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Report: Donald Trump Could Actually Be Criminally Charged for the Stormy Daniels Hush Money Payment

The 2016 presidential election represented many historical firsts. It was the first time a major party elected a woman as its nominee. It was the first time a nominee boasted he could shoot someone on a major thoroughfare and not lose any votes. It was the first time a candidate for office asked a foreign adversary to hack his opponent’s email account. And, of course, it was the first time someone running for president had his lawyer pay a porn star six-figures to cover up an alleged affair.

Obviously, that last item refers to one Donald Trump and one Stormy Daniels—who Trump has denied having an affair with—and a payment that, like so many things, the ex-president has never faced any consequences for. And he still might not, though his chances of avoiding the consequences just got significantly worse.

The New York Times reports that the Manhattan District attorney’s office was scheduled to begin “presenting evidence to a grand jury” about Trump’s role in the 2016 hush money scheme on Monday, “laying the groundwork for potential criminal charges against the former president in the coming months, according to people with knowledge of the matter.” According to the paper, the jury was recently selected and witness testimony will start shortly, “a clear signal that the district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, is nearing a decision about whether to charge Mr. Trump.”

One of those witnesses is reportedly David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer. His testimony could be of particular consequence, as the Times notes, due to an agreement he struck in 2016 to watch out for potentially damaging stories about Trump and ensure they never saw the light of day. For instance, in August of that year, American Media, Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer and the company Pecker was CEO of at the time, paid $150,000 to secure the rights to the story of former Playboy model Karen McDougal—who alleged also she’d had an affair with the then Republican nominee—and never published anything. (Trump has denied having an affair with McDougal.) Two months later, Daniels was in talks about the possibility of selling her rights to the tabloid, but this time things were different.

As the Times notes:

Mr. Pecker…refused to make a payment to Ms. Daniels as well. He and the tabloid’s editor, [Dylan] Howard, agreed that [Trump attorney Michael] Cohen would have to deal with Ms. Daniels’s team directly. When Mr. Cohen was slow to pay, Mr. Howard pressed him to get the deal done, lest Ms. Daniels go public with their discussions about suppressing her story. “We have to coordinate something,” Mr. Howard texted Mr. Cohen in late October 2016, “or it could look awfully bad for everyone.”

Two days later, Mr. Cohen transferred the $130,000 to an account held by Ms. Daniels’s attorney.

According to the Times, prosecutors have sought to interview Howard and Trump Organization employees Jeffrey McConney and Deborah Tarasoff before the grand jury, noting that while McConney and Tarasoff “were not central players, they helped arrange for the Trump Organization to reimburse Mr. Cohen for the $130,000 he paid Ms. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.”

Meanwhile, Michael Cohen—who pleaded guilty in 2018 to campaign finance violations, bank fraud, and tax evasion, and said he arranged the payments at Trump’s direction—has apparently been happy to tell investigators what he knows about the hush money matter. (According to the Times, Cohen was at the district attorney’s office earlier this month meeting with prosecutors, and “is expected to return for at least one additional interview with the prosecutors in February.”)

As for what would have to happen to indict Trump:

…the core of any possible case is the way in which the Trump Organization reimbursed Mr. Cohen for the $130,000 he paid Ms. Daniels and how the company recorded that payment internally. According to court papers in Mr. Cohen’s federal case, the company falsely identified the reimbursements as legal expenses.

The district attorney’s office now appears to be focusing on whether erroneously classifying the payments to Mr. Cohen as a legal expense ran afoul of a New York law that prohibits the falsifying of business records. Violations of that law can be charged as a misdemeanor. To make it a felony, Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors would need to show that Mr. Trump falsified the records to help commit or conceal a second crime—in this case, violating a New York State election law, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. That second aspect has largely gone untested, and would therefore make for a risky legal case against any defendant, let alone the former president.

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