Anatomy of a 'catch and kill:' Michael Cohen's plea agreement tells the story of a scheme to protect the aspirating president, also known as 'Individual 1'
WASHINGTON — His name is Donald John Trump, but federal prosecutors have a simpler moniker for the 45th president: Individual 1.
Dry legalese and generic aliases could do nothing to tone down the tale of the scheme to protect Trump outlined in court documents Tuesday. The criminal campaign finance case against the president's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, revealed a complex, illegal operation to stifle sex stories and distribute hush money. The documents also lay out new details about the involvement of Trump's real estate company.
Cohen's plea agreement and the details it revealed now pose a direct threat to the president, perhaps one even more damaging than the separate special counsel investigation examining whether the president's campaign coordinated with Russia to sway the 2016 election.
The colorful cast of characters depicted in documents includes a Playboy model and a porn actress who reported having sex years earlier with the married Trump; a tabloid executive who relished juicy scandals but also his own friendship with the candidate; and a lawyer eager at all costs to protect the interests of his star client. At the center of the intrigue is Trump himself, referenced obliquely but unmistakably as "Individual 1" — a man who prosecutors note, in formulaic but wry phrasing, began his bid for office "on or about June 16, 2015."
Just two months later, as Trump stunned the political world with his rise, the chairman of a tabloid media company offered the campaign some assistance, the documents said.
The company agreed to flag for Cohen and the campaign unflattering, unpublished stories about Trump's relationships with women "so they could be purchased and their publication avoided," prosecutors said.
The company eventually did exactly that, allowing for Cohen throughout the campaign to arrange for stories to be bought and suppressed with the express purpose of "influencing the election." The strategy is known in tabloid circles as "catch and kill."
The company is not named in the court filings and neither are the women, but the description matches that of American Media Inc., the parent company of the National Enquirer, and its chairman, David Pecker, a longtime Trump friend and ally.
The timing and amount of the payments line up with those paid to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal to buy their silence in the weeks and months leading up to the election.
Although the plan was in place nearly a year earlier, the first arrangement began in June 2016, weeks after Trump had clinched the Republican nomination.
McDougal, prosecutors allege, began attempting to sell a story of a sexual relationship with Trump in 2006 and 2007.
As promised, it didn't take long for Cohen to be notified — and to take action, promising to reimburse his tabloid friends for the purchase of her tale. That August, prosecutors allege, AMI struck a $150,000 deal with McDougal to buy her story, feature her on two magazine covers and publish more than 100 magazine articles she authored.
"Despite the cover and article features to the agreement, its principal purpose, as understood by those involved, including Michael Cohen, the defendant, was to suppress Woman-1's story so as to prevent it from influencing the election," prosecutors wrote.
The pattern repeated that October, this time with Daniels, who had her own story of a sexual relationship with Trump she was eager to tell.
In that case, Cohen and a lawyer for Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, negotiated a $130,000 payment to buy her silence.
According to the government, the deal nearly fell apart just weeks before the election.
Cohen was slow in finalizing the payment and was warned Daniels was close to completing a separate deal with another outlet to make her story public. An unidentified editor texted Cohen to say it "could look awfully bad for everyone" if a deal was not struck.
Cohen received an encrypted telephone call from someone matching Pecker's description and from another top editor at the publication before agreeing to make the payment and calling Daniels' lawyer to finalize the arrangement, prosecutors said.
On Oct. 26, 2016, just weeks before the election, Cohen drew down $131,000 from a home equity line of credit he obtained by lying about his debt and cash flow.
He wired funds to a lawyer for Daniels, falsely saying it was for a "retainer," and one week before the election, received copies of a signed confidential agreement with the actress.
Prosecutors allege Trump Organization executives ultimately reimbursed Cohen for both the $130,000 payment to Daniels and another $50,000 for "tech services" that Cohen solicited on the campaign's behalf.
Prosecutors cited an email in which one unnamed Trump Organization executive told another to pay Cohen $420,000 out of "the trust," disguising the money as payment owed to the lawyer under a legal retainer agreement.
"In truth and in fact, there was no such retainer agreement," prosecutors wrote.
For federal prosecutors who have spent months investigating the president's lawyer, the timing of the payments was no accident.
They don't say specifically Trump directed Cohen to make the payments, an allegation Cohen made in court, but the documents do note Cohen "coordinated with one or more members of the campaign."
The money, the government says, was intended "to influence the 2016 presidential election."
The intent is essential to the case. Corporations aren't permitted to contribute to campaigns and money intended to influence an election must be reported as a contribution. The money to Daniels and McDougal was not.
All told, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight crimes, including campaign finance violations, tax evasion and false statements to a bank. He could get about four to five years in prison at sentencing Dec. 12.
As for Trump, personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani said there "is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government's charges against Mr. Cohen."
It's true the Justice Department didn't go as far as Cohen did in pointing the finger at Trump, but legal experts say the allegations bring the president closer into his associates' criminal conduct, especially if it can be established he conspired with Cohen to knowingly violate campaign finance law.
"The president has certain protections while a sitting president, but if it were true, and he was aware and tried to influence an election, that could be a federal felony offense," said former Justice Department prosecutor Daniel Petalas. "This strikes close to home."
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire and Jeff Horwitz contributed to this report.