How a Mysterious Tip Led to Trump’s Conviction

How a Mysterious Tip Led to Trump's Conviction

Before 8 a.m. on a Saturday, days before the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump’s campaign was relieved. A Wall Street Journal report claiming that the National Enquirer paid $150,000 to bury a former Playboy model’s story about an affair with the candidate received little notice.

“So far, I only see 6 stories,” Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney and longtime fixer, wrote campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks, scanning the initial response.

“Same. Continue praying!! It’s working!” responded Hicks, who was accompanying Trump on the campaign road.

It was not. Trump made it through the story and was elected president three days later. On Thursday, over eight years later, he became the first former president to be convicted of a felony, when a Manhattan jury found him guilty of 34 crimes for manipulating records to conceal another hush payment to porn star Stormy Daniels.


Trump has weathered more scandals than any politician in contemporary American history. He boasted about groping women in a leaked footage. He was impeached twice.

His followers invaded the United States Capitol. He has been indicted several times in criminal cases, and this year alone, he was sentenced to pay more than $430 million in civil fraud and defamation proceedings involving a woman who accused him of sexual assault.

However, it was his involvement in quieting women who claimed sexual encounters with him, which prosecutors described as an illegal plan to influence the 2016 election, that landed the 77-year-old real estate magnate in jail.

The verdict brings to an end—at least for the time being—a drama that has closed and reopened several times for nearly ten years.

During his presidency, Trump frequently went on the offensive in response to a barrage of bad news, insulting reporters and blasting “fake news” denials on social media. But he responded to the hush-money reporting in the least Trumpian way: largely silence.

Top White House officials regarded it as a minor issue in comparison to the other controversies Obama faced.

According to former aides, he was hooked on one part of the story: Daniels’ appearance. “Do you think I’d have anything to do with someone who looks like her?” He yelled. According to a former aide’s book, he once told a reluctant press assistant to approach reporters on the White House grounds and “tell them she’s a horse face.” (When he made the remark public, Daniels responded: “Game on, Tiny.”)

When confronted by reporters on Air Force One months later, Trump denied knowing about the hush money and directed further inquiries to Cohen. Meanwhile, Trump’s press team avoided queries regarding the payment during briefings, instead giving clipped denials that Trump had slept with Daniels in response to an unasked question.

Trump has described the New York trial as a “scam,” referred to the judge as “the devil,” and accused prosecutors of political motivations, all while promising to appeal. In a news conference at Trump Tower on Friday, Trump denied having sexual contact with Daniels, claiming, “Nothing happened. There was nothing.”

When the Journal approached the campaign in November 2016 with the Playboy model story, Trump had already faced more than a dozen sexual assault allegations and the emergence of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he boasted about forcing himself on women.

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A former staffer said that his primary worry after it was published was ensuring that the newspaper was not delivered the next morning to the home where he and his wife were staying.

And when the Journal reported in January 2018 that Cohen had negotiated a $130,000 payment to Daniels, it did not cause the same level of alarm as it would have in any other White House. “I don’t recall it being a significant event,” said Ty Cobb, then-White House lawyer. “I don’t think Trump believed for a minute at that time this was going to be a big deal legally.”

Cobb, who was primarily concerned with the response to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, said he never contemplated the possibility that the matter would cause legal problems for Trump.

“I thought it was offensive and reprehensible, and I think others certainly felt the same way,” he stated. “But I wasn’t aware anybody had any legal anxiety about it.”

Throughout 2018, Cohen went from faithful fixer to primary opponent for Trump, turning on his former boss when Federal Bureau of Investigation investigators searched his property in April.

That August, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including campaign finance violations, and told a federal judge that Trump had authorized him to make the hush payments—the first time he accused the president of federal crimes.

By the conclusion of Trump’s presidency, the hush-payments scandal appeared to be in the rearview mirror, as Cohen was sentenced to prison and Trump dealt with a slew of other dramas, including the Mueller report, impeachment, and a global epidemic.

Sarah Matthews worked on Trump’s re-election campaign in 2019 and was White House deputy press secretary in 2020.

She claimed she didn’t remember having a single conversation concerning the hush payments over those years.

“For someone who has basically been Teflon to any scandal,” she stated, “this is finally the thing that seems to have stuck.”

Original Tip’s

The Journal got a tip on October 17, 2016, which sparked the hush-money reports that drove Cohen’s prosecution in federal court and resulted in Trump’s state criminal conviction.

A Los Angeles attorney with the initials K.D. was reportedly handling cases involving women who claimed to have had intimate encounters with Trump, according to the informant.

Soon after, reporters discovered Keith Davidson, who had a track record of defending clients who had access to damaging information about famous people. Daniels was featured on the “Representative Clients” part of his law firm’s website.

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The Journal found out that another woman, Karen McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate, had discussed appearing in an interview with ABC News earlier in 2016 on an alleged romance she claimed started ten years prior, but McDougal and her attorney had left the meeting. The name of her attorney: Keith Davidson.

Four days before the election, on November 4, 2016, in a covert meeting under the brass clock in Grand Central Terminal, someone delivered a Journal reporter a brown folder with a ribbon tie that included the reason for McDougal’s reluctance to speak with ABC.

A retainer agreement contained in the two documents stated that Davidson’s services to McDougal would involve “negotiating a confidentiality agreement and/or life rights related to interactions” with Trump or pursuing allegations against him.

The other document was an August 2016 contract that McDougal had signed with American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, whose CEO, David Pecker, was well-known to be an ally of the Republican presidential nominee. McDougal received $150,000 under the terms of the agreement in exchange for the rights to her account of her affair with Trump.

When Cohen and Hicks exchanged texts regarding the lack of momentum surrounding the McDougal story, the Trump attorney informed her that he had a backup plan in the form of Daniels’ declaration “denying everything.”

Since no one is concerned or talking about this, I wouldn’t utilize it right now or even bring it up with  [Trump]. written Cohen.

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During Trump’s turbulent first year in office, in the middle of 2017, The Journal’s coverage on Daniels accelerated. The first reliable piece came from a late-night dinner and drinks with someone who knew what had happened to Daniels. “Consider taxis,” the individual advised Journal reporters.

Put another way, consider “Michael Cohen,” who earned extra money by owning taxi medallions.

The narrative gained traction in January 2018. The Journal discovered that on October 27, 2016, Cohen sent $130,000 to Daniels through a Delaware-incorporated business named Essential Consultants.

Aides to the president were adjusting to the publication of “Fire and Fury,” a book that included a great deal of criticism of the president by his former advisers when the Journal first contacted the White House about the subject. According to former aides, not many people were originally surprised by the Journal’s Jan. 12 article on Daniels’ payout.

One former aide stated, “I don’t think people realized exactly how bad it would be,” adding that at the time, “so much other crazy shit blowing up.”

After the report was published, Trump asked Hicks, then the White House communications director, how it was doing; she testified in Trump’s trial in May. He was interested in knowing “my thoughts and opinion about this story versus having the story—a different kind of story—before the campaign, had Michael not made that payment,” she said. “I think Mr. Trump’s opinion was, it was better to be dealing with it now, and that it would have been bad to have that story come out before the election.”

Former aides say they were more worried about first lady Melania Trump’s response than the president’s. Trump was married to his wife when he allegedly had an affair with Daniels.

In a 2021 book, Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s press secretary, reported calling her employer to inform her of the impending news. “She didn’t seem surprised,” Grisham stated.

In the weeks that followed, she had glimpses of the first lady as a “pissed-off spouse.” She removed mention of her husband from a tweet recognizing his first year in office. She tweeted a picture of herself “on the arm of a handsome military aide.”

Weeks later, as more facts about the hush money surfaced, the first lady called Grisham as they prepared to fly down to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend, stating that she wanted to drive to Air Force One ahead of the president.

“I do not want to be like Hillary Clinton, do you understand what I mean?” Grisham remembered Melania Trump telling her. “She walked to Marine One holding hands with her husband after Monica’s news and it did not look good.”

Meanwhile, the president appeared to be more concerned with some of Daniels’ personal remarks than with the political implications. After Daniels described the president’s penis as “smaller than average” and “like a toadstool,” Trump called Grisham to tell her it was “all lies” and “everything down there is fine.” (“What the hell was I supposed to say to that?” Grisham asked.)

Struggling to deflect

The White House was scrambling to avoid queries from reporters regarding Trump’s knowledge of the hush payments.

During a news briefing in February, Raj Shah, the White House deputy press secretary at the time, attempted to avoid a question regarding whether Trump was aware that his lawyer had paid off a porn star.

“I haven’t asked him about it, but that matter has been asked and answered in the past,” Shah continued. When pressed for more information, he refused to commit to asking Trump about it, only responding, “I’ll get back to you.”

As the pressure mounted on the White House, Cohen, Trump, and the Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, worked together on a statement that Cohen released to news organizations on February 13, 2018. Cohen later testified in Congress.

According to the statement, Cohen paid Daniels with his finances; neither the Trump campaign nor the Trump Organization were parties to the agreement; and neither had reimbursed Cohen.

That was technically correct. Prosecutors claim Cohen got the first of 11 reimbursement cheques disguised as lawyer retainers later that month. The check was dated February 14 and came from a trust that controlled Trump’s businesses and assets. The majority of the remaining cheques were personally issued by Trump.

Trump gave approval

Prosecutors presented Weisselberg’s handwritten notes detailing Cohen’s repayment terms during Trump’s trial. Cohen stated in his deposition that he spoke with Weisselberg about the reimbursement scheme and that Trump gave his approval. Cohen was paid for his legal services, not as reimbursement for the hush money, according to Trump’s attorney.

Cohen later stated in a deposition that he received a call from Trump when the lawyer was travelling to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, following the statement he had sent to the public characterizing his payment to Daniels as a “private transaction.” There was also the first lady in the queue.

Cohen claims that Trump asked him why he had paid Daniels.

Cohen responded, “You know, sometimes it doesn’t mean something can’t hurt you just because it’s not true.” “Wow, Melania, are you serious about that? Trump remarked, “He took $130,000 out of his pocket.”

Then, Trump questioned Cohen’s decision not to inform him of the payment.

“Well, I knew I would let you know, but I thought you would lose the election.

You know, I would have informed you then. However, you prevailed, so I suppose I’ll simply have to write it off as a business expense,” Cohen informed him.

Cohen stated in his deposition that he was aware that Melania Trump was the one benefiting from the talk and that she was able to see through the lies. He was correct: in private, the First Lady expressed her lack of faith in her husband’s denials.

Melania Trump questioned Cohen’s assertion that he had acted alone, saying, “Oh, really, are you kidding me? “I don’t believe any of that bullshit,” Grisham, her previous assistant, declared.

Piercing the wall

The avoidance tactic would not hold up for very long. When asked on March 7 if Trump approved of Daniels’ payment, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded in the affirmative.

She stated, “Look, the president has addressed these directly and made it very clear that there is truth to any of these allegations.”

Jeff Zeleny of CNN questioned her several times about when and how he had dealt with the issue, as well as whether or not he was aware of the payment.

“Not that I know of,” she remarked.

Trump was able to evade answering inquiries regarding the Daniels payment for a period of three months. That came to a stop in April when he was reached aboard Air Force One by Catherine Lucey, an Associated Press reporter at the time.

When she questioned him about the $130,000 he had paid Daniels, he said, “No,” and she questioned why Cohen had done so if the claims of a sexual encounter were false.

Michael Cohen will have to answer that. “My lawyer is Michael,” he declared.

A few days later, the FBI raided Cohen’s home and took documents pertaining to the Daniels payment with them. The president was enraged by the action, especially the confiscation of Trump-related documents. That evening, during a White House meeting with military commanders, he referred to the action as a “disgrace” and an “attack on what we all stand for.”

Trump’s staff started to realize that the narrative would go viral.

One former staffer stated, “It was a story for a few days at first, and then the next crisis happened.” The former aide claimed that when Trump addressed the accusations on Air Force One, “it threaded a lot of different stories together,” and federal authorities searched Cohen’s residence a few days after.

In May, the White House’s approach of dodging the query hit a major hurdle: Rudy Giuliani.

After joining Trump’s legal team for the Russia investigation, the attorney—who would later gain notoriety for making erratic statements on the president’s behalf—went on Fox News to declare that Trump had paid Cohen back for the Daniels payment.

However, he added that Trump was unaware of the “specifics…as far as I know.” Giuliani implied in a Journal interview that Cohen “had the discretion to solve these” and that Cohen had paid the money without Trump’s knowledge at the time.

He declared that the fact that he had made the information public had Trump “very pleased.” Trump’s criticism of his attorney intensified that summer as it became known that Cohen had recorded a meeting with his employer over purchasing the rights to McDougal’s story—a decision Trump called “totally unheard of & perhaps illegal.”

The plea deal

When Cohen entered a guilty plea in federal court in August 2018 to eight criminal offences, including arranging hush payments to sway the 2016 election, he was the first to explicitly criticize the president. His plea solidified the breakup with Trump, and on the same day, more information regarding the payments was made public by the prosecutors, including a fake invoice that Cohen had submitted to the Trump Organization in an attempt to get paid back for the Daniels payment.

Once more, Trump remained remarkably mute. That day, while travelling through West Virginia, he made remarks about a separate federal probe that involved one of his allies. He referred to his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who had recently been found guilty of fraud, as a “good man.” He said nothing concerning Cohen or the knowledge that he had been implicated in a federal crime.

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The next day, he tweeted, “I would strongly suggest that you do not retain the services of Michael Cohen if you are looking for a good lawyer.”

During a Journal interview in October 2018, Trump spoke extensively about a wide range of topics, including the Federal Reserve and the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia.

He became reticent when asked about Cohen. “I’ve talked about that a lot,” he yelled. “Nobody is interested in that.” When asked if he and Cohen had ever talked about hush money payments during the campaign, he evaded the topic.

A few weeks later, the Journal revealed that Trump had not only spoken with Cohen about the payments but had also personally interfered several times to quell rumors about his alleged extramarital affairs.

The White House and his outside attorneys have both declined to provide a statement or to offer meaningful criticism of the Journal’s story.

The reporters readied themselves for the Trump playbook, which involved denouncing a piece on Twitter as “fake news” and then launching harsh, frequently personal criticisms at the reporters responsible for it.

However, the tweet never materialized. Rather, Trump attacked the former Tallahassee mayor, harassed the French president about military spending, and threatened to withhold federal funding for California forest management during the afternoon.

In private, his advisors weren’t as optimistic. At the time, one called the tale an “absolute killer.” A federal judge sentenced Cohen to three years in jail that December.

In fresh information submitted in court documents, the prosecution claimed that Trump—referred to as “Individual-1”—had planned and oversaw the two hush payments.

They also said they had proof to support Cohen’s inference about the president. A day following the punishment, Trump tweeted, saying, “I never told Michael Cohen to break the law. Being a lawyer, he should be knowledgeable about the law.

Trump was under increasing pressure. Cohen presented cheques signed by Trump, his son, and his top financial officer during his testimony in February 2019 before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Cohen claimed the checks were meant to pay him back for the Daniels payment. Cohen was accused by Trump of lying to shorten his sentence.

In May 2019, the ex-attorney for President Trump reported to a minimum-security prison camp located in Otisville, New York, to commence completing his sentence.

However, by July of that year, it appeared as though Trump may be spared. Without charging anyone connected to Trump, the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office declared that its investigation into Cohen’s campaign finance violations was over.

According to a long-standing ruling of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, sitting presidents are immune from prosecution.

That day, Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow stated, “We are happy that the inquiry into these absurd claims about campaign funding has now concluded. We have always insisted that the President has never participated in any improper use of campaign funds.

However, the issue was far from resolved. According to Mark Pomerantz’s book “People vs. Donald Trump: An Inside Account,” Cohen had some visitors the next month in Otisville.

These visitors were prosecutors from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, who were hired on a special assignment.

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