What We've Learned From Michael Cohen's Latest Testimony

Michael Cohen
Trump executive Michael Cohen by IowaPolitics.com via Creative Commons

Even before this week’s hearing before the House Oversight Committee, Michael Cohen had stated that he made the hush money payments at Trump’s direction. He has already pleaded guilty in court in a criminal proceeding to violating federal campaign finance law by making these payments. Directing someone to commit  illegal acts is itself a crime. 

Cohen’s admissions in connections with his guilty plea already implicated President Trump in the unlawful payment of $130,000 to silence adult film actor Stormy Daniels about her alleged affair with Trump back in 2006. Cohen admitted to making the payment on October 27, 2016 – just days before the 2016 presidential election – even though the affair allegedly occurred a decade earlier. And he stated that the purpose of the payment was to influence the election – to prevent damaging information about Trump from coming out right before people cast their votes.

The payment of hush money to influence the election was unlawful because it was an excessive in-kind contribution by Cohen, well above the $2,700 per-election contribution limit. (This is true regardless of whether it was repaid – loans are also “contributions” under federal campaign finance law.)  Failure to report the payment also violated reporting requirements. And to the extent the money was paid by a corporation, that would be a separate violation because corporations are prohibited from making contributions, including in-kind contributions, to federal candidates. 

Cohen’s testimony today, and corroborating evidence he provided, are even stronger indications that Trump was directly involved in orchestrating and making the unlawful hush money payment to Stormy Daniels, and that he was well aware the payment was illegal. In other words, Cohen’s testimony strongly implicates the president in criminal violations of campaign finance law.

Cohen produced two checks – each for $35,000 – that he said were installment payments to repay him for the $130,000 hush money payment to Stormy Daniels. Both checks are dated at least a year before Trump stood on Air Force One in April 2018 and denied knowledge of the payment to Stormy Daniels. One check is signed by Trump himself and appears to be drawn from his personal bank account. The other check is signed by Donald Trump, Jr. and Allen Weisselberg on behalf of the Trump Revocable Trust Account. 

Cohen testified that Weisselberg decided that the repayments should be made in installments so that they would look more like a retainer even though they were not in fact payments for a retainer, and that Trump was aware of the decision because Cohen had discussed it with him. Assuming that the checks were in fact repayments for the hush money paid to Daniels, and that Trump “knew exactly what he was paying for,” as Cohen testified, the dates of the checks provide tangible evidence of Trump’s knowledge and reimbursement of the unlawful payment. 

Cohen made additional statements in his testimony today suggesting that Trump’s involvement in the illegal hush money payments was knowing and willful: he testified to Del. Holmes Norton that Trump described the $130,000 payment as “not very much money” and that Trump told Cohen and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg to “figure it all out.” 

Cohen testified in response to questions from Rep. Katie Hill that Trump had contacted him to coordinate on public messaging about the Stormy Daniels payment and that Trump urged Cohen to say Trump lacked knowledge about the payment. 

Cohen also testified that Trump was aware of the complicated scheme he set up to facilitate the payment to Daniels -- setting up an LLC, using a home equity line of credit to fund the LLC, and wiring the money to Daniels’s attorney from the LLC with the false memo “retainer” – and that the goal of this scheme was to avoid implicating Trump.

Trevor is CLC's founder and one of the country's top election lawyers.
See Trevor Potter's Recent Media Appearances on this Issue

Trevor Potter appeared on 60 Minutes and Face the Nation to discuss the campaign finance violations related to hush money payments made by Cohen.