This week, President Donald Trump sparked a firestorm after launching a xenophobic attack against four progressive, minority lawmakers — Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.). But this is not an accident. It was a panic reaction.
The firestorm of distraction came after a federal court unsealed a series of search warrants in which the FBI and federal prosecutors detail the frantic efforts by Donald Trump, Hope Hicks, and Michael Cohen to “prevent” porn star Stormy Daniels from going public with her account of an extramarital affair with then-candidate Trump.
In the days after the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, Donald Trump, Hicks, and Cohen arrange a hush-money payment to Daniels (real name: Stephanie Clifford) in advance of the 2016 presidential election. Additionally, assorted Trump loyalists discussed how to justify a similar hush payment to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who claims to have had a months-long extramarital affair with Trump.
The search warrant affidavit, which was sworn by an FBI agent, refers to a call placed by Hicks to Cohen on October 8, 2016, a day after the “Access Hollywood” tape was posted by The Washington Post. Sixteen seconds into the call, Trump joined the conversation. The three-way call was one of a flurry of calls, texts, and emails exchanged in the days after the video surfaced, leading investigators to conclude that “at least some of these communications concerned the need to prevent Clifford from going public.”
During testimony last month before a House committee, Hicks said she was “never present” when Trump and Cohen discussed Daniels, of whom she claimed to have had “no knowledge of” during the 2016 race. Hicks, who was the campaign press secretary, acknowledged that she heard Daniels may have been “shopping stories around.” Asked why she denied to reporters that Trump had any relationship with Daniels, Hicks said she was merely passing on responses provided to her by the candidate and Cohen.
In an FBI interview, the affidavit states, Hicks said that, “to the best of her recollection,” she “did not learn about Daniels’s allegations until early-November. The affidavit adds that Hicks was “not specifically asked about this three-way call” when previously questioned by the FBI.
In August 2018, four months after his home and office were raided by FBI agents, Cohen pleaded guilty to two felony charges campaign finance violations related to the monies paid to Daniels and McDougal. In Cohen’s indictment, prosecutors alleged that the attorney “acted in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump, who was referred to as “Individual-1” in the charging document.
Along with the campaign finance counts, Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion and making false statements to Congress. Sentenced to three years in prison, Cohen is being held in the minimum security prison camp at the federal lockup in Otisville, New York, about 80 miles northwest of New York City.
When Cohen, 52, pleaded guilty in August in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, he implicated Trump in the campaign finance scheme, saying that payments to Daniels and McDougal were made “in coordination and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” or “under direction of the same candidate.” At the plea hearing, a federal prosecutor said that Cohen acted “in coordination with a candidate or campaign for federal office for purposes of influencing the election.”
After federal prosecutors this week announced that their campaign-finance probe had ended–apparently without charges beyond the Cohen case–Judge William Pauley ordered the unsealing of the Cohen search warrants.
When prosecutors asked to keep some portions of the documents redacted, Pauley flatly refused. In an order, Pauley wrote that the “violations discussed in the Materials are a matter of national importance.” He added, “Now that the Government’s investigation into those violations has concluded, it is time that every American has an opportunity to scrutinize the Materials.”
In response, a panicked President Trump hit the Twitterverse, firing off a series of racially-infused attacks against four Democratic Congresswomen of color. He managed to change the conversation for a couple of days, but the case is now coming back roaring into focus.
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