Trump paid off Stormy Daniels to subvert democracy
Despite what Republicans would have you believe, it matters.
By Noah Berlatsky
Donald Trump may finally be facing something like consequences for his long history of criminality and corruption. The Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, is expected to charge the former president soon with crimes, including campaign finance violations.
Those violations are related to a hush money payment to adult performer Stormy Daniels. Trump and Daniels allegedly had an affair in 2006, shortly after Trump and Melania got married and his son Barron was born. She was prepared to come forward with details in October 2016, just before the election. But she was paid $130,000 for her silence by Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer. Cohen was later reimbursed by Trump.
Republicans have predictably been downplaying these allegations. And in comparison to, say, inciting an insurrection, or blackmailing foreign leaders into interfering in US elections, the Daniels payment does seem like relatively small beer.
But Trump’s use of influence, connections, and cash to silence his accusers had a material effect on the success of his nomination and his candidacy. Democracy depends on an informed public. When powerful people use that power to silence their critics, they are deliberately interfering with and corrupting the democratic process. The Stormy Daniels payment was a small but vital part of Trump’s authoritarian project.
Public Notice is entirely funded by readers and made possible by paid subscribers. To support this work, please click the button below and sign up to get our coverage of politics and media directly in your inbox three times a week.
Republicans defend Trump, even though they were his first victims
GOP leaders have dutifully rushed to any microphone they can to denounce Bragg’s potential indictment of Trump. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy claimed the payoff doesn’t matter because Trump used “personal money” (whatever that means) and because it happened seven years ago, and so should be beyond the statute of limitations. He’s also deflected from questions about Trump’s conduct by engaging in that favorite Republican pastime — talking about Hillary Clinton.
Conservative attorney Alan Dershowitz argued that people lie about NDAs and affairs as a matter of course — which may be true but isn’t exactly a defense. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) declared, “This is a political witch hunt perpetrated by one of the far left radical socialist district attorneys.”
Stefanik is arguing that Democrats are prosecuting Trump as a partisan attack on the Republican Party. The irony is that Trump first used hush payments to defeat other Republicans. Stefanik can’t say so without angering her base, but Trump is being prosecuted for actions which harmed both parties, as well as democracy itself.
In a lengthy 2018 piece in New Yorker magazine, Ronan Farrow reported on Trump’s relationship with David Pecker, the chairman of American Media Inc. (AMI), which publishes the National Enquirer. Pecker and Trump have been friends and cronies since the 1980s; Pecker worked on the magazine Trump Style and over the years has been a guest at Mar-a-Lago and borrowed Trump’s planes. As part of that friendship, Pecker routinely bought the rights to unflattering stories in order to bury them and prevent them from running elsewhere — a tactic known as “catch and kill.” Former senior editor at AMI Jerry George told Farrow, “We never printed a word about Trump without his approval.”
We don’t know what stories Pecker killed over the years on behalf of Trump, or how they might have affected the 2016 campaign. At least one is relevant though. Actress Karen McDougal, who like Daniels had an alleged affair with Trump in 2006, approached AMI about revealing the details in June 2016 — before Trump had officially received the Republican nomination. AMI sat on the offer until after Trump was nominated, at which point they agreed to pay her $150,000 for the story. Of course, they never ran it, and have since admitted to buying and burying it to protect Trump’s campaign.
If McDougal’s story had been public before the Republican convention, would the GOP have turned on their nominee? Probably not, but it’s hard to say for sure. Remember, many Republicans denounced Trump in October of 2016, not long before the election, after the Access Hollywood tape was made public. If Trump’s history of harassment, abuse, and infidelity had gotten more attention in the summer of 2016, before the party was fully committed to him, there might have been sufficient will to choose someone else.
We’ll never know, though, because Trump’s media cronies hid the information from GOP voters and party actors. Oligarchs prevented democratic accountability from functioning.
Hushing up Daniels may have changed the course of history
As McDougal was to the primary, so Stormy Daniels was to the general election. Daniels attempted to go public with the details about her alleged affair with Trump in 2011 via an interview with In Touch. The interview didn’t run, and Daniels was never paid for the exclusive, reportedly because Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney, threatened to sue. Daniels said she was shortly thereafter threatened by a man who approached her in Las Vegas and told her to “leave Trump alone.”
On October 2016, the day after the Access Hollywood tape story broke, Daniels tried to make her story public again. She contacted the National Enquirer and said she was ready to go on the record. Pecker contacted Michael Cohen, who agreed to pay $130,000 for the story and a nondisclosure agreement. In the weeks that followed, a string of women came forward to accuse Trump of sexual misconduct, but the Daniels story remained under wraps until it was first reported by the Wall Street Journal in January 2018. It’s debatable how much Daniels going public in October 2016 would’ve hurt Trump’s bid to become president, but one thing is for sure — it wouldn’t have helped, which is why his team wanted to hush it up first place.
The alleged crime here is that Cohen’s payment to Daniels was essentially a contribution to the Trump campaign. However, it was not disclosed as such. Instead, Cohen claimed he made the payment himself, and Trump reimbursed him for “legal fees.” The Manhattan DA will probably be charging Trump for false business filings and tax fraud related to these deceptions.
Are these reasonable charges given what we know so far? Ryan Goodman and Andrew Weissmann, professors at NYU School of Law, argue convincingly that they are. This isn’t just a case about improper filings and tax evasion, though. Campaign finance laws are in place in an effort to prevent corruption and protect the democratic process.
Usually, when people think of political corruption, they think of corporate bribery — wealthy interests paying politicians to vote a certain way. But the Daniels case demonstrates that corruption can also take other forms. In this case, it wasn’t corporations paying off politicians, but politicians and media moguls colluding to suppress information. The campaign finance trickery and manipulation of which Trump is accused was necessary to keep the story quiet, and to make sure the public remained uninformed.
Trump won by suppressing speech
The right often claims to be the champion of free speech. In recent congressional hearings, Republicans have railed against Twitter for supposedly suppressing evidence that Joe Biden’s son Hunter is guilty of ambiguous misdoings.
There’s little evidence to support systemic bias at Twitter. But if you want to find an example of a candidate working to keep important information from the American public, Trump’s hush money payments are right there. The Access Hollywood tape was a huge scandal and almost derailed Trump’s hairsbreadth election. If Daniels’s story had broken days before the election, it could easily have swayed some voters and thrown 2016 to Clinton. Even if it did not, shouldn’t voters have had the information available to them? How can the electorate make an informed decision if wealthy candidates and their cronies hide information from them?
Trump has a stranglehold on the GOP now. Politicians who fear his voters have to line up and pledge fealty to him. But the base is in Trump’s pocket in the first place partly because he lied to them and kept information from them until they had to embrace him or lose. Authoritarians control their followers by manipulating information and silencing dissent. Trump’s hush money payments did both of those things. A jury may or may not decide that his actions rose to the level of criminality. But there’s no question that, like the rest of Trump’s political career, his suppression of Daniels’s story was intended to subvert democracy.
Boy, that escalated quickly
By Aaron Rupar
The Trump-Ron DeSantis shadow primary suddenly erupted into hot war this week when Trump responded to a light rebuke from the Florida governor by breaking out the flamethrower.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial