Records detail frenetic effort to bury stories about Trump
NEW YORK (AP) — Court records released Thursday show that President Donald Trump took part in a flurry of phone calls in the weeks before the 2016 election as his close aides and allies scrambled to pay porn star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about an alleged affair.
The documents detailing calls and text messages were made public as federal prosecutors closed their investigation into the payoff — and a similar payment to Playboy model Karen McDougal — with no plans to charge anyone in the scandal beyond Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen.
Federal prosecutors in New York said in a court filing that they investigated whether other people gave false statements or otherwise obstructed justice. In the end, the decision was made not to bring additional charges, according to two people briefed on the matter. They were not authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan declined to comment and did not explain its decision not to prosecute anyone else. U.S. Justice Department policy prohibits the indictment of a sitting president.
The White House had no immediate comment on the latest documents. On Thursday, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow welcomed the closing of the investigation into the “ridiculous” allegations and denied anew that the president broke campaign finance law.
The newly unsealed court papers, consisting of search warrant applications, offered tantalizing new details about the campaign’s frenetic efforts to quash stories about the alleged affairs.
The documents cite records showing Trump spoke on the phone with Cohen at least five times between Oct. 8 and Oct. 28 as Trump’s campaign rushed to keep a lid on tales of his alleged misconduct in the closing weeks of the campaign.
In the series of calls that began at 7:20 p.m. on Oct. 8, Trump, Cohen and Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks spoke together on the phone for several minutes, followed immediately by a series of calls between Cohen and David Pecker, president of American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, and the company’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard.
Prosecutors have said Pecker, a friend of Trump’s, had offered to use his company to bury negative stories in a practice known as “catch and kill.”
Cohen then phoned Trump again at 8:03 p.m. and spoke with Trump for eight minutes. That was followed by more calls minutes later between Howard and Cohen, and then a text from Howard to Cohen that read: “Keith will do it.”
“Based on the timing of these calls, and the content of the text messages and emails, I believe that at least some of these communications concerned the need to prevent Clifford from going public,” an investigator for the U.S. attorney’s office wrote, saying “Keith” referred to Daniels’ lawyer, Keith Davidson. Daniels’ real name is Stephanie Clifford.
The hush money payments were not initially reported on campaign finance documents and far exceeded the legal limits on contributions. Trump, after initially denying knowledge of the matter, has since described the payments as “private transactions.”
Cohen pleaded guilty last year to campaign finance violations and other offenses and is serving a three-year prison sentence. He has long maintained that Trump directed him to orchestrate the payoffs to the two women— an assertion prosecutors also have made in court filings. The payment to McDougal was funneled through Trump-friendly AMI.
Cohen in February also told Congress that a Trump Organization executive, Allen Weisselberg, and Trump’s son Donald Jr. were involved in reimbursing him for one of the hush money payments.
Federal prosecutors entered into a non-prosecution agreement with AMI in exchange for the cooperation of its top executives.
“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,” Cohen said in a statement Thursday.
The House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Hicks on Thursday asking her to clarify her June testimony to the panel. Hicks told the panel she wasn’t “present” for any conversations between Trump and Cohen about Daniels. Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler asked Hicks to clarify her testimony no later than August 15.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the unsealed documents “demonstrate that Donald Trump was intimately involved in devising and executing a corrupt scheme” to cover up an affair.
“The inescapable conclusion from all of the public materials available now is that there was ample evidence to charge Donald Trump with the same criminal election law violations for which Michael Cohen pled guilty and is now serving time in prison,” Schiff said.
The court papers were ordered released by U.S. District Judge William Pauley at the request of several media organizations, including the AP. The judge called the documents “a matter of national importance.”
The materials also show that on Oct. 28, 2016, as Cohen was finalizing payments intended to secure Daniels’ silence, he spoke by phone with Trump for about five minutes, and later traded texts with Davidson.
Cohen thanked Davidson, the documents show, and said, “I hope we’re good.”
“I assure you,” Davidson replied. “We are very good.”
Cohen made several calls the same day to Howard and Pecker.
The hush-money payment to McDougal remained secret until The Wall Street Journal published a story about it days before Election Day.
An hour before the Journal story was published, the court papers show, Cohen and Howard commiserated via text message.
Cohen said, in what officials understood to be a reference to Trump: “He’s pissed.” Howard said, “I’m pissed! You’re pissed. Pecker is pissed. Keith is pissed. Not much we can do.”
Cohen and Hicks were relieved the Journal story did not receive the attention they feared it would. Cohen texted Hicks: “So far I see only 6 stories. Getting little to no traction.” Hicks responded: “Same. Keep praying!! It’s working!”
Cohen replied, “Even CNN not talking about it.”
This story has been corrected to show Michael Cohen, not Donald Trump, made calls to Dylan Howard and David Pecker.
Associated Press writers Bernard Condon in New York and Eric Tucker and Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.