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BOMBSHELL: Donald Trump Played Central Role in Hush Payoffs to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, Contradicting Earlier Denials…
"Federal prosecutors have gathered evidence of president’s participation in transactions that violated campaign-finance laws"
The WSJ found that Mr. Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements. He directed deals in phone calls and meetings with Michael Cohen and others. The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has gathered evidence of Trump’s participation in the transactions.
In August, Federal prosecutors in Manhattan outlined Trump’s role—without specifically naming him—in a roughly 80-page draft federal indictment they had been preparing to file against Cohen.
When Cohen pleaded guilty that month to campaign-finance violations, prosecutors filed a 22-page charging doc asserting that Cohen “coordinated with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, & timing of the payments”
The unnamed campaign member or members referred to Trump, according to people familiar with the document.

Manhattan federal prosecutors who investigated Mr. Cohen are now examining business dealings by the Trump Organization.
Mr. Cohen, who implicated the president in his crimes when he pleaded guilty in August, has met with investigators for Mr. Mueller and with federal prosecutors in New York, seeking to provide information that could mitigate his sentence, which is scheduled for Dec. 12.
He told federal prosecutors he conferred with Trump in the weeks before the 2016 election about paying Stephanie Clifford to keep quiet about her allegations of a sexual encounter with Trump. He told them that Trump urged him to “get it done.”
Mr. Cohen has also described to prosecutors his discussions with Mr. Trump and a Trump Organization executive about how to pay Ms. Clifford without leaving the candidate’s fingerprints on the deal.
In May 2016, Ms. McDougal, the 1998 Playmate of the year, began to consider telling her story of a nearly yearlong affair with Mr. Trump. She believed the story would come out regardless, after another former Playboy model posted a tweet alluding to a relationship between the two
McDougal retained Keith Davidson, a Los Angeles lawyer specializing in representing women who’d had affairs with celebrities. Davidson reached out to Dylan Howard, American Media’s NY-based chief content officer, to gauge the company’s interest in buying McDougal’s story.
Messrs. Pecker and Howard Pecker, chief executive of American Media Inc., alerted Mr. Cohen, who in turn warned Mr. Trump, by then the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who in turn phoned Mr. Pecker for help.
On June 20, 2016, Mr. Howard flew to Los Angeles to meet Ms. McDougal at her lawyer’s office.

Mr. Howard spent hours interviewing Ms. McDougal, pressing her for every detail of the alleged affair. Ms. McDougal seemed reluctant to go public with her story.
“I don’t want to be the next Monica Lewinsky,” McDougal said. Mr. Howard told her that without documents corroborating her story, it wouldn’t be worth more than $15,000.
When Mr. Howard finished interviewing Ms. McDougal that day, he and Mr. Pecker got on a three-way call with Mr. Cohen to discuss what she had said. They noted she had produced no proof of an affair with Mr. Trump.
Howard told Davidson that McDougal should get back in touch if she found any evidence of the affair.

After the meeting, Messrs. Pecker and Howard learned McDougal had also been meeting with investigative reporters at ABC News about sharing her story in a televised interview.
Mr. Cohen updated Mr. Trump on developments throughout. The ABC talks prompted American Media to offer to buy Ms. McDougal’s story for $150,000 in early August.
The contract gave the publisher the exclusive rights to her story, and guaranteed McDougal and American Media 2 magazine covers on which she would appear as a model. As part of the deal, American Media had the option of publishing health and fitness columns under McDougal’s name.
In a Skype call, Howard told McDougal the covers and columns would help resuscitate her modeling career.

Mr. Pecker researched campaign-finance laws before entering into the McDougal deal. The question was: Would AMI’s payment amount to an illegal campaign contribution to Trump?
Corporations are barred under federal law from giving directly to candidates, either in cash or in-kind contributions.
After speaking with an election-law specialist, Mr. Pecker concluded the company’s payment to Ms. McDougal wouldn’t violate the law, because the magazine covers and health columns gave him a business justification for the deal.
The contract had an effective date of Aug. 5, 2016. Ms. McDougal signed it the following day.

Mr. Cohen assured Mr. Pecker that Mr. Trump would reimburse the publisher, and they began to devise a repayment plan at the end of that month.
Concerned Mr. Pecker might leave American Media, Mr. Cohen wanted to buy other materials the company had gathered on Mr. Trump over the years, including source files and tips. In a meeting at the Trump Organization offices in early September, Mr. Cohen told Mr. Trump of his plan.
Mr. Cohen, who complained to associates about Mr. Trump’s frugality, was also worried his boss would balk at reimbursing Mr. Pecker. He secretly recorded Mr. Trump discussing the deal.
“Um, I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend, David, you know, so that—I’m going to do that right away,” said Mr. Cohen, according to a copy of the audio file.
As Mr. Cohen explained his plans, Mr. Trump spoke over him: “So, what are we gonna pay…One-fifty?” Mr. Trump asked. Mr. Cohen paused and replied, “Yes.”

Mr. Cohen said he would be getting “all the stuff,” meaning the other files on Mr. Trump he had been seeking.
They discussed the uncertainty about what might become of the files if Mr. Pecker no longer ran American Media. “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” Mr. Trump said. “Maybe he gets hit by a truck.”
Messrs. Pecker and Cohen signed a contract for the transfer of the McDougal story in late September. Mr. Cohen set up a shell company in Delaware for the transaction on Sept. 30.
The publisher would assign the rights to Ms. McDougal’s story to Mr. Cohen for $125,000—the value they put on Ms. McDougal’s agreement with American Media minus the magazine covers and fitness columns, the rights to which the publisher would retain.
Mr. Pecker called off the Trump-reimbursement deal in October 2016 on the advice of his lawyer. Accepting reimbursement from Trump could undermine any argument that the McDougal payment was made for editorial and business reasons, rather than as an in-kind campaign contribution.
Mr. Pecker told Mr. Cohen to tear up the reimbursement agreement, but Mr. Cohen kept a copy. Federal agents found it in a search of Mr. Cohen’s office earlier this year.
Earlier in 2016, an agent for Ms. Clifford, the adult-film actress, had approached Mr. Howard about selling her story of a sexual encounter with Mr. Trump. The agent, Gina Rodriguez, was seeking upward of $200,000 for the story, but Mr. Howard passed.
Ms. Clifford’s story—she said she had sex with Mr. Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe a decade earlier—had already been told in 2011 on a gossip blog, The Dirty.
Mr. Howard reminded Ms. Rodriguez that Ms. Clifford had called the report “bulls—” when contacted five years earlier by entertainment channel E!.

Clifford gained more leverage on Oct. 7, when The WaPo published the previously unaired “Access Hollywood" tape.
After the tape surfaced, nearly upending Mr. Trump’s campaign, Ms. Rodriguez reached out to Mr. Howard and told him Ms. Clifford was prepared to go public. Ms. Clifford, through her agent, was in preliminary talks with ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Mr. Howard alerted Mr. Pecker, and they separately spoke to Mr. Cohen about Ms. Clifford. The Trump camp at the time was scrambling to contain fallout from the tape, as women came forward with stories of sexual misconduct by the candidate, all of which he denied.
Ms. Clifford had taken a polygraph test in 2011, when another celebrity publication, Life & Style, was vetting her claims of a sexual encounter. When asked whether she had unprotected sex with Mr. Trump, she answered “yes,” and the examiner found no signs of deception.
Cohen had been able to kill that earlier story with a legal threat. Ms. Clifford and Ms. Rodriguez wouldn’t be intimidated this time.

Cohen asked American Media to buy Ms. Clifford’s story. Mr. Pecker refused on the grounds that he didn’t want his company to pay a porn star.
Messrs. Cohen and Trump would have to handle the payment themselves. Mr. Cohen told federal prosecutors he relayed the news to Mr. Trump in his Trump Tower office in the second week of October 2016.
That is when Mr. Trump, smarting from the “Access Hollywood” tape, told Mr. Cohen to “get it done,” according to Mr. Cohen’s account to prosecutors.

Within days, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Davidson had negotiated a nondisclosure agreement for Ms. Clifford.
The money was slow in coming because Trump, Cohen and the longtime chief financial officer of the Trump Org., Allen Weisselberg, couldn’t settle on a plan for getting it to Davidson without anyone being able to trace it back to Trump, according to Cohen’s account to prosecutors.
Among the options they considered: routing the payment through a Trump-owned property, Cohen told prosecutors.

Cohen offered a suggestion: Why not have Weisselberg make the payment? “You’re the CFO,” he told the longtime Trump aide, according to Cohen’s account to prosecutors.
“You pay this.” Mr. Weisselberg said he couldn’t come up with the money.

Mr. Cohen had told Mr. Davidson to expect a $130,000 wire transfer by Oct. 14, but missed the deadline, as well as an extension, prompting Ms. Clifford to walk away.
While Mr. Cohen considered a path forward, he offered excuses to Ms. Clifford’s camp. He told Mr. Davidson banks were closed for the Jewish holidays and he couldn’t reach Mr. Trump on the campaign trail. “My guy is in five states today,” Mr. Cohen said.
Mr. Davidson told Mr. Howard on Oct. 25, 2016, that Ms. Clifford would soon speak publicly. Mr. Howard texted Mr. Cohen that they needed to coordinate “or it could look awfully bad for everyone.”
In a tense three-way call on an encrypted app, Messrs. Pecker and Howard urged Mr. Cohen to complete the deal before Ms. Clifford disclosed the hush-money negotiations.

Out of options and time, Mr. Cohen decided to cover the payment himself.
“F— it, I’m just going to do it,” he told Mr. Davidson in a phone call.

He drew down his home-equity line and transferred $130,000 to Mr. Davidson on Oct. 27. Ms. Clifford signed a fresh nondisclosure agreement the next day.
That month, a news site called “The Smoking Gun” published an account of Ms. Clifford’s alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump. Then-RNC chairman Reince Priebus and Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon confronted the candidate. Mr. Trump told them the encounter never happened.
Four days before the 2016 election, The Wall Street Journal revealed the $150,000 payment to Ms. McDougal by American Media. The company said at the time Ms. McDougal had been paid for magazine covers and fitness columns and denied buying her story to protect Mr. Trump.
The Trump campaign professed ignorance. “We have no knowledge of any of this,” Hope Hicks, Trump’s spokeswoman, said of the McDougal deal. Hicks, who discussed the matter with Trump before issuing the comment, was relaying what she had been told,per people familiar with the convo
She also denied Mr. Trump had sex with Ms. McDougal.

As Mr. Trump headed to victory on Nov. 8, Mr. Howard joined Mr. Cohen at the candidate’s election night celebration at the New York Hilton.
Repaying Cohen:
Later that month, after Mr. Trump’s election win, Mr. Cohen met with Mr. Weisselberg to discuss reimbursement for the payment to Ms. Clifford, Mr. Cohen has told federal prosecutors.

While Cohen waited, he asked Mr. Pecker to lobby Trump to pay him more money.
Mr. Pecker visited Trump Tower twice during the presidential transition. When he raised Cohen’s request during a meeting in the first week of December 2016, Trump demurred, saying Cohen had plenty of money.
During Mr. Pecker’s second visit, in January 2017, Trump thanked him for suppressing the McDougal story.

Mr. Weisselberg soon completed the reimbursement plan.

It would turn out to be a costly deal for Mr. Trump.
Had he just paid the ex-adult film star himself, Mr. Trump would have been out of pocket $130,000. Instead, Mr. Weisselberg authorized a reimbursement of twice that much, characterized in Mr. Trump’s records as legal fees, to cover the income tax hit Mr. Cohen would take.
He also added a $60,000 bonus. Mr. Cohen received the money in monthly installments of $35,000.

In the first year of Mr. Trump’s presidency, American Media continued to feature him on the Enquirer cover.
In July 2017, Mr. Trump hosted Messrs. Pecker and Howard at the White House for dinner, an Oval Office visit and a private tour of the Lincoln Bedroom led by the president.
After the Journal reported on the payment to Ms. Clifford in January 2018, the relationships between Messrs. Trump, Cohen and Pecker began to fracture.
Ms. Clifford, initially willing to keep quiet, began to seek more exposure and threatened to break the agreement after Mr. Cohen acknowledged paying her in a February statement to the news media.
Mr. Trump instructed Mr. Cohen to coordinate with his son Eric Trump to silence Ms. Clifford in arbitration. It didn’t work; Ms. Clifford ignored the arbitrator’s restraining order.
Mr. Cohen continued to insist he had done the deal with Ms. Clifford on his own, while Mr. Trump said he knew nothing about it when talking to reporters on Air Force One on April 5.

“You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen,” the president said. “Michael is my attorney.”
Days later, on April 9, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Mr. Cohen’s office, apartment and hotel room. Agents approached Messrs. Pecker and Howard. Federal prosecutors subpoenaed American Media and the Trump Organization, among others.
As Trump continued to distance himself from Cohen and the payment, American Media turned on Cohen, with a National Enquirer cover featuring the headline, “Trump Fixer’s Secrets & Lies.” Cohen learned he had been let go as Trump’s personal attorney when he saw it on television.
Both Messrs. Cohen and Pecker began seeking to minimize their exposure. Mr. Pecker, granted immunity for his grand jury testimony, told investigators about Mr. Trump’s involvement in the McDougal deal.
Three years after Mr. Pecker promised to work with Mr. Cohen to help Mr. Trump, the deals they made have unraveled. Ms. McDougal and Ms. Clifford have both been let out of their hush agreements after filing lawsuits.

The three men no longer speak to one another.
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