Inside the Stormy Daniels hush money payment that could lead to first Trump charges

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Former President Donald Trump has been out of office for two years, and is already itching to go back.

But one figure from his first run for president has refused to go away, and may end up being a major headache for him as he pursues a third White House bid.

We’re talking, of course, about adult film star Stormy Daniels, also known by her real name, Stephanie Clifford. Ms Daniels made headlines in 2018 when she came forward with an allegation that she had been in a romantic extramarital relationship with the president in 2006, and had been threatened and later bribed to keep her mouth shut.

At the time, the basis of her claim took on an interesting angle thanks to a lawsuit she filed against then-President Donald Trump. Alleging that the hush agreement was invalid because Mr Trump had not signed it, she sued him and triggered what would become a years-long investigation into whether the scheme was legal at all points.

That question remains unanswered today, as Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is considering charges against the former president as part of the long-running probe into the 2016 payment.

Let’s go back to the beginning, and look at the major milestones of the Trump-Stormy relationship:

October 2016: Daniels is contacted by reporters

The first journalists to latch on to the Stormy Daniels story did so long before it ever came out. It’s still unclear exactly how many news outlets contacted Ms Daniels prior to the 2016 election, but at least one, Fox News, is known to have killed a story on the supposed affair with just days to go in the presidential race. Because none of the stories ever made it to print, Ms Daniels escapes broader public notice.

January 2018: Daniels comes forward

More than a year later, the story finally makes it to print in a flurry of media activity. The Wall Street Journal reveals the initial story, detailing the payment made by Trump fixer Michael Cohen. He admits to the payment on 14 January, before denying that the affair itself occurred.

Stormy Daniels made headlines in 2018 when she came forward with an allegation that she had been in an affair with the president (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Stormy Daniels made headlines in 2018 when she came forward with an allegation that she had been in an affair with the president (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Moving along, CNN breaks the story about Fox killing its pre-election article on the affair on 16 January. A day later, a 2011 interview with InTouch Weekly in which Ms Daniels repeats the same allegations to the letter is revealed by the magazine, which adds to the shocking news that its editors had Ms Daniels take and pass a polygraph test.

The cat is now officially out of the bag.

March 2018: Cohen escalates, Avenatti appears, and the White House spins

Two months later and Donald Trump’s fixer is still fighting on his behalf, this time by filing an arbitration case against Ms Daniels and alleging that she violated her nondisclosure agreement. He threatens her with legal penalties for speaking about the affair further.

March also marked the first appearance of one of the strangest characters to be elevated by this scandal: Attorney Michael Avenatti, the brash, combative lawyer who frequently wowed cable news hosts with his fiery statements and fondness for media appearances; Mr Avenatti would eventually go on to be sued by Ms Daniels for cheating her out of money and sentenced to prison for stealing millions from his clients, but not before being raised to near-diety status by excited liberal pundits.

Michael Avenatti speaks to members of the media after leaving federal court on Feb. 4, 2022, in New York (AP)
Michael Avenatti speaks to members of the media after leaving federal court on Feb. 4, 2022, in New York (AP)

News coverage of the Stormy Daniels case explodes in interest with the addition of Mr Avenatti. Mainstream and left-leaning news outlets are consumed by coverage, culminating in a vivid description of the situation by Ms Daniels herself during a 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper.

The White House also addresses the news for the first time, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denying at a press conference that Mr Trump had paid Ms Daniels any money. The issue of whether Mr Trump reimbursed his attorney for the hush payment remains open.

April 2018: Cohen’s office is raided by the FBI

As part of an unrelated investigation headed up by Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign and Russian election interference in 2016, Cohen’s New York office is raided by the FBI. Mr Mueller’s team eventually gets Cohen to plead guilty to lying to Congress about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow; Mr Cohen says he was directed to lie by the president.

Michael Cohen leaves a lower Manhattan building after meeting with prosecutors, Friday, March 10, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Michael Cohen leaves a lower Manhattan building after meeting with prosecutors, Friday, March 10, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Mr Trump also addressed the case personally for the first time, denying knowledge of the $130,000 payment Cohen made to Ms Daniels purportedly on his behalf.

At the time, it is thought that federal prosecutors had begun a separate investigation into the Daniels matter. That is later confirmed.

May 2018: Rudy Giuliani screws things up

Joining the president’s legal team, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani would go on to have a years-long legal relationship with Mr Trump that resulted in the aging politician causing far more harm than good.

Years before his bumbling in Ukraine would be seen as a cause for the Democrats’ first impeachment proceedings against Mr Trump, Mr Giuliani would throw a hand grenade into the legal defences of both his boss and former colleague, Cohen, by admitting that Mr Trump himself knew of the payments.

Speaking on Fox News, in a shocking interview with a bemused Sean Hannity, Mr Giuliani specified that not only the president "did know the general arrangement", he added that the president had even reimbursed Cohen with money he characterised as “funneled” through a law firm. Mr Trump denies this, telling reporters, "He started yesterday. He’ll get his facts straight."

August 2018: Michael Cohen surrenders to FBI

Michael Cohen becomes the first person to face the legal music over the Daniels affair in August. He pleads guilty to making an unlawful corporate campaign contribution as well as a contribution that exceeded federal giving limits.

In his guilty plea, the extent of Mr Trump’s support for his ex-attorney is revealed: Cohen claims that the Trump Organization paid him back for his work making Ms Daniels go away to the tune of $420,000.

Mr Trump addresses that finding later in the month, claiming that the funds came from his personal account and contradicting his previous claim that he did not know about the deal.

October 2018: Daniels loses her defamation suit

Filed earlier in the year, Ms Daniels had sought damages from Mr Trump for denying her claims of an affair, which she said harmed her credibilty. A judge didn’t buy this, and tossed out her suit with prejudice. She is ordered to pay attorney and court fees for the president.

December 2018: Cohen sentencing memorandum reveals feds believe Trump committed a crime

A sentencing memo unveiled in the ongoing case against Cohen is made public in December. In it, prosecutors implicate Mr Trump in directing Cohen to commit crimes, which the president bizarrely tweets “clears” him from legal liability. Cohen receives a three-year sentence.

July 2019: The DOJ closes an investigation into the hush payments

Without explanation for why federal prosecutors do not believe a case can be brought against the sitting president (though the office has a decades-old nonbinding policy against doing so), the investigation into the hush payments is closed by the DoJ in July of 2019.

It continues, however, at the state level. Manhattan prosecutors continue their work through the end of the Trump presidency.

August 2020: Stormy Daniels loses her appeal

A year later, Ms Daniels’s final legal avenue is exhausted. She is no longer bound by the nondisclosure agreement, which Mr Trump’s attorney did not argue was still valid, but unable to pursue any means of forcing the president to speak under oath about her situation. Her defeat is really settled with a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court; a Hail Mary that goes nowhere and ends in February 2021.

May 2021: FEC drops Stormy Daniels inquiry after split vote

The board of the Federal Election Commission votes 2-2 and declines to pursue a case against the Trump campaign for violating federal law with the Daniels payment. At least two commissioners believe that there is evidence that the Trump campaign knowingly committed crimes.

November 2022: Alvin Bragg smells blood in the water

The matter remains quiet for another year. Then, in late 2022, The New York Times reports that Manhattan’s new district attorney, Alvin Bragg, has ordered his office to jump back in to the investigation after leaving it on the back burner for several years. Mr Bragg took office in January 2021, the same month that Mr Trump left office.

January 2023: Michael Cohen meets with Bragg as investigation heats up

Just a few months later, it appears that Mr Bragg’s team is taking up the case with an interest that the DoJ and his predecessor never exhibited. Cohen, fresh out of prison, begins what would become a series of meetings with the DA’s team as a grand jury is impanelled with the beginning of the new year.

March 2023: Bragg’s team signals that charges are near

As March rolls around, the seriousness of Mr Bragg’s investigation becomes clear. The New York Times cites four sources connected to the investigation and reports that Mr Trump has been invited to speak to the grand jury; the paper reports that such is the case almost exclusively when an indictment or indictments are close.

Cohen appears before the grand jury, and Mr Trump is invited to provide testimony as well. It’s a clear signal that the NYC prosecutor is considering charges against Mr Trump, who would become the first US president to face criminal charges in the nation’s history.

On 18 March, Mr Trump claimed he would be arrested on Tuesday 21 March in a furious all-caps Truth Social post.

“NOW ILLEGAL LEAKS FROM A CORRUPT & HIGHLY POLITICAL MANHATTAN DISTRICT ATTORNEYS OFFICE, WHICH HAS ALLOWED NEW RECORDS TO BE SET IN VIOLENT CRIME & WHOSE LEADER IS FUNDED BY GEORGE SOROS, INDICATE THAT, WITH NO CRIME BEING ABLE TO BE PROVEN, & BASED ON AN OLD & FULLY DEBUNKED (BY NUMEROUS OTHER PROSECUTORS!) FAIRYTALE, THE FAR & AWAY LEADING REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE & FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY OF NEXT WEEK. PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!”.