The Wall Street Journal is reporting that federal prosecutors are zeroing in on the timing of the payments to Stephanie Clifford (whose stage name is Stormy Daniels) by the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen. The fact that these payments came immediately after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in the waning weeks of the 2016 election is helping prosecutors construct a plausible narrative that shows the hush-money was election related.
The issue of timing is important because prosecutors have to pre-empt the argument that the payment to Clifford was made just to prevent Trump’s family from learning of her alleged affair with Trump rather than to influence the election. In 2012, Democratic politician John Edwards successfully defended himself from a campaign-finance case of a similar nature by arguing that the allegedly illicit payment was done to shield from his wife information about an extramarital affair rather than for electoral reasons. Earlier this year, Michael Cohen made exactly this argument by saying on CNN, “It wasn’t for the campaign. It was for him.”
But in the Trump/Clifford case, the fact that the payment was made soon after the release of the Access Hollywood tape gives a plausible time-line that pins the motives on influencing the election.
As The Wall Street Journal notes, “Federal prosecutors in New York view the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape as a trigger that spurred Mr. Cohen to bury potentially damaging information about his boss, as they investigate whether the payment amounted to an illegal, in-kind contribution or an expenditure that should have been disclosed by the campaign, people familiar with the matter said.” The path seems to be clearing for federal prosecutors to go after both Michael Cohen and Trump himself for the payments to Clifford.