Stormy Daniels: It's about the cover-up

Our view: It’s not the sex, it’s the potentially illegal in-kind campaign contribution that is at the heart of the latest Trump scandal

Those who tuned in Sunday evening to watch an adult film star spill her guts about an alleged sexual relationship with Donald Trump may have been disappointed with Stephanie Clifford’s — aka Stormy Daniels’ — much-anticipated “60 Minutes” interview. Turns out the most important revelation wasn’t about anything two consenting adults did a dozen years ago in Lake Tahoe (and here’s a brief review for those who didn’t watch: the details are more cringe-worthy than salacious), it was about the more recent cover-up and the prospect that President Trump, his organization and/or his attorney Michael Cohen violated campaign finance laws.

As compelling and believable an interview as Ms. Clifford offered, down to telling details like Mr. Trump’s penchant for talking about himself, attraction to strong women and his affection for an episode of “Shark Week,” the must-see TV was actually correspondent Anderson Cooper’s chats with Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and President George H.W. Bush appointee who made it clear that Mr. Cohen’s $130,000 check to Ms. Clifford made 11 days prior to the 2016 election represents an illegal in-kind campaign contribution. If Mr. Trump’s lawyer “does this on behalf of his client, the candidate, that is a coordinated, illegal, in-kind contribution by [Mr.] Cohen for the purpose of influencing the election, of benefiting the candidate by keeping this secret,” Mr. Potter said.

Add to this the circumstances of the hush-money arrangement — Ms. Clifford’s claim that she and her young daughter had been threatened in 2011 in a Las Vegas parking lot by an unknown individual not to ever discuss her time with Mr. Trump and her admission that she still felt scared when she agreed to take the $130,000 and signed a denial of the affair to try to put the matter behind her — and it all adds up, if true, to some pretty thuggish behavior. Ms. Clifford told Mr. Cooper she doesn’t view her experience as a #MeToo moment, but it surely amounts to bullying and intimidation (that’s still going on with threats of a $20 million lawsuit against Ms. Clifford).

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Ms. Clifford is an accomplished actress and none of what she has said about Mr. Trump is true. What isn’t deniable is that Mr. Cohen wrote that check to keep her quiet and to keep the scandal from wrecking his client’s presidential ambitions on the heels of the “Access Hollywood” tape. And so the question isn’t really about what happened or didn’t happen in Mr. Trump’s boudoir, it’s who knew what and when about the payoff. Mr. Cohen, who declined to be interviewed for “60 Minutes,” has previously stated that the money was entirely his (drawn from a home equity line of credit), and he acted as a friend of Mr. Trump and his family. That’s always been a tough one to swallow, given his history as a “fixer” and that he purposefully funneled the agreement through a Delaware shell company, Essential Consultants — not to mention that Ms. Clifford’s former attorney sent his correspondence on the matter to Mr. Cohen at the Trump Organization. Also puzzling is the apparent space on the contract for Mr. Trump to sign (under a pen name) that he did not.

Confused? The bottom line is that there appears to be a serious campaign finance violation here that Mr. Trump and others may or may not have known about. If the facts are as they appear, that’s not an accounting problem, it’s a crime. It’s also a possible crime if Mr. Trump subsequently failed to report the Stormy Daniels’ settlement as an asset on his own federal financial disclosure forms. No wonder there’s so much speculation that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has an interest in the matter. It’s not the sordid details of the alleged affair, it’s the sordid details of the coverup.

Admittedly, there’s still some salacious stuff out there for those who like that kind of thing. We’ll leave the observations about spanking and Mr. Trump’s penchant for comparing attractive women to his own daughter to the mental health professionals. The more serious question is whether such affairs — and Ms. Clifford is by no means the only woman to claim to have had one with Mr. Trump — validate the possibility that President Trump might be vulnerable to blackmail by Russian operatives or others. Wait, isn’t that one of the major points raised by the Christopher Steele dossier that Republicans so like to discredit? That’s just one of the ironies involved if this president gets tripped up by the eventual disclosure of his nondisclosure agreements.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad