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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)