By Ronn Blitzer
Published July 19, 2019
Federal prosecutors in New York on Thursday revealed details concerning why the FBI carried out raids on President Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen before he was ultimately charged and convicted of campaign finance violations and other crimes.
The revelation came in the form of unsealed search warrant documents, after Judge William H. Pauley III ordered the government to publish the materials on the public docket. The same judge recently revealed the investigation itself is closed, prompting Trump's legal team to hail the end of the probe into what they called "ridiculous" allegations.
The fact that the investigation has now ended, and the judge deemed it appropriate to unseal the documents, makes it likely that no other charges are coming related to the matter. Sources told The Associated Press on Thursday that no additional charges are planned.
The newly unsealed documents, meanwhile, showed details of communications between Cohen, Trump, executives at National Enquirer publisher American Media, Inc. and others that the FBI believes pertained to the orchestration of a $130,000 hush payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels (real name Stephanie Clifford). Trump has denied knowledge of the payments.
"As set forth below, there is probable cause to believe that Cohen made this payment to Clifford for the purpose of influencing the presidential election, and therefore that the payment was an excessive in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign," one of the documents said.
According to the files, phone records showed that Cohen had calls with Trump, then-Trump campaign press secretary Hope Hicks, AMI CEO David Pecker, and AMI Chief Content Officer Dylan Howard at a key point in the 2016 campaign. (Hicks, who also served as White House communications director, is now the executive vice president and chief communications officer for Fox Corporation. Fox News is a subsidiary of Fox Corporation.)
The calls took place beginning on Oct. 8, 2016, the day after an old recording of Trump making vulgar comments to Access Hollywood's Billy Bush surfaced. That same evening, Cohen received a text from Howard that said, "Keith will do it. Let's reconvene tomorrow." The FBI believed that this referred to Keith Davidson, the attorney who represented former Playboy model Karen McDougal and Daniels when they made deals to remain silent about affairs they claimed to have had with Trump in the past. McDougal has since alleged in court documents that Davidson and Cohen worked together to obtain her silence.
Two days later, Howard texted Cohen and Davidson, connecting them "in regards to that business opportunity," the documents say. Later that day, Daniels signed a "side letter agreement" saying that she would be using the alias "Peggy Peterson" in the hush agreement.
In the following weeks, the deal appeared nearly to have fallen through, as the documents say Davidson indicated that Daniels was pulling out of the deal amid a rumor that Daniels was going to the Daily Mail with her story. On Oct. 28, 2016, Cohen finalized the deal with Daniels, using the shell company Essential Consultants, LLC to make the payment.
A statement issued Friday from a representative for Hicks said: "Reports claiming that Ms. Hicks was involved in conversations about 'hush money' payments on October 8, 2016, or knew that payments were being discussed, are simply wrong." The statement said she "stands by her truthful testimony that she first became aware of this issue in early November 2016, as the result of press inquiries," and will be responding formally to a fresh request by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., to clarify prior testimony.
The court documents also describe the reaction from the Trump camp when the Wall Street Journal reported, days before the 2016 election, that AMI had "shielded" Trump from McDougal's allegations by paying her to bury the story. On Nov. 4, 2016, when discussing the report with Howard, Cohen allegedly said, "He's pissed," which the FBI believed to be a reference to Trump.
The FBI also viewed Cohen's emails, including a draft of a statement from Jan. 23, 2018, which was after the Wall Street Journal reported on the Daniels payment and the organization Common Cause filed a complaint alleging a campaign finance violation. The statement said that Daniels was talking to news outlets about her story, so "I took it upon myself to match the offer and keep the story from breaking." The draft, as well as Cohen's subsequent public statements, claimed that Cohen paid Daniels out of his own pocket, without being reimbursed.
"Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, there is probable cause to believe that Cohen committed violations of the Campaign Finance Offenses by making an in-kind contribution to Trump or the Trump campaign in the form of a $130,000 payment to Clifford on the eve of the election," the documents say. "In addition, the communication records set forth above make evident that Cohen communicated with members of the Trump campaign about his negotiation with Clifford's attorney and the need to preclude Clifford from making a statement that would have reflected negatively on the candidate in advance of the forthcoming election."
Cohen later changed his story and said that he made the payment at Trump's direction, and was later reimbursed.
Judge Pauley ordered the unsealing of the documents on Wednesday when he made it known that prosecutors told him the government had concluded their campaign finance investigation related to payments made to Daniels and McDougal.
Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis expressed frustration that his client has been the only one punished for this. Davis tweeted Thursday morning that everything Cohen did related to the Daniels payment “was done at explicit direction of @realDonaldTrump,” but Cohen is behind bars while others involved like Pecker, whose company paid McDougal, received immunity deals.
Davis also claimed that the McDougal payment was “orchestrated” by Pecker and Trump, even though Cohen pleaded guilty and admitted to helping arrange it.
Daniels' former attorney Michael Avenatti, who himself is currently facing unrelated federal charges, shared Davis' sentiment.
"I am no fan of Michael Cohen. But it is outrageous and bogus that he has been convicted and sent to prison for crimes directed by Donald Trump, while neither Trump nor his son (who signed at least one payment) have been charged criminally. Trump and Don Jr. should be indicted," Avenatti tweeted Wednesday.
Trump’s legal team, meanwhile, celebrated the news that the investigation is over.
“We are pleased that the investigation surrounding these ridiculous campaign finance allegations is now closed,” Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow said in a statement. “We have maintained from the outset that the President never engaged in any campaign finance violation.”
Cohen fired back in a statement Thursday: “Jay Sekulow's statement is completely distorted and dishonest. As I stated in my opening testimony, I and members of The Trump Organization were directed by Mr. Trump to handle the Stormy Daniels matter; including making the hush money payment. The conclusion of the investigation exonerating The Trump Organization's role should be of great concern to the American people and investigated by Congress and The Department of Justice."
While current Justice Department policy is not to indict a sitting president, there was speculation that prosecutors could have been preparing to charge Trump upon leaving office.