Who’s who in the Stormy Daniels case that could take Trump to court?
The alleged payment of hush money to a porn star by the Republican leader has embroiled several people, including one of his former henchmen, as well as a prosecutor who is handling a political time bomb
The Stormy Daniels case could be titled — paraphrasing the successful 1989 movie — Sex, Lies and Videotape.
A team of lawyers has built a case for or against the porn actress, to defend or take down former president Donald Trump. This soap opera — which has been going on for years — may end with the first indictment in history of a U.S. president. The Republican leader is accused of paying hush money to Daniels, in order to buy her silence about an alleged extramarital affair.
Stormy Daniels, the victim
In July 2006, porn actress Stormy Daniels — whose real name is Stephanie G. Clifford — met tycoon and reality star Donald Trump at a Nebraska golf club. The man who would be elected to the White House a decade later promised to help Daniels get on The Apprentice, his hit show on NBC. This was allegedly followed by a couple of intimate meetings — meetings which Trump denies. Of the tycoon’s TV promises, nothing more was heard.
Poorly-advised by agents and publicists — and deceived by her own attorney — the actress, now 44, tried to make her affair profitable by offering the story to various media outlets in 2011, when Trump initially expressed his intention to run for president. But it wasn’t until October 2016, in the last stretch of the campaign that led him to the White House, when Daniels had her best shot.
The Washington Post published the transcript of a tape in which the Republican candidate crudely described how he groped women. The scandal encouraged Daniels to contact — among other outlets — the National Enquirer tabloid. But editor David Pecker, who was a close friend of Trump, intent on shielding his image, notified him. With the help of his attorney, Michael Cohen, the Republican nominee tried to bury the allegations.
Three days after the tape was released, the actress signed a $130,000 confidentiality agreement with Cohen. He threatened her with severe financial penalties if she broke her silence. The signing took place in the parking lot of a porn film set in California. But, in 2018, with Trump already in the White House, the actress appealed to the courts to annul the agreement, based on the fact that the president never signed it (Cohen did, in addition to advancing the money).
From the legal scrutiny of that contract emerged the investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which has since been trying to determine whether Trump’s reimbursement to Cohen — recorded as a “legal expense” in the books of the Trump Organization — violated campaign finance regulations.
Daniels has since led a low-key career as an actress, reality show host and producer, as well as writing a memoir titled Full Disclosure. Although the revelation of the case coincided with the start of the #MeToo movement, she didn’t connect herself with it. Instead, she attempted to benefit from favorable public opinion, in the face of a wave of multiple women making allegations of abuse by powerful men in the film industry. Her status as a porn actress certainly didn’t help. On the contrary, it discredited her, as did her attempt to make money out of her story.
A couple of memorable phrases remain from the account of her affair with the Republican: the description of Trump as “an insecure clown” and the qualification of their sexual relationship as being “the least impressive” of Daniels’ life.
Michael Cohen, the key witness
Attorney Michael Cohen — age 56, the son of a Holocaust survivor — idolized Trump in the early stages of his career. He went so far as to stay that he was willing to take a bullet for him. But in 2018, he became Trump’s bitter enemy, after the bribe payment to Daniels was revealed.
The relationship between the two men dates back to 2006, when Cohen caught the attention of the tycoon by ardently defending his interests at a community meeting of owners of units in one of his condominiums. He was soon hired by the Trump Organization, where he became responsible for some of its companies. But his main function was to anticipate Trump’s whims and interpret the instructions he gave him. That is, to wash all the dirty laundry.
Cohen never hesitated to intimidate critics in vulgar language. Along with Pecker, he worked to shield the soon-to-be candidate for the White House. The editor of the National Enquirer ended up testifying before a grand jury in late-January of this year.
Cohen worked to protect his boss until January 2018. As a result of a complaint made by a pro-transparency group called Common Cause to the Federal Election Commission regarding the payment of the bribe to Daniels, Cohen had to start giving explanations.
First, he exonerated Trump and assured the electoral board that he had made the payment on his own. This was a lie. Then, after his break with the tycoon — supposedly over Trump’s refusal to pay the hefty fee for his defense — he told his truth via his new lawyer: a well-known Democrat.
In August 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to violating election finance rules and pointed the finger at Trump. Once in prison, he began to collaborate with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Since January of this year, he has been there around 20 times. While the Attorney General’s Office deplores his excessive media appearances — which he claims to be doing in order to “publicly defend himself” from a harassment campaign by Trump’s entourage — investigators consider him to be a consistent witness.
Alvin Bragg, the prosecutor
When Alvin Bragg was elected Manhattan district attorney in 2021, the Stormy Daniels case was languishing, despite attempts by his predecessor — fellow Democrat Cyrus Jr. Vance — to push it forward. The resignation of the two main investigators in February 2022 prolonged the case even further.
When Bragg, 49, had announced his candidacy in 2019, his programme had nothing to do with Trump’s unfinished business. Rather, he offered a new approach to crime, promising to balance public safety and fairness. He likely couldn’t imagine that his arrival at the Attorney General’s Office would place him in an unprecedented position — from a legal point of view — to assess the solidity of the charges against the former president.
Bragg’s emphasis on ethics stems from his time as a federal prosecutor in New York, where he focused on public corruption and white-collar crime. Later, at the New York Attorney General’s Office, he led a unit that focused on police accountability.
Bragg is uncomfortable with the more political aspects of his job. He made this clear again this past week, when responding sternly to a request for explanations from a group of Republican congressmen, who are accusing him of abusing his authority.
Charging Trump would catapult Bragg onto the national stage, but the process is beset with doubts, even from allies, about the strength of the case and the advisability of presenting it. Trump has targeted the Democratic prosecutor, using the investigation to prop up his theory that he is the victim of political persecution. As a consequence of all this, the scrutiny on Bragg is greater today than on the alleged crime committed by Trump in 2016.
Michael Avenatti, the disbarred lawyer
Michael Avenatti — Stormy Daniels’ representative in her case against Trump — rose to fame thanks to the ingenuity of the actress, who placed all her trust in him in 2017, on the eve of the case breaking out.
His multiple appearances on cable television — pitting Daniels against Trump — portrayed him as a shark, brash and aggressive, with a command of media spin. He became so famous that he even entertained the idea of running in the 2020 Democratic primaries to try his luck at the presidency… until his slip-ups came to light.
In 2019, Avenatti, 52, was arrested by the FBI for extortion and bank fraud. In 2022, a Manhattan court declared that he had stolen $300,000 from Daniels in a publishing advance for her memoirs, after forging her signature.
In just six months — thanks to Daniels — the Californian Avenatti acquired international fame while placing the litigation at the center of the country’s political debate. But his legal expertise proved scant: a defamation suit by Daniels against the president — who had previously insulted her — was dismissed. The judge ordered her to pay $293,000 in legal costs, nearly the same amount that Avenatti stole from her.
Avenatti was sentenced to four years in prison last June, after a trial in which he represented himself. The actress broke their client-attorney relationship in 2019, regretting how he had treated her like a fool during the time that she was his client, constantly delaying the transfer of monies and even questioning her mental health.
For the reading of the ruling, Avenatti requested the right to wear one of his expensive tailored suits. However, the judge dismissed his request. The lawyer had to appear — like every other inmate — in the orange jumpsuit worn by convicts.
Karen McDougal, the silenced model
Former Playboy model Karen McDougal was 35-years-old in 2006. That year, she had a one-year relationship with Trump, which he has always denied.
Like Daniels, McDougal also tried to monetize her story, but the Republican’s reputation was shielded by Cohen and Pecker. The National Enquirer’s editor had been using the tabloid to boost Trump’s presidential run, publishing positive stories about the candidate and pejorative stories about his rivals.
In 2016, McDougal retained the same lawyer who had previously helped Daniels. The lawyer reached out to the National Enquirer to pitch the sale of an exclusive, but Pecker informed Cohen. Trump asked his friend to shut down the matter, the publisher told federal prosecutors. The National Enquirer paid $150,000 to McDougal for the rights to an exclusive that was never to be published, even though the woman — now 52 — was promised two cover stories. With the threat buried, she became but a footnote in the case.
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