Candidate Donald Trump and campaign press secretary Hope Hicks worked closely with Michael Cohen to develop a plan for paying hush money to quash stories of alleged affairs in the closing days of the 2016 presidential campaign, according to documents in Cohen’s case released Thursday.
The release of the FBI’s April 2018 search warrant application on Cohen, unsealed in Manhattan federal court, came as prosecutors said in a letter to the judge overseeing the case that they had “effectively concluded” their investigation of who besides Cohen might be criminally liable in violation of campaign finance laws.
Trump’s lawyers lauded the end of the probe without additional charges.
“We have maintained from the outset that the President never engaged in any campaign finance violation,” Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said.
But Lanny Davis, the lawyer for Cohen, who alleged in a guilty plea last year that Trump directed the payments, and is serving three years in prison, said it was “false” to suggest the president is out of the woods.
“Is it not … a fact that upon his loss of purported immunity as President of the United States, Mr. Trump is subject to arrest, incarceration and a trial for this alleged crime?” Davis asked.
The release of documents detailing the background of the spring 2018 search of Cohen’s office, home and hotel room, was ordered Wednesday by U.S. District Judge William Pauley after prosecutors admitted the sealing was no longer necessary to protect an “ongoing” investigation.
Cohen, Trump's former lawyer, pleaded guilty to paying $130,000 to Daniels and arranging for the National Enquirer to pay $150,000 to model Karen McDougal at Trump’s direction to keep the women silent about alleged affairs. He also said the Trump Organization reimbursed him with a bonus, as “legal services.”
Manhattan federal prosecutors have said they believe Cohen’s claims that Trump directed the payments. But Trump can’t be prosecuted while he is president, and charges would require proof that the payments were campaign-related instead of personal, and that he knew they violated election laws.
Newly unsealed portions of the FBI affidavit said agents believed a three-way phone call among Trump, Hicks and Cohen on Oct. 8, 2016, followed by a Cohen call to National Enquirer executive David Pecker, marked the start of discussions on paying Stephanie Clifford, the adult film star known as Stormy Daniels.
“I believe at least some of these communications concerned the need to keep Clifford from going public,” wrote an agent.
Those claims appeared to corroborate Cohen’s assertion that Trump directed the payments, and Hicks’s role could buttress his claim that the payments were campaign-related, as well as undercutting Trump’s insistence they were not criminal because they were personal, not political.
The materials released Thursday detail calls, texts and emails among Trump, Cohen and Enquirer officials Pecker and Dylan Howard, as well as Keith Davidson, a lawyer for Daniels, following the Oct. 8 call, culminating later that month in a deal.
When stories about the Enquirer paying McDougal started to leak out a few days later, just before the election, the affidavit said, it set off a new flurry of communications, including a text from Cohen to the Enquirer’s Howard, saying “He’s pissed” — a reference to Trump.
Hicks was quickly looped in on calls and texts multiple times.
“So far I see only six stories! Getting little or no traction,” Cohen texted her on Nov. 5. She responded, “Same. Keep praying!! It’s working!”
Cohen pleaded to making an excessive campaign contribution for his payment to Daniels, and arranging an illegal corporate contribution from the Enquirer. Prosecutors previously announced that the Enquirer’s parent company had received immunity in return for cooperating in the case.
In addition to the campaign finance crimes, Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion, lying to get bank loans, and lying to Congress about Trump’s business dealings relating to a proposed real estate project in Moscow. Cohen, 52, is in the federal prison in upstate Otisville.
Cohen, in a separate statement Thursday released by Davis, called claims of Trump’s exoneration "distorted" and singled out the lack of charges against the Trump Organization for criticism, saying it should be of "great concern to the American people and investigated by Congress and The Department of Justice."