Donald Trump is feeling the heat as friends turn against him
America Letter: President is increasingly isolated as he faces uncomfortable questions
Stormy Daniels. Michael Cohen has testified that he paid $130,000 to the adult film actor. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters
This week was a difficult one for Donald Trump as the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election moved ever closer to his inner circle.
On Wednesday his former attorney Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison. While the bulk of his crimes related to fraudulent financial activities unconnected to Trump, he was also charged with two issues with direct relevance to the US president – lying to Congress about a proposed Trump hotel in Moscow, and paying two women hush money ahead of the 2016 election.
But while Cohen’s conviction could spell trouble for Trump – not least because it suggests that prosecutors could move to indict the president after he leaves office – a second development in court on Wednesday could be even more problematic.
The court heard that prosecutors had reached a co-operation deal with American Media Inc (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer, one of America’s best-known publications. While Cohen has testified that he paid $130,000 to the adult film actor Stormy Daniels, AMI was the conduit for a $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
As confirmed this week in court, AMI bought McDougal’s story of a sexual affair with Trump, but then suppressed it. It is a tactic known as “catch and kill” whereby publishers buy the rights to a story in order to stop their publication.
On Wednesday prosecutors revealed that AMI acknowledged that it paid McDougal. But crucially the publication said it did so in concert with the Trump campaign. The court documents state that company founder David Pecker, a close ally of the then candidate Trump, met Cohen and an individual in the Trump organisation to devise a strategy to stop negative media stories in August 2015.
US media has reported that the individual was Trump, putting the US president at the heart of the controversy. This is despite the fact that Trump consistently said when the Stormy Daniels story broke that he knew nothing about the payments.
Of equal concern for the Trump team is AMI’s claim that the “principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election”. The Trump team has consistently argued that any payments made were to protect Trump’s marriage – not to influence the election.
This is a serious matter. US campaign financing laws have strict rules on expenditure – if Trump directed the payments in order to influence the election, the president would be in breach of campaign financing laws.
Whether Cohen and AMI have proof that Trump directed the payments and did so in order to influence the election will be crucial, as prosecutors must prove intent.
This week’s developments raise further questions about the National Enquirer’s role in the 2016 campaign
Trump’s lawyer Rudi Giuliani argues that the latest development proves nothing. He points to a legal precedent – the campaign financing case against former presidential candidate John Edwards, who used campaign money to pay Rielle Hunter, a woman with whom he had an affair.
Edwards was ultimately acquitted, in part because the jury believed that the payments were meant to conceal the affair from his wife, and were not made for political reasons. But there are differences between that and the current case – most significantly, in Trump’s case both Cohen and AMI have testified that they made the payments in order to influence the election at the direction of Trump.
Trump is feeling the heat as he watches former loyalists turn against him. David Pecker was a long-term ally, spending time in Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. For a man who has spent a lifetime manipulating the media, the loss of the support of the National Enquirer is a blow.
This week’s developments raise further uncomfortable questions about the National Enquirer’s role in the 2016 election campaign. Throughout the election campaign, the tabloid ran anti-Hillary Clinton articles and promoted Trump. Some analysts believe that this may have influenced female voters who backed Trump over Clinton.
While the freedom of the press enshrined in the constitution give newspapers the right to endorse whichever candidate they choose, co-ordinating with a campaign to spend money on influencing an election is a different matter and could be a violation of campaign financing law. Whatever is yet to emerge from the investigation, Pecker evidently felt it was better to co-operate with prosecutors than continue to back his friend Trump.
The US president is occupying an increasingly isolated place.