In August 2015, at Trump Tower in New York, Donald Trump met with Michael Cohen, then his lawyer and fixer, and David Pecker, then chief executive of American Media, owner of the National Enquirer. According to the indictment of the former president unsealed in New York this week, Pecker agreed to help with Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination, “looking out for negative stories” about Trump and then alerting Cohen.
It was a “catch and kill” deal, a common tabloid practice in which Pecker would buy potentially damaging stories but not put them in print.
Pecker “also agreed to publish negative stories” about Trump’s competitors. The media this week seized on that passage in the indictment, noting how the Enquirer baselessly linked the father of Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and Trump’s closest rival for the nomination, to Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who killed John F Kennedy.
Last year, however, a New York Times reporter got to the heart of the matter. In her book Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, Maggie Haberman says that around the same time as the meeting with Pecker and Cohen, Sam Nunberg, a political adviser, asked Trump for his “biggest concern” about running.
“Trump had a simple reply: ‘The women.’”
Trump now faces 34 counts, all felonies, of falsifying business records with intent to conceal another crime: breaches of campaign finance laws. All the charges relate to the $130,000 Cohen paid Stormy Daniels, the adult film star and director who claims an affair Trump denies, and how Cohen was repaid $420,000 including $50,000 for “another expense” Cohen has said was for rigged polls, another $180,000 to cover taxes and a $60,000 bonus.
But the New York indictment is not the only form of legal jeopardy Trump now faces. As well as state and federal investigations of his election subversion, a federal investigation of his retention of classified records and a civil lawsuit over his business practices, he faces a civil defamation suit arising from an allegation of rape.
Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct or assault by at least 26 women. One of them, the writer E Jean Carroll, says Trump raped her in a department store changing room in New York in the mid-1990s.
Trump denies the allegation. Carroll has sued him twice: for defamation and for defamation and battery, the latter suit under the Adult Survivors Act, a New York law which gave alleged victims of crimes beyond the statute of limitations a year to bring civil claims. In the defamation case, trial has been delayed. The case under the Adult Survivors Act is due to go to trial on 25 April.
To the New York writer Molly Jong-Fast, host of the Fast Politics podcast, there is a some sense of poetic justice in Trump finally facing a legal reckoning in cases arising from his treatment of women.
But, Jong-Fast says: “The thing I’m sort of struck by is, like, how much women continually are dismissed, even in this situation.
“There’s so much talk about the Stormy Daniels case, there was so little talk about actually what happened, right? There was almost nothing about how he was married to his third wife [Melania Trump], and she had just had a child [Barron Trump], and he had this affair. He denies the affair but the affair is pretty much documented.
“That’s as close to truth in Trumpworld as possible. But we’re discussing the nuances of who paid the hush money and whether or not that’s a campaign contribution, and whether that rises to a federal crime.
“That can be argued, but I was surprised at how little focus women had in it. How nobody was talking about like, this is a serial philanderer who has the kind of problems that serial philanderers have.
“The filing talked about how he had paid off this doorman, about the illegitimate child. I guess that may have been not true … but like, you don’t pay off somebody unless you have a sense that this could actually be true.”
As Jong-Fast indicates, the New York indictment detailed two other “catch and kill” deals which prosecutors said also showed “illegal conduct” admitted by Pecker and Cohen but directed by Trump himself.
In late 2015, American Media paid $30,000 to a former Trump World Tower doorman who was trying to sell a story about Trump fathering a child out of wedlock.
In September 2016, Cohen taped Trump talking about a payment to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who claims an affair Trump also denies.
“So what do we got to pay for this?” Trump asked. “One fifty?”
American Media paid McDougal $150,000 to stay silent.
After Trump won the presidency, the indictment says, American Media “released both the doorman and [McDougal] from their non-disclosure agreements”.
That speaks to the central contention made by Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, in his charges over the Daniels payment: that Trump concealed it because he feared it could derail his campaign.
According to Bragg’s indictment, in the McDougal case Trump “was concerned about the effect it could have on his candidacy”. In the case of the doorman, Cohen instructed Pecker “not to release [him] until after the presidential election”. Regarding Daniels, Trump is said to have directed Cohen “to delay making a payment … as long as possible … [because] if they could delay payment until after the election, they could avoid paying altogether, because at that point it would not matter if the story became public”.
In short, prosecutors contend that Trump did not make and conceal hush-money deals because he wanted to avoid embarrassment or hurting his wife – the argument successfully pursued by John Edwards, the Democratic presidential candidate who made hush-money payments in 2008 but avoided conviction four years later. The case against Trump is built on the contention he broke state and federal campaign finance laws.
Observers argue over whether Bragg has built a case he can win. Some expect Trump to wriggle off the hook. Others think the first prosecutor to indict a president has a good chance of securing a conviction. In either case, the indictment has brought Trump’s treatment of women back to the national spotlight.
So has Trump himself. As Jong-Fast points out, as the former president this week attacked the judge in New York, who subsequently became subject to threats to his safety, so too Trump went after the judge’s wife and daughter.
“If you see interviews with Stormy Daniels, she has had terrible experiences as a result of her brush with Trump. Even the judge in that case, the judge’s daughter, Trump went after them. You go after Trump, you get it. He’s like a mob boss. That’s just how he does it.”
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