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Why the National Enquirer’s Admission of Guilt Is Bad News for Trump

With Michael Cohen, a consistent story on hush money payments is emerging

December 13, 2018

On Wednes­day, Pres­id­ent Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison, stem­ming from his role in payments to two women to keep silent about their alleged affairs with Trump. Then, Amer­ican Media Inc. (AMI), which owns the National Enquirer, admit­ted that it was guilty in one of Cohen’s crimes. 

The AMI news has mostly flown under the radar. But, together with Cohen’s senten­cing, it repres­ents a bomb­shell that ups the chances that Trump will be ensnared in the case. 

How was AMI involved? One of the women, former Play­boy model Karen McDou­gal, wanted to sell the story of her alleged affair to AMI. But little did she know that its CEO, David Pecker, a Trump ally, had agreed to use his corpor­a­tion to help silence women who made alleg­a­tions against the candid­ate. AMI bought McDou­gal’s story for $150,000 and then killed it. The rights to the story were then assigned to Cohen’s LLC. 

AMI admit­ted in a non-prosec­u­tion agree­ment with the Justice Depart­ment that it viol­ated the Till­man Act, which dates back to 1907, because the payment to McDou­gal was made with the purpose of influ­en­cing an elec­tion. Under the Till­man Act, corpor­a­tions are prohib­ited from using their treas­ury funds to aid federal candid­ates. AMI also agreed to train their employ­ees to follow federal campaign finance laws. 

Here’s where it gets troub­ling for the pres­id­ent: Cohen has said consist­ently that he only made the payments to McDou­gal and to the porn actress Stormy Daniels at Trump’s request, which implic­ates Trump in the crime. (Cohen said in open court when he was sentenced that he covered up Trump’s “dirty deeds.”)

In other words, AMI, Cohen, and federal prosec­utors are telling the same story, all saying a campaign finance crime was commit­ted when McDou­gal’s story of her affair with Trump was “caught and killed” for money to help Trump’s White House bid. And in a series of tweets Thursday morn­ing, Trump didn’t deny direct­ing Cohen to make the payments, though he said he trus­ted Cohen, a lawyer, to know the law. 

Trump also has claimed that campaign finance laws were not triggered because it was merely a “private trans­ac­tion.” And he has said that even if they were, it’s a civil offense not a crim­inal one. That’s not right. While there are many parts of campaign finance law — typic­ally the report­ing require­ments — that only result in admin­is­trat­ive fines when viol­ated, there are also parts that have crim­inal penal­ties if they are will­fully broken. The Till­man Act (which is now part of the Federal Elec­tion Campaign Act or FECA) is part of the campaign finance law that carries crim­inal penal­ties.  

So to recap, a few things should make Trump nervous. First, his one-time lawyer is going to serve three years in jail in part for two campaign finance viol­a­tions. That suggests the Justice Depart­ment is seri­ous about enfor­cing campaign finance laws. Second, the fact that Cohen got jail time for these and other offenses also indic­ates that judges are taking campaign finance laws seri­ously. Third, and perhaps most omin­ously, in AMI’s non-prosec­u­tion agree­ment, the company agrees to ongo­ing cooper­a­tion in future prosec­u­tions. AMI reportedly had a file on candid­ate Trump back in 2016. Who knows if there were more in that AMI vault than just a play­mate and a porn star?  

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Image: Drew Angerer/Getty)