Inside the offices of the National Enquirer was a safe full of secrets. The supermarket tabloid was not known for keeping them. Its weekly front page featured celebrity gossip — sex gossip, ideally — mixed with stories about celebrity rehab and, often, the British royal family.
However, the magazine sat on certain stories. A boldface name wanted something to remain private and in exchange for silence was willing to pay cash — or maybe, in the case of Tiger Woods, offer exclusive content to a sister publication. A contract was drawn up, perhaps money changed hands and the documents were thrown in the safe. Its existence was itself a secret, until The Associated Press reported it this week.
An unknown number of years ago, documents relating to US President Donald Trump began to land in the safe. Trump was a long-time friend of Enquirer publisher David Pecker, a fellow New Yorker who was a frequent guest at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, including at Trump’s wedding to Melania Knauss. When actor Cameron Diaz threatened to sue the Enquirer in 2005 over an allegation of an affair, Trump went in to bat for Pecker.
“Cameron, one last word of advice,” the future president told the New York Daily News. “You may just want to avoid hugging strange men in the bushes. Because you know what? David Pecker and the National Enquirer will get you every time.”
The launch of Trump’s presidential campaign in June 2015 did not stop the accumulation of documents. On the contrary, Trump’s political career made his secrets more precious — or so he seemed to believe. At least two major documents landed in the safe in late 2016, it appears, just weeks before Trump was elected.
Trump’s fate might have been sealed with them.
The documents were agreements with two women who alleged affairs with Trump early in his marriage to Melania. One, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, accepted a cash payment from the magazine publisher for exclusive rights to her story, which has not yet been printed. The second, adult filmmaker and actor Stormy Daniels, was represented by the same lawyer as McDougal and had a similar story to tell.
On Trump’s side, the man handling the hush agreements was Michael Cohen, a personal-injury lawyer and taxi business owner who had been plying his unique skills on Trump’s behalf since 2007. Cohen was a child of Long Island, New York, who grew up reading The Art of the Deal and aiming for the big time.
Everyone involved would make it bigger than anyone had imagined.
However, after a week in which Cohen pleaded guilty to eight federal felonies and Pecker was revealed to have reached an immunity deal with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony, it is a fair question as to whether they went too big.
Whatever else it might turn out to be, the Trump presidency has seen a spectacular collision between Trump and his associates on one hand, and the cogs of law enforcement — city, state and federal — on the other. It is a complicated wreck, involving at least four teams of prosecutors investigating Trump’s presidential campaign, his charity and his businesses.
One of those investigations might yet turn up something that ultimately brings Trump down. Or that might not happen. For now, the most ominous legal hazards surrounding Trump have sprung up not in connection with his campaign, his charity or his businesses, but from a fourth area: his sex life.
In the plea deal, Cohen’s legal team agreed with prosecutors that the hush payments violated federal laws restricting direct corporate donations to political candidates and limiting individual gifts to US$2,700 per cycle.
The payment to McDougal was US$150,000. Daniels got US$130,000.
Cohen told the court that Trump directed him to make the payments, implicating the president in the crime.
As Lanny Davis, Cohen’s lawyer, put it: “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”
The Cohen plea deal “raises the stakes very significantly for the president himself,” said Ryan Goodman, a professor of law at New York University.
“I do think that the most important new development of the last few months is the Michael Cohen guilty plea,” Goodman said, “because it points a finger directly at the president for criminal liability, and it comes out of the SDNY office” — the US attorney’s office for the southern district of New York — “which is not something that the president could even begin to control in the same way that he or his appointees could try to control the [special counsel Robert] Mueller investigation.”
Most analysts agree that Trump is not likely to be charged with a crime during his time in office.
Trump himself has asserted his innocence, tweeting: “The only thing that I have done wrong is to win an election that was expected to be won by Crooked [then-candidate] Hillary [Rodham] Clinton and the Democrats.”
However, the prospect of a president known for misogynistic behavior being laid low by a serial adultery scandal is laden with irony, said Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and contributing co-editor of Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals.
“What I think is so ironic and satisfying about the Cohen deal is that the president is going to be brought down by having taken this huge risk, and compromised himself legally, to hide something that nobody cares about, because it’s like one tiny straw of hay in a giant haystack of bad behavior,” Williams said.
“Here’s candidate Trump running for office, blatantly misogynistic, not afraid to get on a stage and criticize women for their appearance, known to speak in vulgar terminology — and also running on a platform that is widely characterized by opponents as anti-woman. And all of that is out there,” she said.
“This candidate and his handlers make an assessment in 2016 that even with everything that’s out there, it would somehow be damaging if the public were to get wind of two extramarital affairs,” she said.
The calculation to pay off Daniels and McDougal was made under pressure.
A month before the election, the Trump campaign was hit by the release of an Access Hollywood video in which Trump could be heard saying that one of his techniques for approaching women was to “grab ’em by the pussy.”
The tape precipitated a wave of sexual misconduct accusations against the candidate and convinced Cohen of the importance of heading off further stories, the Wall Street Journal reported.
One woman with a story — and a lawyer — was Daniels. She had seen the Access Hollywood video and it prompted her to step forward again with her Trump story, which she had related to journalists before, but which had never been published.
To pay Daniels, Cohen set up Essential Consultants LLC, a shell company he told the bank was part of his real-estate business. Instead, he deposited US$130,000 in the company account which then was wired to Daniels’ lawyer.
After the election, in transactions whose recklessness seems indicative of Cohen’s regard for banking laws, US corporations would transfer hundreds of thousands of dollars to the account for Cohen’s consulting services, and Cohen would use the account to pay private club dues.
Observing these suspect money flows, the bank filed multiple alerts with US federal regulators, as required by law. Prosecutors began to look into it. Soon afterward, FBI agents raided Cohen’s office and residences, and his vow to protect the president became an accusation in open court that Trump made him do it.
In other words, there is a direct link between Trump sitting on a tour bus counseling Billy Bush to “Grab ’em by the pussy” and Trump on the run from his own justice department.
Pull one thread of irony, and others appear. For example, there is evidence that Trump need not have worried about voters abandoning him because of anything Daniels or McDougal had to say.
Former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg said that neither voters nor Trump supporters in the US Congress were concerned by his alleged affairs.
“The fact that these affairs come up has not moved the dial on this president being impeached,” Nunberg said, noting that Trump continues to poll well among evangelical Christians and other so-called “values voters.”
“They may be offended by it, but you know what? In hindsight, they’re offended by being used by [former US president] George W. Bush,” Nunberg said of evangelicals.
The former president endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples after leaning on evangelicals for his election.
It is possible that some development in a current or future scandal might pose a greater legal liability for Trump than he currently faces.
The Journal on Friday reported that Allen Weisselberg, for decades chief financial officer of the Trump Organization and the man named by Trump to run the businesses during his presidency, had reached an immunity deal to testify about Cohen.
If prosecutors begin to dig around Trump’s business, it could spell trouble for him and members of his family, said Tim O’Brien, a financial journalist and Trump biographer.
“Weisselberg’s cooperation takes the Mueller and SDNY investigations out of some of the penny ante stuff in play so far and into the heart of the Trump Organization and President Trump’s business history,” O’Brien tweeted. “The game gets started here.”
For now, Trump is dealing with the consequences of a decision two years ago to attempt to conceal alleged adultery with alleged campaign finance violations.
Williams called that decision “puzzling.”
“The first thing that’s really puzzling is what it means that anyone would think that the ‘crime’ involving sex and gender that would be unforgivable is adultery rather than all of the misogyny,” she said. “I think that this is a powerful moment where we see that, even as much progress as we think we’ve made in terms of women’s liberation and a feminist sensibility, that nonetheless sex scandals reveal an incredibly traditional, not to say archaic, morality that shrouds issues of sex and gender.”
“So that a person is not afraid to stand on a stage and talk about his penis size and deride his opponent for her face, but he is afraid that somebody might know that he committed adultery,” she said.
Trump succeeded in keeping the Daniels and McDougal allegations out of the headlines during the election, but now he is president and the cost of that silence has far exceeded any money the women received.
“We don’t really know to this point whether that gamble was correct,” Williams said.
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