Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payout to adult actress Stormy Daniels for her silence over an alleged affair with President Donald Trump violated election law, according to a former top U.S. election official.
During an interview on 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper Sunday, Republican election law expert Trevor Potter said the payout potentially represents an “illegal, in-kind contribution.” Potter served as chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) under George H.W. Bush.
The payment was made to Daniels—whose real name is Stephanie Clifford—just days before the 2016 presidential election in return for her silence over her allegations she had sexual relations with Trump back in 2006 when he was a reality TV star. She appeared on 60 Minutes Sunday to talk about the relationship, payment, and the non-disclosure agreement she signed in return for the money.
In February Cohen told The New York Times that he paid Daniels with his own money. The payment was made through a shell company called Essential Consultants LLC.
Potter said Sunday that, to him, the payout looks like an in-kind contribution to benefit a political campaign in violation of election law.
“It’s a $130,000 in-kind contribution by Cohen to the Trump campaign, which is about $126,500 above what he's allowed to give,” Potter said. “If he does this on behalf of his client, the candidate, that is a coordinated, illegal, in-kind contribution by Cohen for the purpose of influencing the election, of benefiting the candidate by keeping this secret.”
According to the FEC, a contribution is “anything of value given, loaned or advanced to influence a federal election.” Goods and services, such as computer equipment, count as in-kind contributions. These contributions are subject to spending limits.
Potter now heads the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for transparency and works to enforce campaign finance laws and rein in election spending.
Cohen has complained to friends that Trump has not reimbursed him for the money he paid to Daniels, The Wall Street Journal reported in early March. The article indicates Cohen's bank reported the wire transfer to the Treasury Department because it appeared suspicious.
Potter said that Cohen could be in more trouble because he has not been reimbursed by the president.
Yet even if he was then reimbursed by the president, “that doesn't remove the fact that the initial payment violated Cohen's contribution limits,” Potter said. “I guess it mitigates it if he's paid back by the candidate because the candidate could have paid for it without limit.”
“What I did defensively for my personal client, and my friend, is what attorneys do for their high-profile clients,” Cohen told Vanity Fair magazine last week. “I would have done it in 2006. I would have done it in 2011. I truly care about him and the family—more than just as an employee and an attorney.”
The FEC could potentially launch an investigation of Cohen’s payment. An investigation would need the sign off of each of the body’s four commissioners, a group made up of two Republicans, one Democrat, and an independent.
Yet an investigation would take time and only result in financial penalties, Potter said.
Watchdog groups have filed complaints about Cohen’s payment to Daniels with the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission. The commission has not said whether they have launched an investigation.
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