(NEW YORK) — In August 2015, shortly after announcing his candidacy for president, Donald Trump convened a meeting at his namesake Manhattan skyscraper to hatch a plan to “suppress negative stories” that might threaten to derail his White House bid, prosecutors claimed in charging documents on Tuesday.
Two of the candidate’s most trusted allies joined him at the Trump Tower confab, according to prosecutors: his longtime attorney Michael Cohen, and a tabloid executive named David Pecker.
The trio agreed to an arrangement in which Pecker would act as the campaign’s “eyes and ears” to identify negative stories, according to prosecutors, after which he would procure their exclusive rights and never publish. Prosecutors claim Trump and Cohen agreed to then “reimburse” Pecker’s company, National Enquirer publisher American Media Inc., known as AMI.
Over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, prosecutors claim that Trump, Cohen and Pecker collaborated on at least three occasions to execute this so-called “catch and kill” scheme — to silence a onetime doorman at a Trump-owned property, a former Playboy model, and adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
After securing the presidency, Trump summoned Pecker back to Trump Tower, where the president-elect “thanked” the publishing executive “for handling the stories,” prosecutors wrote. As a token of his gratitude, according to charging documents, Trump invited Pecker to his inauguration in Washington, and later, in 2017, hosted Pecker for dinner at the White to “thank him for his help during the campaign.”
The three “catch and kill” accusations comprise the pattern of behavior underpinning Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s 34-count indictment of the former president. To carry out the hush payments to Stormy Daniels, Bragg claims, Trump falsified dozens of business records.
Here is what you need to know about those three “catch and kill” claims:
The first “catch and kill” prosecutors described allegedly involved a former doorman at Trump World Tower, a 72-story residential building located 14 blocks from Trump Tower. In late 2015, Pecker learned that the doorman, Dino Sajudin, was shopping information, later discredited, accusing Trump of fathering a child out of wedlock. Trump has always denied the claim.
Without investigating the matter, prosecutors claimed, Pecker brokered a deal to pay Sajudin $30,000 in order for the National Enquirer to have exclusive rights to his story.
When Pecker subsequently concluded that Sajudin’s claim was untrue, prosecutors wrote, he sought to call off the arrangement. But Cohen “instructed” Pecker to wait until after the presidential election before doing so, prosecutors claimed, and Pecker complied.
In a February 2018 interview with ABC News, Sajudin told George Stephanopoulos that he initially expected Pecker’s tabloid to run his story after purchasing it from him.
“The Enquirer prints stories, so I figured they wanted to report the story,” Sajudin said. “But now, as I look back on things … they were just pretty much trying to quiet me down.”
The former Playmate
As Election Day approached, National Enquirer executives allegedly became aware of another story that might threaten Trump’s campaign if it were to become public, according to prosecutors. Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, claimed that she had an affair with Trump in 2006, while he was married.
Pecker contacted Cohen, and after “a series of discussions” between the two about how to “secure her silence,” AMI agreed to pay McDougal $150,000 for “two magazine cover features … and a series of articles that would be published under her byline,” prosecutors wrote — as well as “her agreement not to speak out about the alleged sexual relationship” with Trump.
Cohen has said he recorded Trump discussing a plan to reimburse AMI for the payment to McDougal. According to court records filed Tuesday, the audio recording captures Cohen and Trump discussing the arrangement — and whether to pay using cash or check.
“So what do we got to pay for this? One fifty?” Trump asked Cohen on the recording.
Trump has denied having an affair with McDougal, and claimed in a 2018 interview with Fox News that he wasn’t aware of any payment made to AMI to facilitate the agreement with McDougal.
Most famously, the third hush money payment went to Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who says she and Trump had a sexual encounter in 2006.
Pecker first learned of the claim less than a month before Election Day in 2016, prosecutors wrote, and immediately alerted Cohen, who quickly brokered a deal with Daniels’ attorney to dole out $130,000 for her silence.
But before executing the payment, prosecutors wrote, Trump asked Cohen to “delay … as long as possible.”
“[Trump] instructed [Cohen] that if they could delay the payment until after the election, they could avoid paying altogether, because at that point it would not matter if the story became public,” according to charging documents.
Ultimately, with just 12 days until voters cast their ballots, Cohen arranged to wire the $130,000 to Daniels’ attorney using a shell company.
Trump initially claimed not to know about the payment to Daniels, telling reporters in April 2018 to “ask Michael Cohen” about where the money came from. But later that month Trump posted to Twitter that the payment to Daniels was part of a nondisclosure agreement to keep her from making false accusations. He has denied having sex with Daniels.
Cohen pleaded guilty in August 2018 to multiple federal charges for his role in orchestrating the payment to Daniels and to AMI.
In the months leading up Trump’s indictment, both he and Daniels met with prosecutors investigating the matter. All 34 counts in the Manhattan district attorney’s indictment of Trump stem from payments Cohen allegedly made to Daniels on Trump’s behalf.
Speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s arraignment, Trump’s attorneys criticized the charges against the former president as a weak case that has “no facts in it.”
“While everyone is not above the law, no one’s below it either,” Trump attorney Joe Tacopina said. “And if this man’s name was not Donald J. Trump, there is no scenario we’d all be here today.”
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