisselberg’s, and Donald Trump, Jr.’s. Trump’s eldest son was running the company by then, along with his brother Eric.

Source: House Oversight Committee
Source: House Oversight Committee

The second check, dated Aug. 1, 2017, was also for $35,000. That check bears Trump’s familiar jagged penmanship in the signature line.

Source: House Oversight Committee
Source: House Oversight Committee

Overall, Cohen’s testimony reiterated much information that has already become public through legal documents filed by federal prosecutors. Cohen has reportedly spent at least 70 hours with prosecutors, including special counsel Robert Mueller.

A new twist, however, is Cohen’s testimony about the role Weisselberg played in the Daniels payment, and in other Trump business dealings. Cohen said, for instance, that Weisselberg would know about instances in which Trump paid a “catch and kill” fee to National Enquirer parent company American Media Inc. It’s known now that AMI paid former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 to bury her own story of an affair with Trump. Cohen suggested there were other instances in which something similar may have happened.

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee repeatedly pointed out that Cohen is a convicted felon heading to prison for lying to Congress, among other things. Cohen, for his part, characterized himself as a “fool” who’s trying to rehabilitate himself and regrets his service to Trump. When Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona called Trump a pathological liar, Cohen responded, “Are you referring to me or to the president?”

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman