The Wall Street Journal just published a big chronological rundown of what federal prosecutors in Manhattan know (or think they know) about the hush-money payments that former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen arranged during the 2016 campaign for Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, who say they had affairs with Trump. (He denies the affairs.) It’s a colorful read, though probably a bit oversold by the part of the headline that says there is “evidence of [the] president’s participation in transactions that violated campaign-finance laws.” While it’s inarguable in one sense that the transactions broke the law—Cohen has already pleaded guilty to a crime related to the payments—it’s not clear, as Slate contributor Richard Hasen notes as an expert source in the WSJ piece, that the elements of the transactions that the president participated in specifically constitute prosecutable crimes on his part. Much of the timeline presented in the piece is meanwhile sourced directly to Cohen’s statements to prosecutors, and while Cohen’s claims about the case have thus far been proven accurate to the extent possible, we already knew by virtue of what he said when he pleaded guilty that he was going to finger Trump for involvement in the payments.
That said, there are at least three items in the story that don’t appear to have come from Cohen that deepen what we know about Trump’s involvement. The first is a description of a meeting between National Enquirer publisher David Pecker and Trump in 2015:
As a presidential candidate in August 2015, Donald Trump huddled with a longtime friend, media executive David Pecker, in his cluttered 26th floor Trump Tower office and made a request.
What can you do to help my campaign? he asked, according to people familiar with the meeting.
Mr. Pecker, chief executive of American Media Inc., offered to use his National Enquirer tabloid to buy the silence of women if they tried to publicize alleged sexual encounters with Mr. Trump.
(Pecker would go on to buy the rights to Karen McDougal’s allegations and broker a nondisclosure payment from Cohen to Daniels after getting wind of Daniels’ story from her attorney.)
Second, Pecker is specifically said to have spoken to Trump directly about the McDougal payment before it happened:
Messrs. Pecker and Howard alerted Mr. Cohen, who in turn warned Mr. Trump, by then the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who in turn phoned Mr. Pecker for help.
Third, Pecker is said to have personally asked Trump to reimburse Cohen for the Daniels payment in what the piece portrays as a favor to Cohen:
Mr. Pecker visited Trump Tower twice during the presidential transition. When he raised Mr. Cohen’s request during a meeting in the first week of December 2016, Mr. Trump demurred, saying Mr. Cohen had plenty of money.
It would seem that all three of these anecdotes are sourced either directly or indirectly to Pecker, who is reportedly cooperating with prosecutors. The three scenes also speak to the question of whether Trump committed a crime, because to prove that he broke the law by illegally concealing campaign contributions one would have to show that he was aware of the payments (as the transition anecdote and alleged McDougal-related phone call to Pecker suggest he was) and that he believed they were made to influence the election rather than for an unrelated personal reason (as the “what can you do to help me win the election” anecdote suggests he did).
That said, as Richard Hasen has previously explained in Slate, it’s unlikely Trump will be imminently prosecuted either way because of the norm against indicting a sitting president. (Yes—clearly Hasen has a better grasp of the legal angles here than I do. But I’m the one on call to blog when something happens on Friday afternoon, so you’re going to have to deal with it.)
In any case, David Pecker comes across in the piece as considerably savvier, if not particularly more ethical, than either Michael Cohen or the president. First Pecker includes a section in his company’s agreement with McDougal soliciting her services as a model and health and fitness contributor, which gives the deal legal cover by having an ostensible purpose besides influencing the election:
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.
Then he tells Trump/Cohen not to reimburse him for what he paid McDougal, again motivated by the desire to maintain plausible independence from the campaign, only for Cohen to screw things up:
Mr. Pecker called off the Trump-reimbursement deal in October 2016 on the advice of his lawyer. Accepting reimbursement from Mr. Trump, the executive worried, 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.
Later, Pecker steers clear altogether of having any financial involvement in the Stormy Daniels situation (Daniels’ real name is Stephanie Clifford):
Mr. 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.
Smart, in retrospect! Too bad the president of America and his personal lawyer were so much sloppier.